Earlier this year, I joined a group of educators, firm principals, National AIA Board members, and recent graduates at a summit to discuss the future of emerging professionals. Looming over our discussions—the elephant in the room, if you will—was the rising cost of an architecture education and the financial burden students take away from campus along with their diplomas. How large is the burden? The most recent statistics developed by the AIA indicate that 55 percent of those who have graduated are more than $40,000 in debt.
Even more than the challenges of the Architect Registration Exam or landing a job in a highly competitive economy, this burden poses perhaps the greatest threat to the future of our profession. The prospect of choosing a career where the first reward after years of study is a financial ball and chain discourages certain high school students from considering a career in architecture. And often, these are the traditionally underrepresented men and women we need to include in order to have a more inclusive profession. Even those who have already graduated find their career choices drastically constricted, prompting far too many to leave the field.
My parents were able to pay for four years of college for me. However, I was enrolled in a five-year professional degree program and also studied abroad during the summer between my third and fourth years. Thus, upon graduation, I had roughly the equivalent of two years of loans for tuition and room and board to pay back to the government. Fortunately for me, the cost of an education back then was much more affordable. I had a financial obligation, sure, but it was not a crushing one. That is no longer the case.
Fifty years ago, the Johnson administration launched an ambitious War on Poverty. I leave it to others to decide how this war has played out. What is not up for debate is that five decades later, whether by intent or neglect, we seem to have embarked on a war on the most vulnerable in our society. And among these people are talented young men and women who could use their gifts to shape more livable and prosperous communities. How can we, as a profession and a nation, allow their dreams to die by demanding a pound of flesh at the very beginning of their careers?
For the young men and women poised to embark upon a lifetime of service, especially those who come from minority communities that we want to recruit, there is the beginning of a remedy; it’s called the National Design Services Act (NDSA). If enacted, this legislation would help students with their finances while they work to improve communities across the United States. This is no silver bullet. It doesn’t, for example, address the rising cost of an architectural education, a crisis fed in part by cuts in federal as well as state aid to America’s colleges. It is, however, the start of a new hard-headed appreciation of the long-term value of the investment we make when we reach out to help our students and recent graduates whose work will change lives.
This year is an important election year. Do you know where the candidates stand on the American Institute of Architecture Student–inspired and AIA-drafted NDSA? Please ask. Then decide who you will support. But don’t wait for November: Write your representatives today; seek their support for legislation that will allow young architects to gain invaluable real-world experience while helping their communities become more productive, resilient, healthy, and sustainable. Put into the hands and hearts of the rising generation of young architects the tools that will change lives.
Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA