Three responses to NCARB’s licensure op-ed challenge ideas related to equality and education

Weighing In

Three responses to NCARB’s licensure op-ed challenge ideas related to equality and education

NCARB hopes to extend licensure to pathways beyond the need for architectural education. (Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels)

On November 30, 2023, AN published an op-ed by NCARB president Jon Baker about his personal experience and NCARB’s statement endorsing multiple pathways to licensure. AN received the following responses to Baker’s text and is publishing them here to encourage further conversation about how to improve the profession of architecture.

Will NCARB Destroy the Architectural Profession?

Baker hopes to make attending an architecture school optional for people wanting to pursue architectural licensure in every state, as it is in 17 states in the U.S. now. NCARB frames this as an equity issue, although most of the people who have benefited from this in the states where it remains legal have been white males, including Baker himself. This is not about equity, but about economics. It would ensure that the architectural profession has a highly dependent and lowly paid labor pool from which it can extract as much value as possible at the least cost.

NCARB might not intend such an outcome, but it remains the inevitable effect of what that organization plans to do. Imagine that you are a high-school graduate who wants to be an architect, although for some reason—personal, financial, geographical—you cannot attend an architecture school. Under NCARB’s proposal, you would have to compete against other candidates with some level of architectural education for a position in an architectural firm or in a company in which you can work under the direct supervision of an architect. Assuming you can land such a job in the face of such competition, it would likely be poorly paid because of your lack of skills, and you would have to work there for many years to compensate for the extra experience that you need before you can take the architectural registration exam (ARE).

NCARB’s website claims that a relatively few number of people will likely pursue this alternative path to licensure, an acknowledgement of the difficulty of such a route. But NCARB assumes that everything else about the current system of architectural education would remain the same, which is unlikely. A national effort to make higher education optional for architects, for example, would give university leadership an excuse to no longer support architectural education if no longer needed for licensure. Because of its studio-based curriculum and relatively small student-to-teacher ratio, architectural education does not generate as many tuition dollars as some other fields, and in times of economic stress, optional degree programs that do not produce a lot of extra revenue, become the first to go.

NCARB’s efforts also undercut the work of many in the architectural profession and professoriate to demonstrate the value of our knowledge base and to grow that knowledge through research. Instead, NCARB’s proposal sends the message that aspiring architects do not need formal education and that they can learn all that they need on the job – if they can get one – and pass an exam. This is free-market fervor at its finest: don’t trust educators to educate architects; leave it up to the marketplace. And once the neo-liberals and libertarians see blood in the water, they will undoubtedly strike again: if we don’t need architecture schools, why do we need licensed architects at all?

We have taken that path before, and it did not work out very well. Prior to the founding of the first architecture schools in the U.S. in the mid-19th century, most “architects” had no formal education and they produced buildings that we can now see presented all sorts of hazards to people, including frequent fires, poor ventilation, inadequate sanitation, and exposures to toxic materials. Why go down that path again just so a few, mainly white men can skip the need to go the architecture school?

NCARB has the laudatory goal of making the architectural profession more accessible and equitable, but it is sheer lunacy to use that as a reason eliminate the need for would-be architects to attend architecture school. Instead, NCARB should work with the architecture schools and other professional organizations, like the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the National Architectural Accreditation Boards (NAAB), and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), to find ways to make architectural education more affordable, by reducing the time to degree, for example; more accessible, by offering more online and flexible degree programs; and more equitable, by supporting under-represented students in every way possible. The latter work is underway, and what NCARB has proposed could undermine it all.

Thomas Fisher is a professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota and a former board member of AIA, ACSA, and NAAB.

Every Path to Licensure Is Not the Same

As the organization representing architecture schools in the United States and Canada, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) supports the recognition of multiple paths to licensure, even those that do not require an accredited professional degree. However, we also believe that reducing or eliminating education is a misleading and potentially harmful path for future architects and for the profession as a whole.

NCARB recently announced they are encouraging their member registration boards to recognize “multiple combinations of experience and examination, with or without various iterations of higher education, as sufficient qualifiers.” This announcement may seem on its face as a path to greater inclusion in the profession, but its effects over an extended period will create two classes of architectural professionals and undercut the relevance of the profession to society.

The path to becoming licensed typically begins with higher education, includes 3,740 hours (approximately two years) of experience supervised by a licensed architect, and ends with completion of the ARE.

Currently, NCARB reports 13.3 years as the median number of years it takes to complete this process, measured from when candidates start their first college degree. When tracked from when a candidate begins to log experience or start testing, it takes 7.4 years on average.

A path to licensure that does not include a professional degree will not be shorter. Seventeen of 55 jurisdictions do not require a professional degree for registration, but all of these states require more experience to compensate. Depending on how much higher education a candidate has obtained, the experience requirement can be as short as three years (in Wisconsin, provided you have a four-year preprofessional degree), but as long as thirteen years.

Similarly, to qualify for an NCARB Certificate, which enables an architect to practice in multiple states, one must complete twice the number of hours required in AXP, have been licensed continuously for three years, and submit a portfolio of work that addresses any deficiencies in education.

Opportunities for earning and advancing in the profession are lower. Beginning salaries in architecture are notoriously low, a condition that might easily complement the common argument for foregoing higher education: that costs for college are so high that the return on investment is not there. However, the evidence still shows that college graduates earn far more than those without a college degree.

