December 22, 2023
Why Does Architecture Education Cost So Much?
In part due to the financial burden, the profession is experiencing an exodus, and the groups most affected are those the profession has been trying to bring into the fold. Among 89 percent of AIA members under 35 who reported taking out loans, first generation, minority, and female students faced the highest burdens, according to a 2022 survey by the American Institute of Architects. Lance Collins, Principal at Partner Energy and former president of SoCal NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects), says that NOMA has “heard directly from people who wanted to be architects, but had to make a different choice,” due to the costs of the lengthy education and licensing process.
A respondent to a survey of AIA Members in Los Angeles told us she finished her Masters program 15 years ago and still owes over $350,000 in student loans. “It does not look like I will ever be able to pay it off. I had plans for my life: to get married, have a family/children, a house and travel the world. None of this is possible when I am in a constant financial crisis,” she said, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of airing her debts.
Another respondent, who also chose not to reveal her name, switched lanes to become a general contractor. She is now building “the exact types of buildings that I used to design… at a higher salary, with bonuses, a better work life balance than my peers/superiors that remain at architecture firms, and I still get the unique satisfaction of building something for the community.”
So what causes these excessive fees and debt burdens? And is the value of an architecture education worth its cost?
Multiple sources attribute the rise in tuition over the last couple of decades to a combination of factors, including expanded bureaucracy and highly paid administrators, less public support, high expectations among students for campus amenities and support services, extravagant material costs, overly long programs of study, and degree creep.
Why Does Architecture Education Cost So Much?
Too Many Bureaucrats in Schools
Ask people who have watched architecture education evolve in recent decades and they will tell you about the huge jump in administrators relative to faculty. Peter Martinez Zellner, visiting professor at Pratt School of Architecture, founded the short-lived Free School of Architecture, an effort to offer post-graduate education without tuition. In the 1970s, he says, 80 percent of a school or university budget went to teachers, 20 percent to management. Now, he says it’s the opposite. Many universities are making more money than ever, “but that money is flowing directly up to administration costs,” Martinez Zellner says. Yale Daily News recently reported that over the last two decades, the number of managerial and professional staff at Yale rose three times faster than the undergraduate student body. By 2019 there were approximately 5,900 undergrads and 5,000 administrators.
What this means is a proliferation of deans, vice-deans, heads of diversity, fundraising, student life, etc., many of them well-paid relative to faculty and especially adjunct faculty who widely carry much of the teaching workload, at low salaries, with minimum to no benefits, no job stability, and little support.
Furthermore, it is not clear that more management makes a better product. Architect Eric Owen Moss, who served as director of SCI-Arc from 2002 to 2015, observes that as schools bureaucratize, “there are more and more and more people with smaller and smaller areas of responsibility – who, by the way, don’t talk to each other – and I think you have to be careful that they don’t bureaucratize the hell out of these places. We don’t want the largest goals – architecture’s possible meanings; the content discourse – to disappear in the midst of a growing regulatory pro forma.”
There is arguably another consequence to such mushrooming bureaucracy and fees: a change in the balance of power between faculty and students. Daniel Bessner, Associate Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington, said in a recent television interview: “There’s been a sea change and transformation in the American University…where the student has effectively become the consumer.”
And, as the old saying goes, the customer is always right. Many teachers in architecture schools today report pressure from management to inflate grades, to not fail students nor give honest feedback about a student’s aptitude for the discipline. For their part, students have become far more vocal about issues of concern, exercising a power to demand change that may be connected to the size of the bills they are paying.
Too Little Public Support
States fund public colleges and universities at all levels, and the federal government supports public and private universities largely at the graduate level, particularly through research grants. But that funding has dropped across the board. 41 out of 50 state legislatures spent $6.6 billion less on post-secondary education in 2020 than they did in 2008, according to the NEA. Public schools are often unable to fill in the gaps through their own fundraising, so tuition goes up, and access for local and less affluent students goes down.
Aaron Betsky, a professor (and former dean) at Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design, says the ratio of state support has flip-flopped from 80 percent to 20 percent in the last 20 years—ironically the inverse of the expenditure on management relative to teaching. “The costs continue to rise. That creates barriers to those who don’t especially come from privileged backgrounds,” he says.
