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. 

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.”

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,” this 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.

David Sokol is a New York—based contributing editor to Architectural Record.

TOP 10 UNDERGRADUATE ARCHITECTURE SCHOOLS

1
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
2

Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y.  

3
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 
4
Virginia Polytechnic institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.  
5

University of Texas, Austin, Tex.

6
Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kans.
7
University of Oregon, Eugene, Ore.
8
Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R.I.
9
Rice University, Houston, Tex.
10
University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Calif.
   
TOP 10 GRADUATE ARCHITECTURE SCHOOLS (M.ARCH.)
1

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

2
Yale University, New Haven, Conn.  
3
Columbia University, New York City 
4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
5
University of Texas, Austin, Tex.
6
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio
7

Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

8
Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg, Va.  
9
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.
10
University of California, Berkeley, Calif.
   

Survey Methodology

THE WASHINGTON, D.C.—BASED think tank Design Futures Council (DFC) has sponsored the rankings of America’s best architecture schools since 1999, largely using questionnaires completed by practicing architects. Greenway Group conducts the survey every June, with respondents — 234 this year — culled from DFC members, including the study’s underwriters (mostly large firms and manufacturers). Smaller firms are also included, chosen mostly from DFC’s membership to get a geographic mix. Any firm can participate, but “we don’t consider this a random sample,” says James Cramer, publisher and founding editor of DesignIntelligence, which Greenway publishes for the DFC. “We go for the quality firms that are most highly regarded.” D.S.

SKILLS RANKINGS††

Analysis and planning

1
Harvard University  
2
Virginia Polytechnic Institute  
3
Cornell University  
3
Massachusetts Institute of Technology   
5
University of Cincinnati  
5
University of Oregon
 

Communication

1
Harvard University  
2
Yale University  
3
Cornell University  
3
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
5
University of Cincinnati
 

Computer applications

1
Massachusetts Institute of Technology  
2
Carnegie Mellon University
2
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University  
4
Columbia University  
5
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
 

Construction methods and materials

1
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
1
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
3
Auburn University  
3
University of Cincinnati
5
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
 

Design

1
Harvard University  
2
Yale University
3
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University  
4
Cornell University  
5
Columbia University
 

Research and theory

1
Harvard University  
2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
3
Princeton University  
4
Columbia University  
4
Yale University  
 

Sustainable design practices and principles

1
University of Oregon  
2
University of California, Berkeley
3
University of Texas, Austin  
3
University of Virginia  
5
Auburn University
 

†† Indicates collegiate architecture program that is strongest in each skills area (Undergraduate and graduate)

DEANS AND CHAIRS SURVEY

'EARLY ON, deans at a number of schools moaned about the rankings,' remembers Theodore Landsmark, Assoc. AIA, president of Boston Architectural College. The deans and chairs feared that state funding might be tied to their position on the charts. Some people in the academy still view the survey with a certain skepticism. 'The higher our rank, the more intelligent we think the document is,' laughs Douglas Oliver, a professor at Rice University School of Architecture and director of design at Morris Architects, in Houston. 'If we slip we think the system is flawed.'

In response to earlier criticism, in 2007, Greenway began using a school-evaluation survey informed by questionnaires sent to academic leaders in addition to its practitioner-driven rankings. 'Deans and chairs of all NAAB-accredited architecture programs are invited to participate,' Cramer says. This year 67 programs responded, and the deans' opinions do not differ from those of practitioners as dramatically as was perhaps suspected. Academia's top five schools hew closely to the more publicized rankings; only the appearance of Auburn and Princeton in the B.Arch. and M.Arch. ratings, respectively, differentiates this list from the practitioner-rated top 10. D.S.

Deans and Chairs Survey

1
Cornell University
2

University of Texas, Austin Most admired B.Arch. programs

2
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
3
Auburn University
3
Rice University
   

Most admired M.Arch. programs

1
Harvard University
2
Yale University
3
University of California, Berkeley
4
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
5
Princeton University
   

Architecture Student Survey What students are pursuing (%)

41
Bachelor of Architecture
16
Bachelor of Science in Architecture
4
Bachelor of Arts in Architecture
1
Bachelor of Arts in Architecture Studies
35
Master of Architecture 
3

Other (including dual degrees, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Architecture, and other architecture programs)

   

Percent of Students who believe they will be well prepared for their profession upon graduating
93

   

Quality of program overall (%)

49
Excellent          
40
Above average
8
Average
2
Below average
0
Failing
   

Quality of program Relative to cost (%)

52
Excellent
48
Above average
16
Average
4
Below average
1
Failing
   
What students do after graduating (%)
33
Pursue an advanced degree in architecture
6
Pursue an advanced degree in something else
50
Work in private practice
3
Work for a corporation
3
Self-employment
3
Undecided or other
1
Work in government
1
Community service
85
Planning to take the Architect Registration Exam
77

Planning to become LEED certified

   

THE MAN BEHINDTHE NUMBERS

James Cramer, Hon. AIA
James Cramer, Hon. AIA

James Cramer, Hon. AIA: Perhaps best known to architects as the chief executive of the American Institute of Architects from 1988 to 1994, Cramer founded Greenway Group in 1982 and launched it as a fully staffed organization shortly after leaving the AIA. His Atlanta-based firm operates a management consultancy that services the design and construction industries. The company’s communications division administers think tanks (such as the Design Futures Council), organizes conferences, produces publications (such as the bimonthly DFC journal DesignIntelligence), and assembles the annual architecture-school rankings. He is the author of several books, including Design Plus Enterprise: Seeking a New Reality in Architecture (2002, 2nd edition). To learn more about his company and its methodology, and to discover trends that have materialized over the course of 10 years of surveys, go to architecturalrecord.com/features for an exclusive interview with Cramer.  D.S.

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