Design schools vary more than schools in other professions. In most law schools, contracts are taught the same way; anatomy teaching varies little from medical schools in one region to another; and accounting is taught according to nationally established guidelines.
But at professional design schools, while digital rendering may be taught similarly throughout the United States and Canada, structures courses emphasize different factors in San Francisco and Florida. Water penetration has different meanings in New Orleans and Minneapolis. Schools with engineering affiliations are distinct from schools with interior design or urban planning affiliations; and urban schools generally address community planning differently than rural schools. Then there are differences in personnel, geography, funding sources, histories, leadership, and student bodies.
The wonderful, hands-on building tradition at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte cannot be directly compared with the restorative community-building traditions at Tulane, nor with Auburn’s Rural Studio or the technological focus found at MIT. Cincinnati is consistently named the best co-op program in America, yet its learning sequence is distinct from curricula at Boston Architectural College or other practice-based professional schools. Each has a distinctive way of preparing graduates for practice. Historically black and emerging Hispanic-serving schools cannot fairly be compared with programs at Ivy League schools, which, in general, fail in attracting and retaining American minority students.
Teams from the National Architectural Accrediting Board visit campuses to assess how specific learning outcomes are being achieved, and whether necessary skills are evident in student work upon graduation. What teams cannot readily assess is the extent to which evidence of these tangible, content-based learning outcomes results from a school’s educational input—i.e., the actual teaching and learning in studios, classrooms, and workplaces—or from the successful work of admissions offices that screen out lower-performing applicants. SAT scores or acceptance/rejection rates are a pallid measure of a school’s “quality; such entrance factors tell little of what happens in learning environments to introduce, build, inculcate, and assess changes in what students actually learn.
A potential design-program applicant needs to know whether the school is supportive within and outside of studio culture; whether there are opportunities to stretch one’s intellect and talent; and whether the school’s distinctive nature will provide an environment that is most conducive to that individual’s aspirations and learning style. Quantitative data do not provide qualitative evidence of the factors that shape learning environments. Testimonials from current and recent students, faculty, and employers, and the schools’ mission statements, are far more useful in differentiating among public and private, large and small institutions.
Choosing a professional design program is like the design process itself: The choice requires exploration, creative and critical thinking, discrimination, and a willingness to suspend preconceived notions in order to discern how changes in practice and innovative teaching are radically altering the design schools we once thought we knew.