“Perhaps never before in history have the talents, skills, the broad vision, and the ideals of the architecture profession been more urgently needed.”

This sentence became a rallying cry for a generation of architects, the AIA, and professional organization leaders when it was published in the Carnegie Foundation’s report, Building Community, nearly two decades ago.

“The profession,” two prominent researchers explained, “could be powerfully beneficial at a time when the lives of families and entire communities have grown increasingly fragmented, when cities are in an era of decline and decay, rather than limitless growth, and when the value of beauty in daily life is often belittled.”

It was music to architects’ ears, and is equally relevant today.

In that spirit, the AIA and the American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) have been working since 2013 to advance what they’ve termed the National Design Services Act, or NDSA for short.

Hailed as a pathway for architecture graduates to serve their communities while also receiving student loan debt relief, the bipartisan bill was formally re-introduced into the House of Representatives this summer by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) with several co-sponsors after a similar bill failed to advance in 2014. The hope is that this bill (H.R. 2938) will be added as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act later this year.

In the U.S., roughly 40 million Americans collectively owe over $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, which affects a number of career and life decisions—including decisions to avoid public service jobs in favor of (presumably) higher paying jobs with private clients. Architecture is among those professions with the highest student loan balances in the country, based on a 2012 survey conducted by the AIAS.

Yet if you have only read the AIA and AIAS’ advocacy for the NDSA, you may be surprised to know that a federal loan forgiveness program already exists, enabling architecture graduates to work in local community design centers by providing student loan assistance and even full forgiveness.

As recently as a few weeks ago, advocacy for the NDSA has even said explicitly that “Graduating architectural students today have no opportunity to get hands-on experience in return for student loan assistance or forgiveness.” Fortunately, this is simply not true. And it’s important for architecture graduates to know what their existing options are, today.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), passed in 2007, will completely forgive the remaining federal student loan debt for graduates who work for ten years in a public sector or nonprofit setting. In the meantime, participants can qualify for income-based repayment plans that cap loan payments at 10-15% of an individual’s discretionary income. One does not even need to specifically apply for this program; so long as a graduate has qualifying federal loans and has been making on-time payments while working in almost any public sector or nonprofit job, that individual can qualify for loan forgiveness.

Because public service is important in any discipline, the PSLF program applies to all college graduates, not just architects. Architecture graduates waiting on the NDSA to provide student loan relief for public interest design work can access the PSLF right now. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that about one in four workers in the United States works in a public service job that qualifies for PSLF, including many architects.

While the AIA seeks to pass a new architect-only bill, other professional organizations are working together to advocate for the existing PSLF program in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The PSLF is under threat as the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee has proposed eliminating the program entirely, and even President Obama has proposed to cap loan forgiveness through the PSLF at $57,000.

In response, entities like the American Bar Association have initiated extensive advocacy campaigns, engaging individuals to tell their own stories, use social media (#loan4giveness), and even advocate in person on Capitol Hill.

To be sure, none of this is to say that the PSLF program is a perfect program or that an effort like the NDSA wouldn’t significantly benefit architects. It’s only that there is literally no mention of the PSLF program on the AIA or AIAS websites, no resources to help architecture graduates take advantage of it, and certainly no parallel advocacy effort to support the PSLF program’s continued existence. Instead, we hear repeated statements that architecture students have “no opportunity” to get student loan assistance or forgiveness. This is irresponsible.

Just taking the NDSA on its own terms, however, the bill is oddly restrictive. As written, the NDSA only applies to graduates who have “completed an accredited masters program in architecture” and only includes loans used for “attendance at an accredited masters program in architecture.” B.Arch graduates account for over 40% of the approximately 6,000 NAAB-accredited degrees awarded each year, and yet none of those graduates would qualify for student loan relief under the bill promoted by the AIA and AIAS.

Additionally, the NDSA as currently written wouldn’t apply to loans used by M.Arch graduates for their prior undergraduate degrees. And only employment at the very small number of community design centers “operated and managed by a licensed architect” would qualify. The Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship, for example, is perhaps the best-known program nationally for public interest design, and none of the current Rose Fellows appear to be working in an organization that would qualify for loan assistance under the NDSA as proposed by the AIA.   

All of this raises a more fundamental question: Why would a “National Design Services Act” only apply to architects and not all designers? Logically, a bill with that title should apply to all design professions, including landscape architects, urban designers, engineers, and interior designers. In fact, the bill’s definition of “eligible design services” is quite broad, including community development and neighborhood plans, historic preservation efforts, structural safety reviews following disasters, accessibility improvements, and energy and water efficiency improvements. But only for M.Arch graduates, and only under the supervision of a licensed architect. It’s like the NDSA was written to reinforce the (mistaken) stereotype that architects are only interested in themselves.

Practically, architects interested in a career in public service and concerned about student loan debt should first look to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, enacted without the advocacy of the architecture profession, but broadly covering all architecture graduates. The American Bar Association and Equal Justice Works have developed helpful information and resources online that architecture graduates can reference to take advantage of this existing federal program. Today. Architects interested in federal advocacy efforts can also advocate for the PSLF’s continued existence through the ABA’s engaging and user-friendly website.

Architects can also advocate to the AIA and AIAS to improve their proposed bill in three fundamental ways. The first is to expand the definition of “Community Design Centers” (Sec 5322(h)(1)) to include any public agency or nonprofit organization that lawfully provides eligible design services, regardless of the licensure status of the organization’s leadership. Second, the NDSA’s definition of “Qualifying Educational Loans” (Sec 5322(f)(4)) should include loans used towards any NAAB-accredited degree, B.Arch or M.Arch, if not also pre-professional undergraduate degrees. And, finally, a bill worthy of the title “National Design Services Act” should be expanded to cover graduates in allied design disciplines, not just architects. We will certainly need this broader advocacy in order to hope to get the NDSA reported by committee, passed by the House, passed by the Senate, and ultimately to have actual funds appropriated to enact the bill—if we are serious.

It is still true that “the talents, skills, the broad vision, and the ideals of the architecture profession” are urgently needed. But this does not mean that architects’ are the only skills and ideals needed. Other professions have been fighting for student loan forgiveness and other public service incentives since before the Building Community report was published in 1996. It’s time that architects and the design industry as a whole join them.


Employer’s Guide to Assisting Employees with Student Loan Repayment (PDF toolkit)

Action Guide for Public Service Employees (PDF toolkit)

Repay Student Debt (web tool)

H.R. 2938: National Design Services Act (bill text)

Casius Pealer is an attorney and Favrot Professor of Practice at Tulane University's School of Architecture in New Orleans. John Cary is a writer and social sector strategist based in Oakland, Calif. Both are trained as architects, former national officers of the AIAS, and have been involved extensively with the AIA. 

The opinions in this column are not necessarily those of Architect, Hanley Wood, or the American Institute of Architects.