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2019 showed college graduates earn over $30,000 more annually than those with high school education. Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce reported in November that by 2031, 72 percent of jobs in the United States will require postsecondary education. The center’s director, Anthony P. Carnevale said, “postsecondary education and training has become the threshold requirement for access to middle-class status and earnings. It is no longer the preferred pathway to middle-class jobs; it is increasingly the only pathway.”

Treating all paths to licensure as the same fails to consider how it enables the creation of two classes of professionals: one with opportunity for faster advancement and higher earning potential and another with trajectories that have a lower potential ceiling to advancement and compensation.

People of all backgrounds deserve the same access to the profession. The push to include paths to licensure that skip college is typically presented as a way to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the profession. This argument has unsaid assumptions and consequences.

To see how this scenario plays out, one can read the story of NCARB’s president, Jon Baker, who does not have a college degree but was able to qualify for licensure in California. Although that pathway is open to all people regardless of race, gender, or country of origin, it does not account for the longstanding history of harm and disenfranchisement that women and people of color still experience today. Opportunities for employment and advancement are not the same for all people. History has verified this time and time again.

By way of Baker, NCARB’s argument starts from a false assumption that all things are equal for all people. If that were true, then their case would be sound. However, that narrative dismisses the decades of discrimination against women in the workplace, race-based job discrimination, and the need for cultural assimilation in order to find success. The solution to a lack of diversity in the licensed architecture population is not removing education. Encouraging people who have been historically excluded from quality education to forego the education that their predecessors worked so hard to obtain is regressive.

Again, we believe there should be multiple paths to licensure, but not all paths are equal. We believe that paths to the profession should be equitable. Everyone, regardless of background or demographic status, should have the opportunity for higher education to prepare them for a full career in architecture. Otherwise, we end up with paths into the profession that might seem the same but have different potential outcomes.

Higher education provides knowledge that is essential to architects’ continued relevance. Architects are more than building technicians. We are recognized as a profession because our knowledge and skills can contribute to society’s greatest challenges, from reducing carbon to improving human health.

Architects draw on a broad knowledge base that spans history, social systems, human behavior, ecology, the arts, and more. The overwhelming majority of firms are not prepared to impart this knowledge to its associates. This is the role of architectural education. Failing to require this dimension to licensing requirements diminishes our value to society and provides opportunity for other fields, such as contractors and engineers, to claim they can do the same work.

In short, if we as a profession want to continue to have control over our scope of practice, we must aspire to more than minimal technical competence. While we affirm that there should be multiple ways to access the profession of architecture, the knowledge that architecture school graduates acquire is not a luxury. It is essential to society and to the continuing relevance of the profession.

Michael J. Monti is executive director of the ACSA.

Mo Zell is president of the ACSA and interim dean of the College of the Arts & Architecture, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Architectural Education Offers an Important Foundation

In 1980, when I applied to architecture schools, there were around 90 programs accredited by NAAB. Most of these were situated at prestigious private or flagship public universities. However, at that time, only three states—Kansas, Maryland, and Indiana—mandated a NAAB degree for initial licensure.

Accreditation was gaining momentum in 1980, with the profession recognizing the need for specialized knowledge acquired through formal education to address the growing complexities of social, environmental, cultural, and technical aspects in the built environment. The accreditation process assessed the content and structure of architectural education, emphasizing excellence in curriculum design and delivery. It set clear learning objectives and outcomes, ensuring students acquired the necessary knowledge and skills to become proficient architects. Standardized curricular requirements were established and enforced to ensure coverage of essential topics and skills in architecture education programs.

Over the next two decades, the number of U.S. licensing jurisdictions requiring NAAB degrees for initial licensure increased from 3 to 31 out of 55. By 2023, this number had risen to 37, with the ultimate goal being universal adoption to create consistent requirements for education, experience, and exams across all licensing jurisdictions.

In response to the shared concern that a NAAB degree should be the minimum education standard for architecture licensure, the number of accredited programs grew to over 175, with 12 more in development. NAAB programs are now present in every state except four.

Most programs established since 1980 focus on providing access to the architecture profession. Massachusetts, for example, which adopted NAAB as the minimum standard in 1982, had two NAAB programs (Harvard and MIT) at the time of my application, and now boasts eight, with a ninth in development. The latest programs include two public offerings (including UMass Amherst, where I serve as the founding chair), two open admissions programs, and one of the country’s pioneering online degrees.

The most recent three programs accredited by NAAB are all public programs—one in Newark, one in Brooklyn, and a groundbreaking one in West Virginia.

Accreditation ensures alignment with the profession’s current needs, preparing students for the challenges they will face in their careers. It also aligns programs with international standards, enhancing the global recognition of degrees and qualifications and facilitating the mobility of students and professionals across borders.

As a leader of a prominent firm in Boston recently emphasized regarding efforts to reduce education requirements in some states: “This would be a significant change, probably not one that would enhance the quality of the profession. I’m all for lowering barriers, but this seems to discard an important foundation.”

Continued collaboration between the academy and the profession is essential to make architectural education more equitable, affordable, and accessible. Please reach out to a NAAB program to see how you can help—there’s one near you.

Stephen Schreiber is the president of NAAB.