Michael Kirkham

In June, Forbes labeled the Master of Architecture degree as tied (with political science) for the ninth worst master’s program that a student can pursue. True, the M.Arch. fared better than library science or education, but it wasn’t nearly as appealing as a Master of Business Administration degree in terms of how well a student will be compensated in the years following graduation.

Indeed, the data available on starting salaries for graduates of architecture programs suggests that the outlook isn’t that rosy. Forbes noted that mid-career median pay for someone with an M.Arch. is $77,800, and those with a B.Arch. and some experience (and, presumably, less student debt) still face unemployment rates that are higher than the national average. In either case, the student debt load for architecture graduates is lofty: A 2012 American Institute of Architecture Students survey showed that respondents had an average of $72,000 in private and federal government student loans to cover the ever-rising cost of tuition.

Is it worth it? Certainly applicants to architecture schools seem to think so. The admissions office at Yale University (where a year’s worth of tuition will set a student back $41,225, before grants or scholarships), reported that it had received 50 more applications for the limited number of places in its M.Arch. program for 2012–13 than for 2011–12, which is a gain of about 6 percent.

Tegan Bukowski, who graduated from Yale’s M.Arch. program this summer, says she can understand why. “I had the chance to meet, talk to, and work with some of the most interesting and talented people in my chosen profession,” says the 25-year-old, who has been working since June for the New York firm Leroy Street Studio. “I was able to do advanced studios with both Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman.”

Bukowski admits that even with the best education, finding a job and earning enough to repay a hefty student debt can be a tall order. “People who have a double major or a strong secondary interest seem to stand out a bit more from the crowd,” she says.

Bukowski, who launched her own art and architecture nonprofit organization, ArtistsActivists.org, while still an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, and who is spending her free time designing an orphanage in Haiti, may well have benefited from that trend. Certainly, her B.Arch. experience at Wash U.—a dual major in architecture and environmental studies with what she described as a “flexible, nontraditional approach to what a student wants to make of an architectural education”—not only confirmed that she was on the right professional track but gave her the freedom to explore ways to apply her knowledge in the real world. “It wasn’t just about design theory or the studio,” she says.

As the profession continues to evolve, altered forever in recent decades by the impact of computers and digital fabrication on the design process, new business models have followed that allow for a greater range of opportunities than ever before.

“The sole proprietor with the drafting studio who does design-bid-build model isn’t the only model and may become even less relevant,” suggests Eric Reid Hoffman, AIA, associate design architect at Trivers Associates in St. Louis, and a recipient of a 2013 AIA Young Architects Award. Hoffman, who is also a professor of practice at Washington University, says the school is adding courses and programs in response to these changes.

Stephen White, AIA, dean of the School of Architecture, Art, and Historic Preservation at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., is also rethinking what goes into an architectural education and how to better prepare students for the world they’ll encounter once they graduate. His ideas include teaching fledgling architects to think of buildings not as “neutral” designs or structures, but as part of a “broader cultural and economic and environmental setting,” and bringing not only senior members of architectural firms to the school, but teams from a single firm in a unique Teaching Firm in Residence program at the university.

“This shows the students how skilled and trained professionals manage multiple inputs and points of view,” says White, “and that a firm is made up of architects of all ages with a generational continuum.”

Not all programs have the same emphasis, notes Allison Ewing, AIA, co-founder of Hays+Ewing Design Studio in Charlottesville, Va. “In some programs, the focus is on practical problem solving rather than development of a design concept as the foundation for more creative solutions,” she says, noting that in her days at Yale in the late 1980s the emphasis on tiny sketch models forced her to break away from her preconceptions of functional space requirements and instead focus on exploring ideas. “In other programs, I’ve found that the students can get too caught up in solving the practical in conventional terms—for instance, jumping up in scale requirements before the distillation of a concept,” she adds. “There is plenty of time to learn how to lay out a bathroom in the office setting.”

Tom Cole, a newly minted M.Arch. graduate from the University of Washington, notes that his 18 months as a new employee at Seattle-based b9 Architects have opened his eyes to the importance of the business side. “For an architect to have influence over the project, knowledge of the development and business side is very significant,” he says.

Cole’s current boss and former teacher, Bradley Khouri, AIA, b9’s owner and a lecturer at the University of Washington, agrees—but only somewhat. “What an architecture student needs to learn is something more intangible: how to think critically about core design problems,” he argues. Looking back on his own education, he recalls burning the midnight oil at Harvard University’s design studios amongst his fellow students. “Those are the people you’re with between classes and at 2:00 in the morning, discussing ideas and exploring what works and what doesn’t.”

So is an architectural education today worth spending $50,000 a year to obtain?

“I don’t know. I really don’t know,” admits Khouri. “Certainly, the price tag is making it really challenging.”

Survey of Architecture Schools

What follows are highlights from a limited survey I conducted of certain elements that influence how prospective students choose an architecture school: total enrollment, time to graduation, tuition, cost of living, and average cost of a pizza locally.

The range of tuition fees varies greatly, from as much as $50,000 per year for an M.Arch. student at Rhode Island School of Design to as little as $19,536 for an out-of-state student in Clemson University’s M.Arch. program. Similarly, the ability and willingness of institutions to award grants and scholarships also varies greatly. Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, can cover up to half of its $44,640 annual M.Arch. tuition bill for students and, according to Hoffman, 95 percent of its students receive some kind of scholarship aid. Some programs with outsize tuitions can appear far more costly than they really are, thanks to generous grants, while seemingly less expensive programs may require students to foot a larger part of the bill through savings or by taking on debt.

Then, too, there’s the cost of living to consider. Compare B.Arch. programs at the Rhode Island School of Design and Carnegie Mellon: They both cost about the same in tuition, but monthly rent of a one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh ranges from $887 to $1,479, according to ApartmentRatings.com, compared to $1,340 to $1,823 in Providence. Which costs more, the M.Arch. program at MIT or Columbia? Well, if you head to New York, you pay nearly $11 for a pizza, a 25 percent premium, but that’s the tip of the iceberg: Overall, the cost of living in the Big Apple is almost 60 percent higher than in Cambridge, Mass.

In spite of the ugly realities of stagnant salaries, soaring debt loads, and the long, hard slog to licensure, the appetite for architectural education just seems to increase—owing, in some part, to increased community activities undertaken by architects and architecture students in the past decade.

Take Catherine Smith, a Clemson M.Arch. graduate who this fall will begin passing on skills honed in her own Greenville, S.C., practice to students at a local magnet school, the Fine Arts Center. “It reminds me of the Clemson space, where all the arts programs are clustered together and housed in one space,” she says. “Now we’ll make sure that these students can think of architecture as one of a number of ways that they can pursue their interest in art and creativity.”

That, for Washington University’s Hoffman, is how it should be. At the end of the day, he says, providing an architectural education is about balancing a student’s innate creativity and a curriculum’s rigor.

“The responsibility we have is to expose a new generation to new ways of thinking to ensure they realize where their talents lie and how they can employ that ability to think critically,” he says. That may mean working in a traditional architecture firm, working with Architecture for Humanity or for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, consulting on sustainable development, or even designing sets in Hollywood. “If they walk out with an ability to think critically,” says Hoffman, “their options are limitless.”