Thom Lowther, who has served as the AIA's senior director of CES since the system's inception, says that a staff of professional education specialists at the University of Oklahoma, whom the AIA has hired on contract, have constantly prescreened the system's content—now consisting of about 40,000 learning programs offered by a network of 2,600 providers—and kept weak programs at bay. In addition, a group of about 25 auditors is paid to observe what happens in continuing-education courses to verify the strength of their content.

Lowther and most architects interviewed say that continuing education has helped bolster the profession by increasing the competence and confidence of practitioners. "What I see most is the change in behavior," Lowther says. "And it's not because of the AIA but because of state licensure."

Even if you were to leave the AIA to avoid continuing education, you'd still likely need to earn roughly the same amount of credits, or slightly fewer, for licensure in most states—and the typical AIA member is registered to practice in four states. When the AIA's system was first conceived in the early '90s, architecture was running behind other professions such as medicine, law, and accounting in requiring ongoing education. But it was just ahead of most states. In 1978, Iowa was the first state to require continuing ed for architectural registration, and Alabama came next, in 1995. Since then, a watershed of laws has passed; by 2010, 38 states and the District of Columbia will require continuing education for architects.

Lowther can tell how things have changed when he looks back over 25 years of records the institute has kept on attendance at its convention seminars. Early records, he says, show that the most popular programs dealt with topics such as marketing and presentation skills. And though architects still take those courses "in record numbers," the top 10 programs now cover subjects related to health, safety, or welfare, and, increasingly, sustainability. The AIA requires that eight of a member's 18 required hours pertain to health, safety, or welfare; beginning this year, four of those hours must focus on sustainability. "So you can change behavior, if you require it by law," Lowther says.

Some things are slower to change, however. Amid the huge successes of the continuing-education system, there are still major disparities in the accessibility and cost of learning programs to members in small firms and far from big cities.

Sean Clapp has tired of driving all day to take a two-hour course. "I could spend anywhere from $100 to $400 for an all-day seminar," says Clapp, an architect at Heckman & Associates P.A., in Independence, Kan., in the southeast corner of the state. "Or, four credit hours is like 240 bucks. That's ridiculous." He has found numerous "lunch and learn" seminars in Kansas City, some of which he has taken in the past. But though they may be free, they are expensive when he considers the time involved. "It's different for a small firm. It really is. You have to take a day off to get one or two [credit] hours," he says. "In some regards, the continuing-ed requirement is pretty unfair to small firms."

"I'm not ashamed to admit it," he said in late 2008; "I use AECDaily online. I'm in the process of trying to get the rest of the credits for this year. I'm up to 13 right now."

Trudy Aron, the longtime executive director of Clapp's state chapter, AIA Kansas, sympathizes with Clapp and architects like him in the state. "It's very difficult for our firms, especially in rural parts of the state, to get continuing ed," she says, given the time and money required. The state chapter sees good attendance at its annual conferences, where members can usually get all the credits they need for a year. And Aron is also looking into webinars, seminars held over the Internet. At first, she found reputable providers who charged $50 per receiving site per hour—still a hurdle for small firms and solo practitioners. Just recently, she found a much cheaper provider and was planning to test a one-hour program in late January. "If this product works the way I hope it will, we can offer webinars affordably," she says. "This will somewhat level the playing field between small firms and large."

The difference firm size can make in continuing education is obvious even in a large, mostly rural state like Montana. Keith Rupert, the CEO of CTA Group, in Billings, finds no shortage of learning opportunities for his 160-person office. Product manufacturers who offer continuing-education programs like the larger numbers of architects a firm like CTA can deliver, so "we have more opportunities than we have time slots for," he says. "We get a lot of attention from vendors and suppliers, and because of our size, we are able to support ongoing capabilities that smaller firms might not be able to do."

Two and a half hours away, however, in Lewistown, architect Jeff Shelden wouldn't mind the occasional vendor seminar, but given that he practices alone in a smaller town, vendor representatives aren't banging down his door with offerings.