Rachel Kapisak Jones

According to the U.S. government, recent architecture graduate Katie Abraham needed to make more than a quarter of a million dollars her first year out of college to keep her student debt burden below 8% of her gross income—the amount recommended by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“On the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] website, they had this tool where you input your debt amount and they suggest what your minimum income should be,” Abraham says. In 2019, the year she graduated with $155,000 in student debt, she tweeted a screengrab of the suggested income figure shown on the website—$265,800—with the caption, “I would like to thank the U.S. government for giving me the most useless suggestion in the world.”

Abraham’s story isn’t unique. According to new research done by AIA and Ipsos, a global market research company, three in four current AIA members had to borrow money to pay for college, with BIPOC, first-generation students, and female members especially likely to need loans.

Abraham’s entry-level salary was a far cry from the figure suggested on the FAFSA website. Because of the debt she was carrying, Abraham pushed herself to get licensed sooner than she might have otherwise. “It seems like all of the discussion around salary goes back to, ‘When you get licensed, you’ll get a substantial pay bump,’” she says. “I would have gotten licensed eventually, but I did move the process up a few years because of the value associated with it.”

Because of the disparity between early-career earning potential and debt burden, plus the added pressure and expense of licensure, some graduates consider leaving the profession altogether. Almost half (44%) of AIA members who borrowed money for college have considered leaving architecture or have already done so.

While the student debt crisis isn’t specific to architecture, architecture students graduate with at least $10,000 more in debt than the average student, according to the Architects Foundation. For students at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania, where Billy Fleming serves as the Wilks Family Director of the McHarg Center, that can mean leaving school with $100,000 or more in debt. Fleming himself is a first-generation college graduate, and he financed his architecture education by waiting tables, bartending, and taking out loans.

“[Graduates] have to take a high-paying job, and that immediately forecloses on a lot of the kinds of options that our students come in wanting,” including those in the public or nonprofit sector, Fleming says. “Instead, [they get] funneled into very conventional and very commercially successful practices.”

“It does a lot of damage on the front and back end to fund graduate education this way,” he continues, “to exclude a bunch of people on the front end and really foreclose on what our students want on the back end.”

Steadily rising costs for higher education over the last several decades have led to a generation of cash-strapped graduates. According to data from U.S. News and World Report, in-state tuition and fees at public universities, traditionally the most affordable option for students, have increased 175% over the last 20 years. At private colleges and universities, tuition and fees have jumped 134% during the same time period, and out-of-state tuition for public universities has risen 141%.

However, architecture is exceptional in the amount of debt it expects students to take on for relatively low starting salaries after graduation—and its lengthy licensure process, which means that students can’t realize their full earning potential until much later.

“If you leave a top law school or a top business school, you might also have $200,000 in debt, but you [may also] start off making $150,000,” Fleming says. “We don’t send any first-year graduates out into the world that make [that amount].”

Of the surveyed AIA members, fewer than one in three reported that student debt impacted their choice of firm for employment. However, 47% of those who are still paying off loans today reported that it did, and female members were nearly twice as likely to report such an impact than their male peers.

“People in other countries haven’t even considered that this would be a reality they could ever be subjected to,” says Josh, an American who is currently completing a master’s degree in landscape architecture in Germany and asked to be referred to by his first name. He says that had he stayed in Boston, he would have been staring down more than $100,000 in debt from a top-tier school. “Even with all the difficulty in moving [to Germany], compared to costs like that it’s still worth it,” he says. His school fees as a non-European Union student are about $1,000 a semester, a fee that is even cheaper for E.U. citizens.

Nate Huyler, AIA, reports that even though he was lucky to have a low amount of student debt, it still took him 14 years to pay off his loans. “Professionally, it meant needing years to finish my licensure exams,” he says. “I couldn’t afford the loan payment and the exam some months.” With a loan payment of around $150 per month and a starting salary of $28,000, the loan payment was about 10% of his monthly income after taxes.

