In 2008, Phil Poinelli earned enough continuing-education credits for five architects. Poinelli, a principal at Symmes Maini & McKee Associates in Cambridge, Mass., needed 18 credit hours for the year to continue his membership in the AIA and to keep his state registration current, but he racked up more than 100 hours. It helped a lot that Poinelli, who specializes in elementary and secondary school design, has been completing a graduate certificate online in educational planning, but he had 43 hours completed before he even signed up for that program.

Poinelli earned credits at Build Boston, the annual meeting of the Boston Society of Architects, where there were more than 100 courses available for credit. He earned more at a meeting of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International. And he also has a leg up on credits each year because his firm, with 150 people, keeps a busy calendar of professional seminars, held four or five times a month over lunch. "Here, you can probably satisfy all the credits just by doing lunch," Poinelli says.

Though he would seem to be a poster child for continuing-education compliance, Poinelli is really an example of the easy access to learning many architects have in completing their annual learning quota for the AIA's Continuing Education System (CES). If you work for a large or even midsized firm, particularly in an urban area, the choices are practically boundless. But if you work in a small firm, are a sole practitioner, or live in a rural area, the course pickings are considerably slimmer: Fulfilling the annual 18-hour requirement for AIA membership (which parallels many states' requirements for licensure) can lead you into huge hassles, high costs, tedious course offerings, or all three.

Stephen Tullock, an independent architect in Hilton Head, S.C., has seen the continuing-education system from both sides. For 16 years, he practiced in Charlotte, N.C., where the local AIA chapter provided "lots of opportunities" for continuing education, he says, by forming alliances with the University of North Carolina, product vendors, and code officials in the region. "I used to pick up between 30 and 40 hours, taking things I thought were important to my firm," Tullock says—particularly code seminars. "I'd spend $90 to $120 for 12 hours" of credit, he recalls, for a seminar sponsored by AIA Charlotte and the city's Building Standards Department, and free programs abounded. "There was value beyond meeting my state minimum requirements." Then, in 2006, he moved, first to Myrtle Beach and then to Hilton Head, where course offerings are considerably fewer—the best stuff is three or four hours away in Charlotte. "With traveling, the fee can easily become $300 to $400 a day," when counting fees, food, lodging, and travel.

Of all the problems anticipated with the AIA's continuing-education requirements when they first began nearly 12 years ago, nearly none has materialized. I remember the predictions because I wrote about them at the time. A little less than a year before the first credit-reporting deadline of December 1997 approached, I wrote a story for Architecture magazine on architects' ambivalence toward the requirements. They objected not to the essence of continuing education—to the contrary, they almost unanimously said the effort would be vital to building architecture's credibility as a profession—but to a system they thought had too many soft spots.

Kevin Sneed, a partner and director of architecture at OTJ Architects in Washington, D.C., remembers the objections well. "Back then, people were laughing" at the continuing-education system, Sneed recalls. "They were saying [the AIA was] going to lose a lot of membership" as member architects failed to follow the new regime.

Didn't happen. The AIA's membership has risen steadily since then, to 84,000 members, up from 62,000 in the late '90s. Indeed, an AIA survey found that only 6 percent of members who quit the institute and came back had left because of continuing education, whereas 38 percent of respondents said they'd joined because of continuing-education opportunities.

There were other worries about continuing ed early on. One architect I talked to in 1997, Joe Valerio of Chicago, called it "kitchen-table education" because you could, among other routes to learning, read magazine articles, then take a short exam and file for credit. The AIA was treading a fine line between substance and flexibility in its learning scheme. Because the system relies at times on an honor system of self-reporting, some architects, rather cynically, expected their colleagues to get away with less actual learning than their transcripts showed. And given that product vendors were to play a major part in providing education programming, many architects complained that manufacturers' reps would not so much share serious information as make sales pitches to a newly captive audience, and the whole thing would sink into the mediocrity of edutisements.

But more than a decade later, problems with dishonesty in reporting for credits or purely promotional product seminars are the exception rather than the rule. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of continuing-education providers are what are known as "stakeholders"—manufacturers, but also trade and professional groups and government agencies. These groups have nothing to gain, and much to lose, from providing subpar course content that would alienate architects. Architects I spoke with estimated these programs are effective between 75 percent and 80 percent of the time.

Only two of the top five providers (ranked in terms of the number of courses offered) are third-party, for-profit businesses: Hanley Wood Exhibitions (owned by the company that publishes ARCHITECT) and Lorman Business Center, a company specializing in continuing education in a number of disciplines. The other three are the International Code Council, the AIA National Convention, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. In a fairly recent surge, at least 20 percent of courses are being offered internally by firms, and about 10 percent are offered by the AIA's national office and state and local chapters.