HAYS, KS -- For the second year in a row, a team of financial planning students from Fort Hays State University has placed among the top six schools in the American Express Planning Invitational, earning the students a trip to Minneapolis in April to compete in the national finals.
This year's team, composed of seniors Steve Sutter, Abilene, Sarah Evans, Garfield, and Nicolette Zeigler, Mankato, has a lot to live up to: FHSU won the national championship in 2001 in its first try at the competition.
Dr. Tom Johansen, associate professor of economics and finance, said he thinks last year's strong showing has put some additional pressure on this year's team members, but he also thinks they're equal to the challenge.
"They put high expectations on themselves … they accepted that challenge and really took it to heart," he said. "I'm very excited, because I know they've been working very hard."
Johansen said team members pulled some all-nighters to complete the preliminary phase of the competition, which involved preparing a financial plan for a hypothetical case sent out by American Express earlier this year.
Out of the 18 schools participating, six were chosen to continue on to phases two and three of the competition at the American Express Financial Advisors Headquarters April 11-14. FHSU will be competing there against Kansas State University, Texas Tech University, Virginia Tech University, Western Carolina State University, and Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.
At the national competition, teams will be presented with a "twist" to their prepared cases, which they will then have to adjust accordingly. They will also be given a specified amount of time to prepare an oral presentation, phase two of the competition.
Phase three is the "How Do You Know?" challenge, a quiz show which covers all six basic areas of financial planning: taxes, investment, estates, retirement, insurance and general fundamentals.
Johansen said FHSU team members have been meeting several times a week to study for the competition by reviewing flashcards and books. Professors in the Economics and Finance Department, while not allowed to help the students in actual competition, have provided support, encouragement and cramming materials.
"They're in great shape; I think they'll do very well," Johansen said.
Last year's team took first in the written and oral components of the competition and second in the game show to win the overall championship. For winning, FHSU took home $10,000 in scholarship money, which has been placed in an endowed scholarship fund for students in the financial planning program. They also took home something it's more difficult to place a value on -- growing name recognition from the financial planning community.
"This is becoming a pretty prestigious competition," Johansen said. He's seen an increase in respect for FHSU's program not only from other financial planning program directors at their annual conference, but also from students themselves.
"Students in the program now have an added sense of pride," he said. "They're saying, 'This is cool -- we're getting national recognition.' "
Johansen also said winning the competition has opened some doors for last year's team members: Blake Allen, Tribune; Damon Maughan, Hays; and Jeff Schneider, Olmitz. Allen, who graduated in December, currently works for the accounting firm Kennedy & Coe in Garden City. Maughan and Schneider will graduate this May, but Maughan has already found employment at Searcy Financial Services in Kansas City.
"I know it's definitely helped them in preparing for their jobs, and it's probably helped them in landing jobs as well," Johansen said. "When Damon showed the case to his current employer, they said 'Wow -- that's even better than what we're doing now.' "