Love ‘em or hate ‘em, school rankings are influencing prospective students’ decisions on where to apply, and architecture firms’ decisions on whom to employ. RECORD looks at this year’s survey and asks people in academia and the profession what it all means. 

View the 2010 Rankings

Every fall since 1999, DesignIntelligence — the bimonthly journal of the Design Futures Council (DFC), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose executive board includes representatives from some of America’s most widely known design firms, schools, and manufacturers — has published rankings of the best architecture schools in the nation. Each year, as the public cracks open the latest black-and-yellow guide, people take to the blogosphere where, sporting handles like “Rationalist” and “Worried Mom,” they share criticism, advice, and pleas for help. Recent comments include: “Betcha those … high school students and grad-school applicants are drooling over this list right now”; “While I don’t put too much stock in these kinds of rankings, I also don’t like to see my school fall down the reputation ladder”; “There are so many schools out there that it’s very hard to even know which ones to look at.”

Click the image above to view the Design Futures Council's annual rankings.

The DesignIntelligence rankings are a lightning rod for comment because they have become a tool for students choosing the academic programs that will launch their design careers. Today they are the only attempt to rank accredited Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) and Master of Architecture (M.Arch.) programs in the United States.

James Cramer, the founding president of DFC and publisher and founding editor of DesignIntelligence, says the undertaking wasn’t always a reference for application and enrollment decisions. In the mid-1990s, “it was a privately commissioned report that architecture firms asked Greenway Group [Cramer’s consultancy company] to do. They knew they were unhappy with some schools, and they wanted to find out why,” he notes.

Historically, the rankings have leaned toward occupational preparedness. Administered by the Greenway Group, the rankings rely heavily on a proprietary survey distributed to the hiring authorities of several hundred architecture firms. (See sidebar on “Methodology,” next page.) Moreover, the 20-minute questionnaire focuses on recent graduates’ readiness to enter the architecture profession. The highlight of the survey asks participants to list their top 10 schools based on the practice readiness of their graduates, and follows up with several variations of the question oriented to particular skills. The answers usually reflect each firm’s hiring radius, as well as the broader sweep of reputation.

A vocational bent may only heighten the importance prospective students attach to this year’s DesignIntelligence rankings, as the recession has made new jobs scarce. Lee Waldrep, previously associate executive director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board and now assistant director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Architecture, reports that only eight of 88 M.Arch. recipients in the school’s 2009 graduating class were able to get jobs, “and most of those offers were the result of prior summer internships.”

For another window into the tough job market, consider industry giant HKS. According to H. Ralph Hawkins, FAIA, its chairman and C.E.O., the Dallas-based firm established a fellowship program last year that offers a $20,000 hiring bonus to the top health-care architect coming out of graduate school. Since then, HKS has laid off 33 percent of its staff, so a formalized program represents “a way to keep some flow of students into our firm,” Hawkins says. “We do not want to lose those graduating classes to this economy, as we did back in ‘87.”

The rankings remain a resource for practitioners. Ron Radziner, FAIA, a partner at Los Angeles—based Marmol Radziner + Associates, notes, “If a school from which we’ve never had a student appears in the top 10, I’m more apt to look at that school, or at an internship application from one of its students, more seriously.” Jim Way, AIA, director of operations at the Houston firm Kirksey, echoes that position, noting that he directs advertisements for his summer internship program at ascendant institutions.

DesignIntelligence has also encouraged decision-making within academia. Without the rankings, “It can be terrible to get faculty to take seriously that we need to continually reinvigorate and revise,” says R. Thomas Jones, dean of the College of Architecture & Environmental Design at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, whose undergraduate program is ranked third in this year’s listings. Jones also recalls interviewing for his current job: Cal Poly’s consistently high ranking did not substitute for first-hand knowledge of student work and campus culture, “but it got me on the plane.”

To appreciate the prominence of the DesignIntelligence survey in the profession, it’s helpful to log on once again. “I taught for a little while at one of the top 10 schools,” a person named “Adso” wrote on Archinect shortly after the release of the seventh annual survey, “and although I know the rankings are largely BS, there are a lot of people who take these things very seriously and have a lot invested in them.” The rankings resonate through the profession, from the drafting tables of high school art classes to the offices of deans and studio principals. But just as US News & World Report is regularly faulted for its rankings of colleges and universities, DesignIntelligence is not immune to disapproval.

Many people interviewed for this article observe that the prerequisite of NAAB accreditation, for example, neglects excellent B.S. programs such as the four-year preprofessional degree offered by the University of Virginia, whose M.Arch. program sits in the ninth spot this year. Another common concern is that those schools graduating the most students have a leg up in the rankings, because they will be on the radar screens of more recruiters responding to the DFC survey. In a similar vein, those recruiters may be susceptible to politicking, or they may just have a soft spot for their respective alma maters.

