Lauren Nassef

The journey to becoming a full-fledged architect has traditionally resembled a long, slow marathon, encompassing three substantial hurdles: education, intern hours (over 3,000 of them), and rigorous exams. In 2016, the time to licensure for the average architect was 12.5 years from start to finish, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). Even without consideration for career detours or for personal or financial circumstances, the average architecture student can expect to become licensed somewhere around the age of 32.

In 2015, NCARB introduced a new program called the Integrated Path to Architectural Licensure, or IPAL, with the aim of breaking the process down into a series of shorter, if undeniably more intense, sprints. The goal of IPAL is to give aspiring architects the opportunity to complete their education and intern hours, and take the exams, in roughly half the time of the more traditional route. As of the end of 2017, there were just over 450 students enrolled in IPAL across 17 programs, with more programs expected to start in the 2018–2019 academic year, according to NCARB.

IPAL doesn’t eliminate the requirements of licensure, NCARB and other advocates for the program point out, but rather it offers students a way to fulfill some of those requirements while they’re enrolled in National Architectural Accrediting Board–approved architecture programs. The 26 programs that currently support or are developing ways to support IPAL have elected to offer students ways to fulfill Architectural Experience Program (AXP) hours—time in a firm—and sit for Architect Registration Examination (ARE) tests.

For the University of Florida’s CityLab-Orlando, which offers graduate degrees in architecture, the potential for licensure with the completion of a four-year M.Arch. has been a major selling point, especially if a student is coming from a different career or discipline.

“If you look at the NCARB statistics, it would be almost seven years after they graduated before they would get their registration, and that’s way too long for people that are changing careers,” says Frank Bosworth, AIA, director of CityLab-Orlando’s M.Arch. program. “This is a way to engage them in the profession and get them started in a reasonable amount of time.”

But IPAL has been met with a degree of skepticism from traditionalists. “One argument was that, ‘We’re going to have to change our curriculum,’ which doesn’t actually have to change,” says Marc Neveu, head of architecture at Arizona State University. Neveu, former associate dean of the Architecture School at Woodbury University in Los Angeles, was instrumental in implementing the IPAL program at Woodbury along with his late colleague, dean Norman Millar. “There was a perception that we were going to be teaching to the test, and that was, I think, a false argument.”

The possibility of curricular reform aside, the introduction of IPAL into architecture’s academy points to another kind of reform in American education: making the threshold to practice easier to cross.

“The interest that I had in the program was not necessarily the speed or the time to licensure,” Neveu says. “Our hopes were that it would allow students of more diverse backgrounds to ensure licensure.” A large percentage of Woodbury’s student body consists of first-generation college students, with the demographics of the school closely mirroring those of Southern California.

“For us, the opportunity is really about people entering into the profession having more options—and having more opportunity—than if they weren’t licensed,” Neveu says. “I don’t think the benefit is in the short-term; I think the benefit is really five, 10 years out.” Typically, the highest rates of attrition on the path to licensure—especially for women and minority students—occur during the experiential learning portion, when a designer is working at a firm to accumulate AXP hours in a variety of subject areas, as dictated by NCARB.

Students Trapped in a Numbers Game

According to the AIA’s most recent firm survey report, “The Business of Architecture 2018,” women and people of color are still underrepresented in the architecture field, but the numbers are improving. Over the past decade, the share of women architecture staff has increased from 28 percent to 35 percent, and the numbers for minorities have increased from 22 percent to 27 percent. Among firm architecture staff overall, representation of racial/ethnic minorities is highest among emerging professionals on the path to licensure (38 percent) and non-licensed architecture staff (27 percent). The most significant proportional gain over the last decade is among emerging professionals on the path to licensure, where the share of racial/ethnic minorities increased by 11 percentage points.

“We think that students that are in the IPAL program will be able to realize a higher earning potential faster, and we think that’s important for a variety of reasons,” says Michael Armstrong, CEO of NCARB. “As we’re talking in the architecture community about underrepresented groups, the ability to get more quickly to a higher earning potential can make the difference as to whether you would stay in the profession or not.”

Bosworth, of CityLab-Orlando, echoes this sentiment. “We feel strongly that women and people of color are underrepresented [in the profession],” he says. “One of the ways to ensure their acceptance and promotion is to get them to be registered architects when they leave school, so that they are not in a subjugated position.”

What Does the IPAL Experience Look Like?

