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    Credit: Sarah Hanson

Debt is a fact of life. Consumer credit lines, mortgages, and that 50 bucks you borrowed from a friend are the touch points of every monthly budget. If you went to architecture school, you’ve probably got some loan burdens, which fall under the “good debt” category—as opposed to “bad” credit card debt, for instance. But whether you’ve just started your first internship or hung your first shingle as a licensed architect, there are things you can do to manage your student debt so that amortization doesn’t have to mean indentured servitude.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 66 percent (or $505 billion) of student debt in the U.S. is held by adults under the age of 40. This translates to hundreds of dollars of monthly loan payments for recent (and not-so-recent) graduates. Outside of the basic costs of living, that fact can also make it difficult for debtors to free up capital or access adequate credit for mortgages and business loans.

Last year, the American Institute of Architecture Students reported that the average undergraduate architecture student leaves college with $40,000 in loan debt—to say nothing of the debt they may have accrued in graduate school or pursuing licensure. A new survey conducted this summer by AIA Government and Community Relations paints a broader picture. When you include M.Arch. recipients in the mix, 61 percent of all graduates vault past the $40k mark. Compare that with $26,600 average loan debt of nonarchitecture college graduates, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, and it’s clear that the architecture profession has a major problem on its hands.

Why are architecture undergraduates carrying more debt? Well, a five-year B.Arch. is 20 percent more expensive than a four-year B.S. or B.A. The other factor? Cost of materials. Whether you’re a B.Arch. or an M.Arch. candidate, you have a slim chance of avoiding the costs of Mylar, software, hardware, chipboard, drafting tape, and even a used copy of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language (for retro street cred)—and you’re likely to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars a year just to have the right tools to do your job.

What is an intern to do?

Federal loan regulations enacted in 2012 allow recent loan borrowers to enter into a new “pay as you earn” fulfillment plan, which builds on pre-existing “income-based repayment” and “income-contingent repayment” plans. You may also be able to take advantage of a “graduated repayment schedule” (or some equivalent) in which your monthly burden starts relatively small and grows over time, or a “standard repayment schedule,” which is a single payment amount, month to month.

But whether your loans are serviced by the government or private lenders, consolidation is another way to address your burden. By bundling your debt piles, you’ll likely get a lower interest rate for everything, rather than different rates for separate loans.

The AIA is also working with members of the 113th Congress to sponsor the National Design Services Act—an architecture student loan bill written to help current and recent architecture graduates. If it passes and you’re eligible, you’ll be able to contribute design services in your local city in exchange for student loan assistance by tracking your hours through a designated community design center. Underperforming and at-risk communities get access to your skills, you’ll learn a thing or two about your community, and you can dial back your debt load.

The process of becoming a licensed architect is hard enough, after all. It’s time you had some help.

—William Richards

Learn more about the National Design Services Act at aia.org/advocacy.