Illogical (part one)

I don’t know what to call this besides illogical:

  • The cost of a college education has been increasing more each year than the cost of living has.
  • Wages, particularly in the last few years, have not been keeping up with the increasing cost of living.
  • Therefore wages are falling way behind tuition inflation.
  • A college degree is becoming more essential to employment every decade, but the process of earning it seems to be teaching graduates less and less applicable knowledge.
  • A rule of thumb generally preached to prospective college students who need student loans is that they should borrow a total of no more than their annual starting salary after graduation.
  • So many college freshmen don’t actually know what they’ll be doing after graduation. But architecture students do.
  • So many college students have no idea how much they’ll be making after graduation. But architecture students can find this out pretty easily.
  • The 2013 AIA Compensation Report came out last month. Click here for an article about it, that includes some of the data.

What do entry-level architecture graduates make? I’m going to spell out some of that data from the report.

  • Nationwide, mean (average) compensation for an “Intern 1” position is $40,000. (“Intern 1” is a person who has graduated from architecture school, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is on the path towards licensure.)
  • Compensation for these new grads a little higher in some places. (In the Mid Atlantic Region it’s $41,800.)
  • And it’s a lot lower in some places. (In the East South Central Region, it’s $34,800.)
  • Remember – these numbers are just averages.
  • According to the rule of thumb, architecture students should borrow a total of no more than $40,000 in student loans, since they’re likely to make no more than $40,000 in their first year after school.

So, as I wrote on a forum recently, if you have to borrow money to go to school, keep these things in mind:

  • To get a professional degree (a BArch or an MArch) in architecture, school takes 5 or 6 years.
  • My alma mater’s current tuition is over $44,000 per year, not including room and board. My alma mater has a 5-year professional degree (a BArch).
  • Tuition alone for the state university in my state is over $10,000 per year, and you’d have to go for a total of 6 years to get a professional degree (4-year degree plus a 2-year MArch).
  • In most states, you need a professional degree if you want to be able to pursue licensure.
  • A growing number of architecture firms won’t even hire you unless you have a professional degree. (According to the AIA report referenced above, 20 percent of firms do not hire employees without a professional degree in architecture, up from 15 percent in 2011.)
  • You might need to borrow money for room and board, or for living expenses, in addition to tuition. If, while in school, you have a job, or live with parents or a spouse who supports you and pays for living expenses, and you get in-state tuition in my state, you’ll likely borrow something like $60,000.
  • If you go to my alma mater, don’t have a job, live on campus, and borrow money for tuition, room and board, you might need something like $285,000, unless you get “gift aid” from the university, in which case you might be borrowing “only” $142,000.
  • You’d never make $142,000 in your field as an architecture grad in the first few years after school.
  • In fact, that figure is close to the mean of what architects top out at right now.
  • The mean salary for CEOs of architecture firms in New England (the highest-paid region in the country for architecture CEOs) is $151,500. That is the highest number on the whole survey.
  • And nobody gets to that compensation level very fast – the mean compensation for “Intern 3” is $49,200. (“Intern 3” is a person who has graduated from architecture school, has three to six years experience, works full-time in an architecture firm, and is working towards licensure.)

If you have to borrow money to go to architecture school, the math just doesn’t work out.

  • Check it out for yourself – figure out how much tuition and room and board and fees and books and supplies cost at the schools you’re looking at. Then figure out what you might make in each of your first few years in an architecture firm in the city you want to be in. (To do this, go to the local AIA office and ask to look at the latest compensation survey results for that city. Do not search online for “architect salary;” the internet thinks you mean “software architect,” or some other IT field, and they make more. ) Then use an online calculator to see if it’ll work. Here’s one.

Something’s gotta give. So what can be changed? I have some thoughts that will be in part two, later this week.

7 thoughts on “Illogical (part one)

  1. Liz, the same is true for med students. Perhaps it is even a worse situation.
    For any student not to have marketable skills upon graduation is the real problem. Think of architeture school as a vo-tech training course first and a general, liberal education second. Learning enough to make your employer money is the first job of the first job. Then one can pay one’s debts.
    The money spent on an education

    • Thom, thanks for your comment. I think the last part of it got cut off somehow.

      I think that it’s not nearly as bad for medical students as it is for architecture students. I understand that during residency, MD’s wages are low. But look at slides 2 through 7 on this Physican’s Compensation Report: . Eventually doctors average much higher compensation than architects ultimately do, especially if they complete a residency (and pass the boards at the end of that, getting board certified). And although doctors have 8 years of school after high school, (2 or 3 years more than architects) annual tuition for those first 4 years (undergrad) isn’t any more than tuition for architecture school. Tuition for medical school IS higher than tuition for an MArch. (In my state, at the state university, it’s a lot higher. Some private universities are already so expensive, that their med schools aren’t that much more expensive than undergrad.)

