Cambridge, Mass. — The topic of the Tuesday-night class sounded like a snoozer: ''Fundamentals of estate tax planning.'' But no one in this room at Harvard University seemed to think so. Throughout an experienced lawyer's lecture, retirees, singles, and parents released a stream of questions:
''Sorry for asking, but what's the difference between a revocable and an irrevocable trust?'' ''What kind of person should I ask to be the executor of my estate?'' ''Do other states have as high an estate tax as Massachusetts?''
Harvard's Center for Lifelong Learning has just begun to meet the demand for financial education by starting a new program in personal finance. In Boston, and nationwide, money management courses are popping up like dandelions.
Brokerage houses, community colleges, and adult education centers offer consumers tremendous variety in personal finance courses. You can enroll in classes lasting hours, days, or weeks. You can go for the overview, or study an obscure subject in depth. You can pay as little as $14 or as much as $250.
Not everyone is looking for the same thing in a personal finance class. Dale Roberts, a mother and real estate salesperson, said she is taking the Harvard estate planning course ''just to get the different aspects of it. You have to expect a wide background, you can't expect the teacher to set a plan for each person.''
She has shelled out about $200 to take a number of other finance courses this spring, too. ''That's minimal,'' she says. ''If you had to take each topic and seek professional counsel, you would pay much, much more.'' She also says that she finds taking classes much more enjoyable than slogging her way through finance books.
''I didn't even know what I was looking for,'' says Lura Lee Widman, who started taking financial planning courses four and a half years ago. ''I hadn't thought about money. I was just coming out of a marriage and I didn't know anything about insurance or estate planning. I didn't know about budgeting. I didn't know how much I should be saving.'' The first course ''helped me focus on what I needed to do.''
Now Ms. Widman owns a triple-decker house, for income. She also feels comfortable with her insurance coverage, should she become disabled, and she has set aside enough ''buffer money to sustain us for several months.'' She adds, ''I haven't needed a financial planner yet.''
Both of these women say that so far, they have been satisfied with what they have received for their money. But not everyone is. Ann Johnson (not her real name), says she paid $65 for a course at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and ''it was not worth it.''
''I expected definitions. What is a blue chip? What is an IRA? . . . I partially expected to be able to make invesment decisions on my own.'' She says she found out that ''I don't have the temperament for this kind of thing. . . . I don't have the time.''
What she got out of it was a free half-hour consulting session with the financial planner who taught the course. ''I knew he had an ulterior motive in teaching the class, but I figured that because the college was pretty good, he would be pretty straight.'' She found the session helpful, but is not yet sure she will sign on with him. As for classes, ''no more courses for me,'' Ms. Johnson says.
It's almost impossible to tell beforehand whether a course will live up to your expectations. It depends on the expectations; it depends on the course.
There a number of things consumers can investigate, however, to make sure they at least get the best that's available. It doesn't take much legwork, especially if your course catalog is thorough.
* First there is the issue of trying to get as unbiased an education from your teacher as possible. ''Lots of people use teaching to get clients,'' says Justin Heatter, the man who put together Harvard's new program. He says a list of credentials doesn't mean much.
Try to find out how successful the teacher is professionally. A successful business person won't need to rely on a class for clients. Call the teacher's firm, ask how long he or she has been in business and has worked for the company.
Talk to the teacher yourself. Before classes start, Harvard holds a convocation where students can meet their teachers, pick up a course outline, and snack all at the same time.
Mr. Heatter, who runs his own investment firm in Cambridge, Mass., has been teaching for 14 years and right off tells his students that he won't accept any of them on a client basis. When the fall semester starts at Harvard, Mr. Heatter says he will make it mandatory for all the teachers in the program to stick with this philosophy. It is easy enough to find out whether a school has a teacher-client solicitation policy. Many schools do.
* What about seminars taught by brokerage houses, companies with products to sell? Leo Wilson, a retiree who was taking the Harvard estate planning course, says he has taken a number of courses from investment firms. ''It doesn't make that much difference. You take it with a grain of salt. You can still pick up an immense amount of information at some of those seminars.''
The seminars are often free. They can be more informative about certain kinds of investments, especially the ones the firm specializes in.
The Boston Center for Adult Education offers classes taught by staff from Fidelity Investments, which runs a family of mutual funds. ''We don't suggest any products,'' says Darla Mendales, manager of shareholder relations. ''The stream of the course is to help people decide on investment objectives. Then we describe what's on the market and explain how the markets work. . . . It might have the indirect result of giving people a good feeling (about Fidelity), but it's not our intention to sell.''
* Then there is the course itself. The more participation and simulation the better. This involves homework. It involves assessing your own situation. It involves going over certain investment scenerios in class. ''How else do you learn?'' asks Heatter. Simulation helps students learn how to make their own decisions. ''We will have ideally achieved our goal if people in class don't need to turn to a financial planner,'' says Steve Quigley, a program director for continuing education at Bentley College, in Waltham, Mass.
* Find out about the school's refund policy. See if students regularly evaluate the courses and if these evaluations are available to the public. Look for limits on class size; classes over 25 quickly turn into lectures. The smaller the class, the more questions you can ask about your own situation.