For schools where architectural education was already strongly linked to employment and hands-on experience at firms, the implementation of IPAL has not come as a drastic shift. Karen Nelson, dean of the School of Architecture at Boston Architectural College (BAC), which instigated IPAL in 2016 as part of its M.Arch. program and incorporated it into the B.Arch. program the next year, says that BAC students have always been required to achieve a certain level of competence in the workplace while getting their architecture degrees.

“The big change for us is not incorporating practice into our degree, but rather incorporating this opportunity to take the exams before one graduates,” she says. All BAC students must complete 3,000 hours of work at a firm before being granted their degree. Each student is assigned a “practice faculty” member to oversee the experience that the student is gaining, and to coach the student in how to advocate for themselves to get the right kind of experience at their firms. IPAL has necessitated a more structured and intentional approach to that experience.

“It’s about getting our students to be more mindful of practice and how they need to propel themselves through AXP, because we’re holding conversations with them at many more points in the curriculum than we used to,” says Nelson.

In a typical IPAL trajectory, both undergraduate and graduate students work part-time at a firm during the school year, full-time during the summer, and sometimes take a full calendar year off to accumulate enough AXP hours to be able to take the licensure exam before they graduate. Michael Germano, AIA, who finished his M.Arch. in May as one of the first IPAL graduates in the country and is now an architect at Cline Design Associates in Raleigh, N.C., says that sharing the experience, and the exam preparation, with other students who were facing the same challenges was a helpful part of the process for him.

“It was great that we had classmates who were going through the process at the same time, so we all had that study support group,” he says. “Definitely, not having the exams to worry about after school is great.”

Skeptics Parse Architecture's Vocation from its Profession

Advocates of IPAL emphasize that it is meant to be an innovative option for schools, not a pedagogical imperative. “We believe that a mixture of classroom experience and field experience makes for a richer overall learning experience—that what you learn in the classroom can support what you’re learning in the field in real time, and vice versa,” Armstrong says.

Despite IPAL’s intentions, however, some educators wonder how—or if—it will limit the latitude that many architecture students have to explore other disciplines and topics beyond architecture, but in service of a broad knowledge base.

“One of the sentiments articulated several years ago by faculty members and administrators at an Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture [ACSA] forum focused on NCARB’s proposal to initiate the IPAL program was the concern that this is taking a step toward vocational training and moving away from the broad aims of liberal education,” says Brian Kelly, AIA, an associate dean at the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. “There’s a notion that liberal education is important even in vocations, and there’s more and more movement afoot today to do away with what are often referred to as ‘frills’ and get down to the bare minimum.”

“It’s a hard thing to sell, particularly to faculty who come from strong liberal educational backgrounds … and then to have them being told that they’re going to be teaching in a program that sounds vocational to them,” Kelly says.

Nelson thinks that the trepidation about what IPAL means for the future of architectural education is unnecessary. “There’s this fear that it will be a requirement in architectural education, which is silly,” says Nelson. “Every school should go to its own strengths.”

The central question about IPAL’s viability is the same question about licensure’s value. If a license to practice is about achievement, how does it stack up to other paths of advancement within the larger design industry?

“The value of the education, I think, is not only in that it leads to a license, which it can. The value is in the sense that it can open up opportunities,” Neveu says.

Other proponents, however, like CityLab-Orlando’s Bosworth, see licensure as the best way to ensure that aspiring architects can advance in their careers. “We made a real effort to change the culture of expectation from the degree to the license,” he says. “So, the anxiety about completing school as quickly as possible is now transferred to completing the exam as quickly as possible. Everyone realizes now, after a couple of years, that what they’re doing—in effect, while they’re in school—is exactly what they’re going to be doing after school if they don’t get licensed.”

A prospective architecture student has a range of ways to evaluate the kind of education that suits them. Resources like ACSA’s Study Architecture ( offer quizzes that recommend programs based on interests and aspirations. Once enrolled, an architecture student often has multiple tracks and program options within their schools, which have evolved over the last decade in response to design/build delivery methods, the proliferation of BIM (especially at large firms), and the potential of 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Architecture schools have also evolved over the past decade to address vexing issues like climate change and the affordable housing crisis. If IPAL’s toe-hold on the professional pipeline is about getting students to market faster, it could also mean faster design responses—by licensed architects—to those urgent questions.

Neveu says that architecture students he has seen in recent years show an idealism that he finds admirable. “I can definitely tell the difference in students, even from 10 years ago,” he says. “They want to change the world, and they think that they can change the world—which is pretty wonderful.”