“Numerical rankings are a pretty coarse instrument,” states one educator who declined to be named for this story. “The assumption in this method is that the person filling out the survey is someone in a firm who is recruiting new employees and has contact with people applying for jobs. But there’s no guarantee that that person has that contact.”

Rick del Monte, AIA, managing director of the Beck Group in Dallas, was one of several survey takers clarifying this point. “Of our recruiting, we consistently find really good graduates from a list of five schools,” he says. Yet DFC provides del Monte with a list twice as long. “Beyond that, you’re going on reputation.” Douglas Oliver, director of design at Morris Architects in Houston and a professor at Rice University School of Architecture, says, “A lot of people transfer their prejudices about a university overall — say, the importance of technology at MIT — to that school’s architecture programs.”

Numerous sources contacted for this article refer to a dialogue that took place within the membership of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture in 2005. That thread suggested that the ACSA launch a competing series of rankings, or a rebuttal paper scrutinizing the accuracy and depth of the DesignIntelligence rankings. No new ranking came of this talk, though.

To Greenway’s credit, it has tweaked its approach. The rankings issue of DesignIntelligence now incorporates the views of deans and students (see sidebars, this page and page 90), and their opinions are combined with practitioners’ rankings to yield separate rankings in a chapter of the issue entitled “The Cramer Report.” Moreover, the practitioner-based rankings have been altered to accommodate specific concerns. “In the early years, rankings were based almost exclusively on surveys sent to private employers,” says Theodore Landsmark, Assoc. AIA, president of Boston Architectural College. “So Cramer expanded the range of employers who were queried to include some public-sector employers, since schools like the HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are more likely to send their graduates into public-sector employment.”

Cramer is quick to acknowledge shortcomings. Regarding the size advantage, he admits that smaller schools or programs that enjoy only regional renown usually do not break the top 10. “Typically, they will make it into the top 20 or 30.” He also notes that respondents’ subjective opinions can be swayed by news-making as much as reputation. “There can be a communication change at a school, and all of a sudden firms are really impressed by something happening at that school,” says Cramer. “Or there’s an alliance between a strong firm and a fledgling school, like NBBJ with the University of Hawaii or SOM with RPI. That gets a lot of press, so other firms start thinking that that program is getting stronger, and they take a closer look at it.”

Recent shifts in the DesignIntelligence rankings do mirror headlines, if with some lag time. Two and a half years after Mark Robbins, the former National Endowment for the Arts director of design, was named dean of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, for example, its undergraduate ranking jumped from seven to three; it ranks second in the 2010 edition. Also in the undergraduate category, Rhode Island School of Design, number seven, showed dramatic improvement between 2008 and 2009, just as John Maeda replaced Roger Mandle, who had been president for 15 years. And a big winner in the 2010 rankings is the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, which leapt 11 spots since 2009, perhaps thanks to its push to lead the sustainable-design movement: This year’s questionnaires were distributed just months after the school launched an Ecological Design Certificate program, and broke ground on a demonstration low-impact house.

The timely correlation between architecture schools’ activities and the perception of their quality promises future bumps and dips in the rankings. Boston Architectural College graduated its first class of distance-learning M.Arch. candidates this past May, and most of those students are already employed in architecture firms. Therefore, the perceived success of that effort may reach DFC survey respondents more quickly. In the midterm, the recession may impact not only the rankings’ importance to users but also the substance of the standings. Jones, in San Luis Obispo, says that budget cuts are already increasing the desirability of higher-paying out-of-state students, which will affect the composition of the student body. Perhaps the quality of the education may suffer next, he adds. “We’re going to see larger class sizes. I don’t know how that will affect our ranking.” Looking at the long-term picture, schools will find that their ability to infuse topics such as sustainability, BIM, and digital fabrication into their curricula will affect their standing among their peers.

The diversity of the top 10 schools reflects the industry. “I think all architecture offices emphasize different things and have different ways of working,” Radziner says. “Over the years, you discover which schools have the sorts of students and teach the kinds of things that resonate with your own office.” Such diversity applies to rankings, too. The academy shouldn’t use DesignIntelligence as its sole benchmark, says Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies dean A.J. Jack Davis. “There are a number of schools that ask us what we do to get into the top 10,” he notes. “You absolutely have to give the faculty free rein, and then you have to support them.”

As for those blog-reading, desperate-sounding aspiring architects, the University of Illinois’s Waldrep, who is also author of the popular book Becoming an Architect: A Guide to Careers in Design, puts DesignIntelligence in a larger context of student concerns. He suggests: Pair DesignIntelligence with the ACSA’s Guide to Architecture Schools; read NAAB’s independent reviews of architecture programs; converse with students and recent alumni. “Too often,” he adds, “prospective students don’t have a clue as to what their criteria should be. I tell students and parents, What’s the ranking for you?” The standards are individualistic, not unlike the practice of architecture itself.