Who can I trust with my student loans?

A consumer-guide for finding and vetting financial professionals.

Ideally, student loan borrowers will develop and follow a personalized financial strategy for building a strong financial foundation while managing their student loan debt. 

Well-qualified financial planning professionals can help, but many financial professionals have little education or experience with today’s complicated student loan repayment and forgiveness provisions.

Avoiding "debt relief" companies

Unscrupulous “debt relief” companies claim to offer special solutions but in fact, charge exorbitant fees for basic transactions that borrowers can complete independently for free.

It can be tricky to determine the best strategies for managing debt, especially when it comes to student loans. I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of student loan borrowers and after teaching self-help techniques and offering DIY resources, I get this question a lot: “whom can I hire to do this for me?”.

In the past, my answer was “not me” and “good luck finding anyone who knows this stuff”. Why? It’s easier to find experts in wealth management, because what kind of idiot (me) develops expertise in debt? If there’s one thing we know about debtors, it’s that we are broke—hence we don’t have a helluva lot of buying power. Moreover, borrowers don’t just need debt experts, they need holistic financial planning services that consider debt in conjunction with other priorities.


 
The establishment of an organization to help advisors and student loan borrowers

That’s why I and my fellow debt-nerds established a nonprofit and are training financial advisors who are interested in helping student loan borrowers. The advisors who complete our extensive student loan curriculum, demonstrate competence on our examination, and maintain our professional and ethical standards may earn designation as Certified Student Loan Professionals (CSLP)®.

Now, student loan borrowers can readily identify qualified financial planning professionals able to analyze complex student loan situations and integrate debt management into a comprehensive financial plan! Financial advisors who are not certified by us may also be qualified, and in any case, borrowers should interview several potential advisors and ask specific questions before deciding if it makes sense to hire someone and who.


 
CERTIFIED STUDENT LOAN PROFESSIONAL (CSLP®)

I serve as a co-director of the Certified Student Loan Advisor Board of Standards, a nonprofit organization that aims to serve the public interest by improving the financial security of student loan borrowers by training and identifying licensed financial advisors with demonstrated competence as specialists in student loans.

The Board awards the Certified Student Loan Professional designation (CSLP®) to those financial professionals meeting our rigorous standards. We are also working on other pro-borrower initiatives including a Loan Repayment Assistance Program. In the interest of full transparency, you should know that while my work for the Board has so far been pro bono, we’re hoping advisors will flock to us and that one day the nonprofit can pay me and my colleagues a paycheck for our work.


 

UNDERSTAND MORE ABOUT PROFESSIONAL LICENSES, REGISTRATION, AND DESIGNATIONS

Typically, advisors cannot give investment advice unless they are registered with state or federal authorities. Also, advisors need licenses to sell insurance or securities. In addition to required licenses and registrations, financial professionals may sport professional designations indicating that they meet the specific requirements of a particular credentialing organization.

Financial advisors stack sexy acronyms after their names. But what do these letters mean?

Some credentialing organizations have rigorous educational and ethical standards, but not all, so do your research on any credential before you assign it a value.

Some examples of professional designations include:

• Certified Financial Planner (CFP®)

• Registered Investment Advisor (RIA)

• Investment Advisor Representative (IAR)

• Chartered retirement planning counselor (CRPC)

• Accredited investment fiduciary (AIF)

• And my favorite: Certified Student Loan Professional (CSLP®)

Learn more and compare professional designations on the FINRA website at http://finra.org/

CHECK THAT THE ADVISOR IS IN GOOD STANDING

A licensed professional is subject to some oversight and the public can check for disciplinary actions and background information online.

  • Check on the disciplinary history of an investment advisor on the Investor Adviser Public Disclosure (IAPD) website.

 

  • Use SEC Action Lookup – Individuals (SALI) to find information about advisors named in SEC court actions or administrative proceedings and check for any judgments or orders issued against them.

 

  • Review the Form ADV (a uniform registration form required by the SEC and state securities authorities) for information about the advisor’s business and any disciplinary events as well as a narrative about the types of advisory services offered, the fee schedule, conflicts of interest, and the educational background advisors.

 

  • If the prospective advisor is a broker-dealer, look them up on BrokerCheck by FINRA.

 

  • Find background information on brokers and certain investment advisers through your state regulating authority. Look up your state regulator at
http://www.nasaa.org/about-us/contact-us/contact-your-regulator/.

The Certified Student Loan Advisor Board of Standards reviews IAPD, SALI, Form ADV, and BrokerCheck information of prospective Certified Student Loan Professionals (CSLP®).


 
CONSIDER HOW AN ADVISOR IS PAID

There are two main categories of compensation for financial professionals: “fee-only” and “commission-based.”

Commission-based fee structures can be problematic because in order to earn a fee, an advisor must direct clients to specific products even if those products aren’t a perfect match for the client. Advisors may be paid based on the value of assets they manage (in other words, based on how much money a client invests). This isn’t a great set-up for student loan borrowers, because people with debt should sometimes (but not always!) prioritize debt reduction over investment.

In my view, student loan borrowers are typically better off with advisors using a “fee-only” compensation model.

ASK SPECIFIC QUESTIONS BEFORE HIRING A FINANCIAL PROFESSIONAL

Before you hire anyone, ask questions. It’s smart to ask:

  • What professional licenses do you hold?
  • Are you registered with the SEC, FINRA, or a state regulator?
  • Have you ever been disciplined by any government regulator or sued by a client?
  • Do you specialize in any particular aspect of financial planning?
  • Do you have student loan-specific professional education?
  • What experience do you have working with clients who have student loans?
  • How are you paid for your services? Are you paid for selling products or services?
  • Advisors acting as fiduciaries are required to make recommendations according to the best interests of the client. Ask: are you willing to provide services with the “duty of care of a fiduciary”?

 
DON’T BE FOOLED BY BOGUS “DEBT RELIEF” COMPANIES

Finally, beware of companies claiming to provide debt relief that is in fact taking advantage of vulnerable borrowers by charging fees for basic transactions that you can do yourself for free. These companies do aggressive internet, telemarketing, and direct mail advertising campaigns promising “Obama loan-forgiveness” (which isn’t a thing) when in fact they are simply cashing in on the misery of borrowers.

Unscrupulous companies may charge high upfront consolidation fees; “enrollment” or “subscription” fees; or monthly account “maintenance” fees. Student loan borrowers can consolidate for free through http://studentloans.gov (and consolidation isn’t necessary or advisable for most recent graduates).

Student loans are complex financial instruments with a confusing array of repayment options. Independent financial advisors may provide useful assistance such as comprehensive financial planning services, but borrowers should choose professionals advisors with care.


 
Get our Financial Advisor Guide to Student Loans

Find out more about how you can avoid critical mistakes and liability. Get our guide to the student loan market and how you can address it through the knowledge gained in the CSLP Course. 

 

Request the guide


 

 

Heather Jarvis, JD

Written by Heather Jarvis, JD

Heather is a graduate of the Duke University School of Law and widely recognized as an expert source of student loan information. Heather has trained thousands of students and professionals and is sought after for her sophisticated legal knowledge and accessible teaching style.

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