Leslie Sydnor, a planning project manager who is past president of AIA/LA, and longtime NOMA member, points out that other models exist. “We need to look to Europe where students can obtain higher education for little to no cost.” According to Beyond The States, the average tuition for English-taught, architecture master’s degree programs in Europe is around $10,000 per year, thanks in large part to high public investment. “Everything in America is for profit and that serves only the elite,” says Sydnor.
Not Enough Financial Relief
In addition to high-interest loans, students can get direct financial relief in the form of Pell Grants, work study programs, foundation scholarships, and income-based tuition. But there are wrinkles. Pell Grants, for example, are not adjusted for local costs of living, so even with such a grant, many low-income students are unable to cover the rising costs of study and living at the California UCs, according to the Los Angeles Times. And scholarship support, say many students, can still leave large gaps.
Tracy Jones received a $50,000 scholarship to attend Tulane School of Architecture, but since tuition is $65,000 he’s still saddled with significant debt. He lives far from campus to save on housing costs; and to pay off his loans he works part-time as a furniture maker, a school T.A., and head of the school’s shop. His insurance ran out before he had to have dental surgery, so now he is working to pay off that bill as well.
Analiese De Saw, a fellow graduate student at Tulane, received scholarships covering about 80 percent of her tuition. But she estimates her debt will soon total between $50,000 and $100,000. Then there are even more bills to pay: living and materials. “I try not to think about it,” she says.
Another consequence of receiving aid for a product that is otherwise affordable only to the very affluent is feeling like an outsider in a privileged world. Jones is one of two Black students in his cohort, and the only Black male in the graduate school. “It definitely puts on a lot of pressure —having to perform at the top of my game to feel like I’m representing an entire group of people,” he says.
How Can Architecture Education Be More Affordable?
The rising awareness of the backbreaking cost of architecture education is galvanizing change. The American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS), Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB), National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA)— collectively called Alliance Organizations—are waking up to the crisis on their hands and getting creative about ways to reduce costs and ease paths to licensure.
Remedies being discussed—and in limited instances, implemented—include tuition and salary freezes, shortening the length of architecture education, encouraging the community college to university track and vocationally-based education, hybrid online education, and shining a brighter light on less expensive schools. There’s even more discussion about skipping school in favor of apprenticeship.
Cut the Time to Graduation and Licensure
Key among those options is limiting the length of time required to obtain architecture degrees. Most U.S. architecture schools require students to study for five years to receive undergraduate degrees and three years for graduate degrees (in Europe, that number is usually four and two).
“This is a conversation we can’t not have,” says Emily Grandstaff-Rice, 2023 AIA President, who has made the cost of education a core issue of her tenure. She cites her own experience: she chose her architecture school – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – based on where she could get the biggest scholarship.
“To me, every student is different, and a duration just feels prescribed… Colleagues worry they’ll have a lower standard of architect. But we’re not reducing quality if people can still pass the architectural registration exam. We’re still assessing them the same way.”
Clark Stevens, an LA-based architect and a longtime professor who has taught at U Michigan, U Texas, UPENN, USC, SCI-Arc, Woodbury University and Montana State, also believes would-be architects spend too long in academia. He praises Montana State, which offers a four-year professional degree program.
Shortening the time in school goes hand-in-hand with shortening the time to becoming licensed. According to Architect Magazine, it takes an advanced degree and an average of 8.5 years of internship to get licensed in the U.S.. So, some schools are working to integrate education and work experience. The University of Minnesota School of Architecture recently launched an M.S. in Architecture with a concentration in Research Practices (MS-RP), which allows B.Arch or M.Arch graduates to complete the Intern Development Program (IDP), pass the architecture registration exam, and get licensed within six months of graduation. Woodbury University in Southern California is one of 25 schools across the country to offer an option called Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure (IPAL), a program initiated by NCARB that integrates apprenticeship with an architecture firm into the curriculum. One of the first schools to launch an IPAL program, in 2015, was Boston Architecture College, long a pioneer of experience-based learning. Currently 94 percent of its undergraduates are employed at firms around the Boston area, and, according to the school, nine of its IPAL students have received licensure soon after graduation.
Says Stevens: “My best students were (at Montana) and at Woodbury. I taught at a half-dozen other more highly regarded and more costly programs but my current skilled architecture team comes from those programs.”
Find Cheaper Schools (and Consider Community College)
Affordable options do exist. Some of the nation’s well-regarded architecture schools offer reasonable tuition for those living in-state. Annual tuition lands between $14,000 and $17,000 at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Virginia School of Architecture, and UC Berkeley’ College of Environmental Design. CalPoly Pomona, one of two highly competitive state polytechnics in California, offers a five-year BArch at around $7,500 annually.
