You need to be a risk taker, a speculator—and determined, stubborn, and young to want to go to architecture school these days. Tuition is up, and graduation does not guarantee a job. The supply/demand curve for graduates has changed dramatically: Since 2008, a previous talent shortage has given way to an oversupply. With the persistently bleak economy, unemployment and underemployment rates are at historic highs. Many firms don’t have steady work, a troubling condition that is likely to linger—or even worsen. In addition, there are other obstacles to entering the profession: an internship system shepherded by sometimes distracted volunteer-professionals; comprehensive testing often for just one segment of professional practice, usually having to do with health, safety, and welfare; and compensation schedules that can be unfair.

So why go to architecture school? People who are driven to become architects can’t convince themselves otherwise. They seek the creativity, inspiration, and service to the community through the tangible achievement of architecture. They desire to be part of the historical legacy of this storied profession.

In spite of uncertain times, the future will need architects who can bring intelligence and insight to planning, urban design, sustainable building, and creating livable cities. We will still require talented professional leaders who have vision, optimism, and passion.  

For these reasons it is important to measure the quality of architectural education. Although any ranking is bound to be controversial, we can’t escape the fact that there are better and worse schools. Quality is hard to measure, and, admittedly, the annual DesignIntelligence “America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools” rankings have limitations. As I have stated previously, small schools and new programs are at a disadvantage because the number of graduates is lower than at more established ones. Nevertheless, our rankings raise awareness of educational needs among those preparing students for graduation, those hiring graduates, and students themselves. They also help improve communication between the schools and the professional community about weaknesses that need to be addressed.

In its entirety, “America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools” is an annual report comprising several distinct surveys that rank undergraduate and graduate architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and industrial design programs. For the 2012 edition, 360 firms in the four professional fields participated. Each respondent has direct responsibility for hiring and/or supervising recent graduate new hires in one or more of those fields surveyed. Practitioners selected to participate were drawn from a DesignIntelligence database of leading firms defined by both revenue and reputation.

The Greenway Group and DesignIntelligence have been conducting private studies and annual surveys for the Design Futures Council on architecture and design education for almost 15 years. These studies were originally undertaken on behalf of professional firms that wanted to share information with one another about which schools were better preparing students for the profession. We contacted CEOs, managing partners, and human resource directors with questions about their hiring experience in the past five years. Research reveals clearly that the profession cares deeply about education—which most of the practitioner-participants view of increasing economic importance and relevance in the years ahead.

With regard to architecture programs alone, practitioners from 185 leading U.S. architecture firms participated in our current research, “America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools 2012.” In answering a multitude of questions, they rated their satisfaction with the state of architecture education in the United States today as follows: 14 percent indicated they are very satisfied, 53 percent are satisfied, 32 percent are either neutral or dissatisfied, and only 1 percent are very dissatisfied. But in their evaluation of graduates’ understanding of building, facility, and equipment life cycles, 47 percent of respondents say the graduates are inadequate.

Additional data collected in the Best Schools research delve into participants’ rankings of the biggest concerns within the profession—for example, if recent graduates are bringing to the firms innovative ideas about sustainability.

Because the DesignIntelligence Best Schools research ranks undergraduate and graduate architecture programs that are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), one would logically ask if there is really that much difference among schools.

Of course, there are significant differences among schools, just as there are among leading professional practices. Cultures, technologies, tenure systems, facilities, administrators, budgets, design studios, alumni support, and attitudes of college and university presidents toward the profession change from school to school. Some schools do not have strategic plans for allocating tuition, nor the institutional resources to achieve goals that have value for students, the profession, and the public. Other schools do not have communications plans in place to disseminate information to professional firms hiring their graduates.

We also solicited rankings from deans and department heads of NAAB-approved architecture programs to see how peers rate other schools. Sixty responded.

In addition, we seek student opinions. This year, more than 1,600 B.Arch. and M.Arch. students responded to a separate DesignIntelligence student survey. They indicated resounding satisfaction and confidence in their education, with 56 percent grading the quality of their program as excellent and another 34 percent placing it above average. Ninety-two percent say they believe they will be well prepared for their profession upon graduation.

Now and the Future

Another DesignIntelligence research project compares the costs of architecture education (“Architecture School Tuition & Fee Report 2011–2012”) at different schools. Tuition varies for both the undergraduate and graduate programs. The overall average for B.Arch. programs is $20,115 in-state and $25,400 out-of-state. At the current time, M.Arch. program tuition plus fees are similar to the B.Arch.programs. The tuition at this year’s top-ranked B.Arch. program, Cornell, is $41,541, and at this year’s top-ranked M.Arch. program, Harvard, it is $40,166. Both of these Ivy League programs offer a variety of scholarship and aid packages to their students.

Another DesignIntelligence survey of architecture students found that upon graduation, the average graduate expects to shoulder a debt load of more than $36,000. To put this price tag into perspective, DesignIntelligence compensation research finds the average 2011 starting salary for a graduate with a B.Arch. is $40,044, down from $40,871 in 2010. The starting salary for an M.Arch. graduate is $45,266, down from $46,544 last year.

The phenomenon of transformational change—in technologies, systems, materials, sustainability, management, and demographics—is unfolding faster in professional firms than it is in higher education. This gap is a concern. That said, architectural education is arguably better today than it has ever been. 

But more can be done. Research participants say more practitioners should teach and more faculties should be professionally licensed. Business and management skills need to be introduced in the studio. No longer does tenure benefit students. Real estate finance should be a basic part of architectural education, and while many practitioners admire theory courses, they feel students need heavier doses of reality.

Practitioners tell us that they expect plenty of opportunities ahead if design entrepreneurs and architectural educators work together. We need to ensure that this happens.

Deans’ and Chairs’ Rankings of Architecture Programs

The ranking by the deans and department heads from 60 programs who participated in a separate DesignIntelligence educational survey differs from the practitioner-respondents in many of the criteria: Academics did not assess how well the graduates were trained for practice. Instead they focused on other aspects of education. Many cited an outstanding faculty, an emphasis on social awareness, or a balance of art and technics. Certain programs appealed to deans and chairs because of the interdisciplinary approach or collaboration with other departments, or an emphasis on scholarly education. While these criteria for evaluating may have differed from practitioners’ responses, the same schools seemed to surface: Undergraduate programs most cited were Cornell, Virginia Tech, Cooper Union, Syracuse, and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Most admired by deans were graduate architecture programs at Harvard, Columbia, MIT, Penn, and the University of Michigan.

These academic leaders also find they must adapt to the changing economic situation. Our data show that they speculate they will have fewer resources to work with in the future, with 37 percent of the 60 respondents expecting tighter budgets. Nevertheless, 90 percent say that enrollment will be the same or higher. This will put stress on schools.


Additional data is available at:, including: Top 20 undergraduate and graduate architecture programs / Architecture student satisfaction surveys from 35 schools / Hidden gems of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and industrial design education / The 25 most-admired architecture and design educators of 2011 / Top 10 undergraduate and top 10 graduate interior design, landscape architecture, and industrial design programs / Historical rankings of leading architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and industrial design programs / Skills assessment rankings for each profession that name top programs for preparing recent graduates in a range of specific skills / Programs most admired by deans of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and industrial design / Directory of leading U.S. architecture and design programs