The rising cost of college tuition and the student debt crisis have many people opting out of traditional higher education. Further, for some the pursuit of a practical experience path makes more sense in terms of how they learn and how they are motivated to pursue a career. The path to becoming an architect shouldn’t be closed to people unable to spend thousands of dollars on college, or to people for whom college just isn’t a good fit.
I do not have a college degree, but I have been a licensed architect for over 40 years. After high school, I worked as a draftsman for a company that built modular homes. I loved the work and knew I wanted to be an architect, but I had to figure out how to pay for college. A few years later I enrolled at Cal Poly but had to work 40 hours a week to pay for classes. Part-time, minimum-wage jobs working nights and weekends were my only options. When combined with a full load of classes and a one-hour commute to school with a highly unreliable car, I had very little time for other important activities…such as sleep. Consequently, the university pathway was ultimately unsustainable for me, so after a few years I dropped out and got a job in an architecture office. I was able to earn my license in California without a degree by gaining additional experience and passing the exams.
Currently, California is one of 17 out of 55 jurisdictions that will grant licenses to architects without a degree from a National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) accredited program if they have sufficient levels of experience.
I feel fortunate that I was able to earn my license in the way that worked best for me. Learning through hands-on experience inspired joy in the work, and I can’t imagine going through the licensure path in any other way. I want other licensure candidates to have the same freedom to find the pathway that fits their needs.
The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) recently released a statement endorsing multiple pathways to licensure. As the FY24 NCARB President, my biggest priority is to support this effort and increase the number of jurisdictions that provide multiple pathways to becoming an architect, thereby increasing access to licensure for groups traditionally left behind.
According to NCARB’s data publication, NCARB by the Numbers, white men like me make up two-thirds of U.S. architects in 2022. Black women are one of the least represented demographics in the architect industry at less than 1 percent. To increase diversity along the licensure path NCARB continuously evaluates its programs and services to remove barriers to licensure for underrepresented groups and advocate for multiple paths to licensure.
This has involved expanding the methods for fulfilling the Architectural Experience Program® (AXP®) requirement to support candidates needing to delay their progress. The Integrated Path to Architectural License (IPAL) initiative, launched in 2015, allows students to complete the experience and examination components of the architecture licensure process while earning a degree. 31 NAAB-accredited programs at 27 colleges participate in IPAL, including two Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs).
NCARB has also been pursuing multiple pathways for post-licensure certification by including an eligibility path for the NCARB Certificate—which provides mobility across state boundaries via reciprocal licensure—for those licensees who do not hold a degree from an academic program accredited by the NAAB. Through the NCARB Certificate, I have been licensed in nine other states in addition to my home state of California.
To support our efforts to create additional pathways, NCARB has publicly called for a feasibility study for a four-year accredited degree option to assess whether NAAB core requirements could be delivered within a four-year time frame. We have also launched a new initiative called “Pathways to Practice” to more formally recognize the value of two-year associate degrees, as well as non-degree education, provided through community colleges.
Continuing our work to support additional pathways and increase access along the licensure path will require cooperation from our many volunteers and partnership with the 55 jurisdictional licensing boards who make up the membership of NCARB. To make meaningful changes toward truly equitable licensure pathways, we need support from elected legislators and appointed jurisdictional board members. There are currently 48 jurisdictions who are able to grant reciprocal licenses to candidates without a degree from an accredited program, and 17 who will do so for initial licensure. Our eventual goal is to have all 55 jurisdictions recognize multiple paths toward licensure for both initial and reciprocal registration. To facilitate this NCARB is developing interim guidance to support jurisdictions in the beginning stages of making this change.
Additional pathways for licensure will open opportunities to a more diverse group of people by allowing candidates to choose a path more suited to their needs and ability to best develop their competency to practice. There are many individuals who have tremendous talent to offer the profession, and they should be given the opportunity to create a successful career in architecture in a manner that preserves the rigor necessary to protect the public health, safety, and welfare.
We hope the greater architectural community will work with NCARB to pursue a more accessible licensure path. At NCARB, we believe we can uphold rigorous standards while enacting policies that create an architecture profession that reflects the communities it serves.
Jon Baker is the president of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).