Yun In Jeung, a Metropolis 2023 Future 100 recipient, is an undergraduate at Louisiana Tech, a state school where his yearly tuition is $9,000. “It would be a lie if I said I didn’t look into more expensive schools. But this school has a very good program. When I look at the cost along with the program, I’m very happy. You can always change to a different school if your situation changes.”
An even more affordable track is community college. Over 100 US community colleges offer architecture studies, from which students can transfer to an undergraduate degree, shaving off two years of costly fees, or – in some states – go directly to an architecture office and train on the job.
Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter recently became a full professor at East Los Angeles College (ELAC), the largest community college in California and one of a few that offers two-year architectural programs. Wahlroos-Ritter has taught at Cornell, Yale, the Bartlett, and served as dean at Woodbury University. She says she “believes higher education should be free, the way that it is in Europe and many other countries.” So she is a convert to community college, and now teaches mostly first-generation students, many of whom pay nothing in tuition as part of the California College Promise program, and can live at home to rein in housing costs.
The instruction, she says, is vocational, which can be looked at askance in the Ivory Tower. “There is a real tug of war between architecture being seen as a humanities or liberal arts education, or a professional education,” says Wahlroos-Ritter, adding, “(ELAC) is really unapologetically saying, okay, these students, maybe half of them are going to end up transferring to universities, but a lot of them are also going directly into the workplace. When we graduate our students, we feel an obligation to ensure that they have critical design thinking skills… as well as strong technical skills so that they hit the ground running in the marketplace.”
Adds Grandstaff-Rice: “Not everyone has the opportunity to go to a traditional architecture school. Not everyone practices the same way we did 20, 40, 60 years ago.”
However, the vocational versus arts dichotomy raises problems when students want to transfer to a traditional architecture school. It is difficult to align the approaches, according to Rashida Ng, Chair of undergraduate architecture at UPENN, who served as the 2019-2020 President of the ACSA.
“Community college architecture programs are structured technically, so that students can go out and get jobs after two years. We often start in a more abstract way and bring the technical skills later. It’s not insurmountable, but it really is a challenge to figure out how to align programs that have different goals,” says Ng, adding, “We’ve started to have more dialogue with these programs.”
This leads into another challenge: licensing. State licensing boards are often unwilling to accept credits from schools without National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) accreditation. Grandstaff-Rice underlines the legwork needed to establish equivalency between community college and university courses, known as articulation agreements: “It’s one of those things where we have to go state by state, articulation agreement by articulation agreement.” Maryland, for instance, has done a very good job establishing them. But such examples are few and far between.
Don’t Go to School
In 17 states, including California, a person can become a licensed architect without attending an accredited architecture school at all. Instead, they can work for a firm for seven years and then sit the licensing exam. Yet typically, would-be architects have not been encouraged to take this route. Most professional firms and states still require candidates to earn a degree in architecture in order to be hired and licensed.
That is changing. Jon Alan Baker, who became president of NCARB last June, followed the experience-only route himself.“My path to architecture began at the age of 14 with high school drafting. I was never going to have the resources for college so I developed my knowledge and skills through a decade of architectural drafting, construction work, community college classes and independent study.” Now he is making sure that NCARB encourages it.
On the face of it, the no-school route seems like a great fix. However, it forces architecture firms to be teachers, and training up a newcomer from scratch is something not all firms have the inclination to take on.
Then there is another harsh reality. The architecture world is classbound, and in its caste system, school matters – so much so that a Los Angeles architect who apprenticed his way to licensure told us privately he felt, “less than a person because of my education. It was sad to be behind this invisible barrier. That is why I try and work hard in the community to overcome that gap.”
Move School Online
Traditional school, with all its attendant costs, is also being shaken up by online education. Major architecture programs like those at The University of Arizona, Savannah College of Art and Design, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and the University of Nebraska all offer online-only undergraduate degrees. At RIT, for one, yearly M.Arch tuition costs about $25,00, versus around 54,000 for an in-person M.Arch.