“A loan forgiveness program would have meant the world, and I whole-heartedly support this for student loan debt today,” he says.

Who Is Most Impacted?

As with most economic issues, all student debt is not created equal. According to AIA research, first-generation students, women, and minorities are most likely to be carrying debt that they haven’t paid off yet. BIPOC graduates who are still carrying debt struggle significantly more than their white peers with buying a house, moving out on their own, and generally being financially independent. The female architects surveyed felt more challenged than their male peers to pay for major life expenses.

AIA’s research also shows that younger design professionals are most burdened by debt—89% of AIA members under 35 reported taking out loans, compared to 66% of those between 55 and 64. Since underrepresented members are significantly younger than their white male counterparts, who dominated the modern profession of architecture for decades, they are bearing higher debt burdens.

Additionally, first-generation students were significantly more likely to borrow compared to those whose parents have college experience (78% versus 71%).

Pascale Sablan, FAIA, NOMA, and the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects for 2023–2024, took out $64,000 in loans to pay for her education.

“The ability to study architecture is a position of privilege,” she says. “It is a significant amount of time and financial investment. Upon graduation, you’re making a fraction of what you in attaining the degree with a payback plan that spans decades. So return on investment is a very important conversation to have when talking to aspiring architects as it relates to the profession.”

Sablan was committed to becoming an architect, but her family’s financial situation changed in the spring of her freshman year of college at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. She returned to the financial aid office every semester after that to figure out the math of how to pay for her education.

“It didn’t matter what the numbers were, it didn’t matter what the interest rates were—it didn’t matter,” she says. “I just kept signing on the dotted line.” During the final year of her five-year undergraduate program, her mother encouraged her to get a master’s degree to cement her spot in the white, male-dominated profession she was entering, and she enrolled in a three-semester graduate degree program at Columbia University. Her one year at Columbia, she says, was more expensive than her five years at Pratt combined. Even though she feels privileged to be working in the industry, the mantle of student debt can be a tough one to bear. Sablan says that by the time student loan deferment came as part of COVID emergency measures in 2020, her consolidated loans had been privatized, and she wasn’t eligible for relief.

In the industry as a whole, Sablan thinks that educators and firm owners can do more to offer early-career paid internship and apprenticeship opportunities that will set students up for success and give them a higher return on their investment in their education. Another important factor is making sure that those opportunities are offered equally to students in all schools of architecture, not just elite, well-connected ones.

“Not everyone has to take the most expensive path to reach this particular goal,” she says.

How Can the Profession Help?

At the end of 2022, Congress passed the Retirement Parity for Student Loans Act, an AIA-backed piece of legislation. This bill allows employersponsored retirement plans to make matching contributions for an employee’s student loan payments, enabling them to both pay down their debt and save for retirement.

“The bill doesn’t require employers to change anything, but this is now an option that they can provide,” says Kara Kempski, senior director of federal relations at AIA. “For employees, this at least gets some money accruing interest in their benefit so they don’t miss out on saving early for retirement.” It represents a step in the right direction for many architects struggling to save for their future.

“This legislation lowers one of the many barriers of entry into the profession for underrepresented architect groups,” said AIA 2023 president Emily Grandstaff-Rice, FAIA, at the time of passage. In January, the Biden administration announced that it will end the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency in May, and the student loan deferment that many in the industry took advantage of over the last three years will expire.

Sarah Tropper, who works as an architect in Washington, D.C., feels fortunate that she has no undergraduate debt due to a scholarship program in her home state of Georgia. Because of the profession’s emphasis on having a master’s degree and getting licensed, however, she completed a two-year graduate program at the University of Southern California with about $120,000 of debt. She says that her paused payments during the pandemic made her feel like she could finally contribute to her financial future—paying into a 401k, investing, and saving for emergencies.

“These things are basically unfeasible if I am also paying off my student loans,” she says. “I am constantly worried about what [it] means when payments start again.”