The choice of where to go to architecture school is a big question—often a $50,000-a-year-or-more question. So what are the best schools for that kind of investment? Every year, RECORD takes a look at the state of architectural education by publishing highlights from the research gathered by DesignIntelligence, which ranks the country’s top architecture schools based on surveys of hiring managers at firms. In addition, we give an overview of DI’s surveys of students and academics, to gain an understanding of the prevailing attitudes in architecture education.

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The 2018 rankings, at first glance, are similar to previous results. Take the graduate school list, where Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Yale, and MIT have tended to jockey each year within the top five positions—with Harvard once more coming out at No. 1. But some schools have made dramatic advances. The architecture programs at the University of Southern California, for instance, leapt into the Top 10 in both the graduate (No. 9) and the undergraduate (No. 5) categories. Besides the overall rankings, DesignIntelligence also breaks down its lists of schools by skill set, including the best for research, design, sustainability, and construction knowledge. Other 2018 results offer noteworthy—and concerning—insights into the next generation of architectural postgraduates, many of whom don’t plan to work for architecture firms at all. According to the studies, only 40 percent plan to join a private practice—a 16 percent plunge from 2017. And though, last year, just 3 percent of students said they planned to work for a nonarchitectural corporation, the new results show that 15 percent would.

Of course, rankings are not the sole metric students should consider when weighing the right school for them. In the following pages, DesignIntelligence president and CEO, David G. Gilmore, spoke to RECORD's deputy editor Suzanne Stephens about the broader implications of this year’s findings and the future of architecture education.

Architectural Record: What major shifts in the school rankings did you see this year on both the undergraduate and graduate levels?

We see little change in the rankings from last year at the undergraduate level. Except for the University of Southern California, there are no new players in the Top 10 this year. USC went from 11th to 5th place, displacing Auburn from the Top 10.

At the graduate level, UCLA, USC, and Washington University in St. Louis all made it into the Top 10 this year, pushing the University of Michigan, Syracuse University, and Rice University from the 2017 list.

Why certain schools move up or down in the rankings is not easy to understand. DI will be investigating, but it seems that significant jumps are tied to perception of the program, the faculty, and dynamics of engagement with the alumni. Much upward movement occurs when schools effectively communicate their value to professional practices.

The basis of DI’s methodology has been to survey those who hire architecture graduates to see what schools seem to best prepare job candidates. Can you tell us more about the methodology and if you made any changes this year?

As in prior years, DesignIntelligence sent, via e-mail, requests for participation in the online survey directly to architecture and design hiring professionals across the U.S., seeking their perspective on design education and professional practice. Deans and chairs of U.S.-based architecture and design schools were invited, via e-mail, to forward the survey to qualified hiring professionals. Hiring professionals were asked to consider which schools, based on their hiring experience in the last five years, are best preparing students for a future in the profession. After considering a list of 11 design-education focus areas,respondents could then select up to 10 National Architectural Accrediting Board–certified undergraduate and graduate programs. DesignIntelligence research staff validated each survey submission, verifying that respondents were in a hiring capacity and could demonstrate familiarity with graduates of at least three separate institutions to indicate a basis for comparison.

This year we added questions requesting hiring professionals to provide the number of students hired from each institution selected over the past five years. If DesignIntelligence research staff were unable to validate the submission according to these standards, the submission was excluded from the results.

Students also participated in the research. DesignIntelligence sent, via e-mail, a request to architecture and design-school deans, chairs, and program coordinators to forward a link to the online student survey to their current students and recent graduates in order to garner insights and personal experience related to their program.

In addition to the architectural component of DI’s research, the study includes rankings and satisfaction surveys for the professions of interior design and landscape architecture. A total of 2,654 valid hiring-professional submissions and 4,359 student submissions were received across the disciplines. This information is published annually in DesignIntelligence’s reports, along with a comprehensive list of the firms and organizations participating in the research.

What were the most surprising results from this year’s student surveys?

We saw a 16 percent drop in those planning to enter private practice, in a traditional firm, after graduation. This is a dramatic change from prior years. Additionally, there was a 4.5 percent rise in students who were simply undecided about what to do after leaving school. And just as concerning was the almost 12 percent rise in students saying they plan to work for a nonarchitectural corporation such as Google or General Motors. These responses reinforce the perception that graduates are unsettled about their future in professional practice. Why? There are several possible reasons: how long it takes to move along the traditional career track; the less than optimal compensation they can expect compared to other professional careers; and the need to pay off a significant educational debt. We at DI are contemplating strategies we hope can reverse this trend and will be collaborating with educators accordingly.

What are hiring managers of architectural firms looking for?