Despite the compelling argument made by traditional schools that the hands-on, collaborative studio-based course of study necessitates in-person teaching, screen-based learning is becoming increasingly relevant in a world where the profession itself does much of its work virtually, from developing design concepts to rendering to construction documentation. Lauren Weiss Bricker, a faculty member at CalPoly Pomona in California, was thrown, like many teachers during the pandemic, into the challenging new world of teaching online. However, she saw that students ultimately benefited from taking classes on screen-based tools like Conceptboard, the collaborative whiteboard used by many architecture firms. “We realized that basically, we were giving them another skill that would help,” says Weiss Bricker.
Khan Muhammad, a fifth year architecture student at Woodbury University and also student representative for SoCal NOMA, sees great potential in online learning for diversifying the profession. His cohort spent a great deal of class time online during the pandemic. “Yes, there are pitfalls, like you need to learn how to have a presence in the room, as an architect, know how to talk to people, know how to describe your ideas,” he says. “But you free the student to be wherever they want.”
Muhammad envisions a hybrid education involving online learning combined with periodic gatherings, field trips, and group presentations. “And you could opt into this aggregation of minds and ideas… where the community comes together.” Muhammad sped up his path to licensure through utilizing online learning, taking Woodbury’s IPAL program, which gave him intern hours, and teaching at SoCal NOMA’s project pipeline summer camp. “I feel like those three things (IPAL, teaching and online learning) are informing a new way that I might perceive an architectural education. It’s diversifying what a student could be.”
Trim the Fat, Get Costs Under Control
Of course a fundamental way to decrease student costs is simply to get tuition under control – in particular by cutting overhead. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. After all, which well-paid administrator wants to take a pay cut or surrender their job? Ng at UPenn wonders if students might moderate their expectations of a certain kind of campus life. “We invest in dormitories that feel like apartment buildings and gym facilities and athletic fields and all parts of a university experience. This is the way we think young people need to grow up and mature,” she says.
One institution that feels students can mature without all the trimmings is the Los Angeles Institute of Architecture and Design (LAIAD), a small private transfer school founded in 2001 by LA-based architect William Taylor, who previously taught at CalPoly Pomona and Harvard GSD. His goal is to offer “the cost of community college, but the curriculum of a design school.” LAIAD prepares students with quality portfolios and credits for transfer to undergraduate courses, and charges just over $8,000 per year, sending some graduates to schools like Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and SCI-Arc. “We forgo luxuries like a library and all that kind of stuff,” says Taylor. “With most schools, it’s always new buildings, expanded this, donor wings that. It’s just a big money machine.”
Those “money machines” of course offer invaluable returns: status, access to an exclusive club of global citizens, and the freedom to explore ideas over the purely practical. “Design studio is much more than a skill building factory,” says George Proctor, Department Chair at CalPoly Pomona, a state school for mostly first-generation students. Proctor himself went from state school to Harvard, and says he now tries to offer the liberal arts component of architecture education at CalPoly Pomona, through providing “an environment where students are also immersed in the people, culture and places of their design project.”
Design a New Architecture Education
Any consideration of the value of an architecture education is inextricable from architecture practice: how little it typically pays (relative to other professions) and how long it takes to pay down debt. That business model, says Grandstaff-Rice, is “part of a much larger conversation,” which is also underway across the Alliance Organizations and is causing soul-searching about the nature of the profession.
To navigate this current reality, students need to design themselves an education plan with the same creativity that they design buildings. Proctor, with CalPoly Pomona, points out, “There are plenty of schools, workplaces, and experience options for those with the curiosity for architecture and the due diligence to shape their own direction.”
And that curiosity still abounds. Despite the burden of outrageous costs and personal stresses, some people we spoke to still treasure the architecture education system we have. Danielle Terrasi, a graduate of University of Arizona College of Architecture and Landscape who currently does independent architectural design work, says she has delayed licensure, marriage, starting a family, and acquiring property. Yet, she says, “While the cost of my education in dollars is far outweighed by the cost I have paid with my sacrifices and delays in well-being, health, and large life decisions, I would still choose to go to architecture school. Nothing can replace the richness of having been taught how to think creatively, how to hold and form a thought, how to develop a concept, and how to execute.”
Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]
Presenting The 2023 Metropolis Future100
Here are the top 100 architecture and interior design students graduating in North America this year.
Why Design Education Matters
Three leading educators on the continuing importance of design schools
Get Licensed While in Architecture School? Deans Weigh in
NCARB’s Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure (IPAL) aims to shorten the road to licensure. Five school heads discuss how it’s changing architectural education.