November 2011

Getting an architecture degree is expensive. Is it worth it in a recession?

If bookshelves are to be believed, it has become fashionable to knock the way schools teach architecture. The latest this fall is humorous—The Real Architect’s Handbook: Things I Didn’t Learn in Architecture School, from Guy Horton and Sherin Wing. It dispenses cheeky wisdom such as, “If you already have a B.Arch., consider further education in a different field. Your M.Arch. can’t make a real contribution to the field if you’re just showing off software skills.”

Illustration: Dan Page

These writers might be on to something. Across the country, many recent graduates of the top schools also seem to be rethinking their education—spurred on, in many cases, by a lack of job prospects. “I don’t want to say that architecture is dying, but it seems like it will be hard to make a nest egg and retire in this career,” says Cody Fithian, 24, who graduated in May from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, with a B.Arch.

Fithian is now doing public relations for movies, in part to buy time until he can land a design job, which he estimates that only 60 percent of his classmates have done six months after graduating. So, to improve his job chances in general, Fithian may pursue a master’s in geology, skipping the master’s-in-architecture route popular in the past.

While debt issues may not loom large at UT, which is a public school, other graduates have to contend with bills that can total tens of thousands of dollars in a career whose starting salaries can be $40,000.

“Architects are undervalued,” says Jason, 30, who graduated from Howard University in 2005 with an architecture degree and from Columbia University in 2006 with one in urban planning. Even though he has worked regularly, Jason cannot afford the payments on $120,000 in loans, which forced him to postpone those payments for two years. Making matters worse, the large firm in Chicago that employs him froze his salary because of the recession, he says. Jason did not want his last name used, or the name of his firm, because he’s now looking for work—as a developer. “Granted, the one thing I will miss is design, but I am barely designing now anyway,” he adds.

Some of the best schools famously offer curriculums heavy on theory and light on real-world know-how. For graduates who end up at high-concept firms like Diller Scofidio + Renfro, that preparation can be useful. “You have to find a good match,” says employee Alice Chai, who graduated from Rice University in 2010 with a B.Arch.

Yet Horton, the Handbook author, wishes that would change, with schools requiring more business classes. It’s all about “imagining yourself as Rem Koolhaas, or Zaha [Hadid],” says Horton, 42, who earned a master’s from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, in 2006. “You should have to take one course that focuses on practice.” Working again after getting laid off from Perkins + Will and then being unemployed for two years, Horton is less cynical now about his education’s value, but for many months, he says, “I regretted it.” (Horton has also contributed to Record.)

Eager to burnish their studio experience with some knowledge of microeconomics, some young designers are eyeing MBA degrees. Marina Gabriella Brink, 24, graduated from Syracuse with a B.Arch. and a separate degree in economics. She took a job with Rafael ViÑoly Architects, although she considered a job with JPMorgan Chase as an analyst. “If you want your own firm, it’s good to have an MBA,” she says.

And firms that may once have encouraged young designers to go back to school for their master’s now seem to be open to business degrees, says Piper Lucas, a 2004 Cornell graduate with a B.Arch. who was building second homes in eastern Oregon until the recession hit. Now hunting for work in San Francisco, Lucas, 31, recently interviewed with a large firm that told her it liked the idea of MBAs running the company. “To be competitive in this market, you need to be unique,” she adds.

Even the programs that emphasize internships over academics, like the University of Cincinnati, where students spend multiple semesters working off campus, are not immune to criticism. Kim Cwynar, a 2003 graduate, works for DiDonato Associates in San Diego, where she designs parapets to hide cell phone towers. For five years, on the side, she’s also worked on whale boat tours and is now mulling a career change to marine biology.

Of course, there are upsides in architectural education, such as networking, which can help land top jobs. Mark Robbins, dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University, adds, “It’s not the skills we teach. This way of thinking and problem solving will serve any student.”

And in other ways, recent graduates may be unfairly blaming their alma maters. Jerry Adams, an executive recruiter in Chicago who gets 15 résumés a week from young people, up from zero in 2007, says architecture school graduates are getting slammed across the field regardless of their level of schooling. “It’s not an educational factor,” he says. “It’s about experience.” If those frustrated job seekers give up for good, the profession will suffer: “This will be a big problem in five years, because a generation could be wiped out.”