When hiring professionals are scrutinizing talent, far less weight is afforded to GPA, study-abroad experience, and school attended. What firms are looking for, rather, is best fit. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of those in a hiring role indicated the following as most important when considering a new graduate:

• Committed work ethic

• Teachability/aptitude—showing a willingness to learn/ be mentored

• Adaptive/flexible way of being

Over 50 percent of hiring professionals responded that new graduates have an inadequate understanding of the business model for professional services firms. Over 50 percent responded that new graduates have an inadequate understanding of the importance of project budgets and schedules. Over 60 percent responded that new graduates have an inadequate understanding of basic procurement processes. Lastly, almost 50 percent said that new graduates are taking over six months to become productive and profitably billable in the practice. This is a measurable problem requiring educators and professionals to collaborate to close the gap.

What else should educators emphasize?

More education is needed in practice management, business processes, design for constructability, and cross-disciplinary exposure.

What are optimistic signs from schools?

In traveling to many of the schools this past academic year, we were encouraged by the positive dynamic of the faculty to lean in, keep learning, and explore the many new approaches and technologies impacting the profession. Students are engaged, and curiosity is driving extraordinary outcomes.

What are other concerns for the profession regarding education?

The overarching concern for the architecture profession is relevance. The aversion to risk at almost all costs, coupled with the dramatic advances in the development and deployment of design technologies, artificial intelligence, machine learning, applied robotics, and an escalating acceptance of engineered and assemble-able structures all raise the question of traditional roles and responsibilities in architecture.

Education should be both a starting place as well as ongoing enabler for professional relevance. It’s during our undergraduate and graduate years that we are exposed to new ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving regarding the domain. In the educational context we are pushed to exploration, experimentation, and expansion. These require various degrees of risk-taking and the idea that the possibilities outweigh the risk.

Additionally, it is rare for us to encounter a postgraduate professional program specifically designed for professionals who’ve been practicing for 10-plus years. CEUs are rarely stretching but more the stuff of status quo compliance to check-box licensure requirements. CEUs are moments—immersive programs are experiences.

In the best business schools across the country, there are opportunities for business, marketing, and finance professionals to enroll in immersive programs to learn the latest leadership and management theories, gain new perspectives on globalization, and better grasp the accelerated convergence of business and technology. These aren’t a day of two but rather four to 10 weeks of reinforcement and renewal. Where are such programs in architecture?

The design world is on a rocket ship of change, yet professionals are left to learn as they go, hoping to catch up and keep up. But that’s a fool’s errand. Unless we stop, disengage from the daily grind for a period, and commit to some form of reorientation and deep-dive learning, we will fall further behind in what is necessary for present relevance. Educators have an opportunity to close the gap with the practicing professionals by designing programs that enable their alumni and others to lead the industry. Opportunity beckons!

The Top 10 Architecture Undergraduate Programs

1 Cornell University
2 California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
3 Syracuse University
4 Virginia Tech
5 University of Southern California
6 Rice University
7 University of Texas, Austin
8 Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc)
9 Pratt Institute
10 Rhode Island School of Design

Comparison of Previous Architecture Rankings: Undergraduate


  2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Cornell 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1
Cal Poly, SLO 2 2 2 2 1 5 4 4 3
Syracuse  3 3 4 5 6 3 7 2 2
Virginia Tech  4 5 3 4 5 7 3 4 4
U of Southern Cal 5 11 10 10 7 16 12 9 10
Rice University  6 4 5 3 3 3 5 3 9
UT Austin 7 6 7 6 4 6 2 7 5
SCI-Arc**  8 10 12 8 9 2 7 6 -
Pratt Institute 9 8 11 9 11 11 10 9 15
RISD 10 7 6 7 10 7 6 11 7

**Programs with only a dash either did not score in the top 20 or did not have an accredited program at that time. 

The Top 10 Architecture Graduate Programs

1 Harvard University
2 Columbia University
3 Cornell University
4 Yale University
5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
6 University of California, Los Angeles
7 University of Pennsylvania
8 University of California, Berkeley
9 University of Southern California
10 Washington University, St. Louis

Comparison of Previous Architecture Rankings: Graduate

2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010
Harvard  1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2 1
Columbia 2 4 4 2 3 2 3 4 4
Cornell University 3 2 2 5 5 5 6 6 7
Yale University 4 5 3 3 2 3 2 3 2
MIT  5 3 5 4 4 4 6 5 3
UCLA**  6 13 18 15 9   -   -   -   -
U of Pennsylvania 7 10 15 7 14 15 8 8 11
UC, Berkeley 8 6 6 10  9  7 14 10 9
U of Southern Cal** 9   - 20   -   -   -   -   -   -
WUSTL 10 11 10 10 11 9 4 9 11