      But unemployment among doctors is very, very low, whereas unemployment among architects is high (and when unemployment in architecture is low, turnover is high). The post-school training that doctors receive is well-organized and consistently good, through the nationwide residency program. Then they take their boards after their residencies. The post-school training that architects get, through NCARB’s Intern Development Program, managed by the intern and carried out at whatever firm a new grad is lucky enough to get a job at, is spotty. Then they take their licensing exams whenever they’ve gotten all their hours… if they get them all.

  2. I don’t think this is unique to architecture; the same calculations would apply to many college degrees. The problem is that the cost of college tuition seems to be outpacing other costs, as well as income.

    In 1966, I was making about $1.50 per hour, I could buy a McDonald’s burger for 15 cents, and my tuition ($325 the first year!), room, and board came to about $1,300 per year. Today, I’m guessing, most students make minimum wage, about $7.25 per hour, a burger is a little less than a buck, and tuition, room, and board now are about $20,000 per year. What does that mean? Hourly pay is about 4.8 times as much, it still takes about 6 minutes to pay for a burger, and college education is about 15 times as much. After graduating with a B.Arch and a B.S, I got a job at $7,000 per year; I believe an architect intern makes about $40,000 today, about 5.6 times as much. The bottom line: Most things mentioned are five to six times as much today, with education advancing three times as fast.

    That’s my seat-of-the-pants guesstimate, but it doesn’t say anything about how long it takes to pay off your student debts. An article in the Washington Post ( uses what I assume are more accurate numbers, and comes to pretty much the same conclusion – college costs are rising fast. It’s still considered a good investment, but the return is declining.

    Of course, construction offers many other opportunities. Several years ago, my office took a group of architects to the local mason’s apprentice school. After learning something about what masons do, we were told about the apprentice program, and how much masons would earn after graduating, and during their careers. I could see many of our younger architects working the numbers in their heads, and probably asking themselves why they didn’t go into masonry. Many graduates of architecture school end up as manufacturers’ reps, and they seem to do quite well.

    One thing that doesn’t show up in any of these figures is the number of hours worked. As professionals, most architects are salaried, meaning they get to work all the overtime they want. While this usually does show up in the paycheck, I suspect it’s usually at a rate lower than their hourly rate, and certainly not the 1.5 times rate earned by hourly workers. That’s why architecture often shows up in the “10 worst job” lists. The pay itself might look good, but when the pay is averaged over the number of hours, it can be dismal.

    Sorry to ramble, Liz. I’m looking forward to part 2!

    • Thank you for the rambles!

      The situation applies to lots of college degrees, as you mention, but the English major doesn’t know whether he’ll end up being a teacher, a pet store owner, a yoga instructor, or a college professor.

      The architecture major intends to be an architect, and probably has wanted to be an architect since she was 11 years old.

      The path in architecture is more direct – architecture school – work in construction or in an architecture firm in summers, if you’re lucky – work in an architecture firm after you graduate.

      The path for an English major might involve some thoughts about law school, about becoming a writer, or about teaching. Summer jobs might include tutoring, or they might involve working at a summer camp, bartending, teaching Zumba… I don’t know. There’s no direct prescribed path. If you want to be a fiction writer, it’s the rare college student who gets a paying job writing fiction during the summer. When there’s no prescribed path (as there is for professions such as law and architecture) it’s easy to go off along unexpected paths that unexpectedly lead you to a low-paying career.

      Architect-hopefuls should be able to see along the whole path, at least as far as licensure. Some of them are children. Some of them are 17-year-olds taking out student loans. The data is all out there – people need to explain it to these teenagers taking out loans to go down this particular path.

      • An excellent point; although I doubt anyone goes to architecture school expecting to be rich, I also doubt they have any idea how much architects make, what is required to get a license, or how arduous the work can be. When I went to college (in chemistry) I didn’t think about any of those things; all I knew was that I wanted to be a scientist! I don’t want to deflate their enthusiasm, but regardless of career path, someone should tell students something about reality.

  3. Pingback: Illogical (part two) | Comments From a Spec Writer

  4. From September 2013 “Architect” magazine’s AIAFeature article, “Value Proposition” :

    “Forbes noted that mid-career median pay for someone with an M.Arch. is $77,800, and those with a B.Arch. and some experience (and, presumably, less student debt) still face unemployment rates that are higher than the national average. In either case, the student debt load for architecture graduates is lofty: A 2012 American Institute of Architecture Students survey showed that respondents had an average of $72,000 in private and federal government student loans to cover the ever-rising cost of tuition.”

    MID-CAREER pay with an MArch is $77,800 right now, and median debt load for architecture grads upon graduation (beginning of career) is $72,000 right now. This is SO far from a financially responsible situation…

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