Examining the Sky-High Cost of Being an Architect

Architecture school only lasts a few years, but its costs last a lifetime.

Jack Balderrama Morley Jack Balderrama Morley

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Last week I was sitting across from a recent architecture college graduate, discussing whether or not he should go to grad school. In between mouthfuls of grilled cheese, my colleague and I grilled the potential applicant on what he hoped to get out of a master’s degree and tried to help him decide which school would be a good fit. It was a nice conversation that skated along the virtues of various academics, pros and cons of small and big schools and whether or not there would be good coffee in Bloomfield Hills. But after I left, I realized that we never brought up the issue that bugs me every month when I get an email from myfedloan.org.

We never talked about money.

Student protest; via NBCNEWS.COM, photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Should you be an architect? It’s a big question. If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re pretty into architecture already, and maybe you’re considering whether or not you want to get a master’s degree in the subject and chase licensure. These are big decisions. Architecture school only lasts a few years, but its costs last a lifetime. A couple of articles on Architizer over the past year have given reasons why you should be an architect, so I won’t worry about covering that, and while I don’t want to convince you that you shouldn’t be an architect, I do want to point out something that may be more important than whether or not you love to draw.

Architecture is very expensive. Architecture education is expensive, with many people spending seven years in school, and that’s before you ever get to the costs of starting your own firm, which are so prohibitively high that most architects never cross that threshold. Furthermore, architecture doesn’t pay particularly well relative to similar professions such as engineering or to other jobs that require extensive graduate education like medicine or law. Many architects spend their careers watching professionals with comparable educations soar to financial heights, while architecture salaries are barely enough to cover student loan payments.

Should you be an architect? Maybe. But you should definitely think carefully about money.

Students graduating and advertising their debt; via FRONTPAGEMAG.COM.

Cost of Education

According to CollegeCalc.org, the average total out-of-state cost for a bachelor’s program in architecture with a four-year degree is $179,376. Master’s degrees add on even more, with a two-year program costing between $27,600 and $72,580, and programs of three or four years can cost up to $145,200 just for tuition. That is to say nothing of living expenses and the price of all those foamcore models.

Let’s compare this to other professionals. Medical school is significantly more expensive, requiring four years of graduate education, which usually costs $200,000 or more, and then there are several years of underpaid residency. Law school is more comparable to architecture, with the average cost of a three-year JD program at a private school being about $120,000. So far architecture looks pretty good by comparison.

Student loan protest; via Democracy Now!


The disparity comes in when you start looking at salary. Doctors, after all those years of training, earn an average of $189,000 per year as base pay, and that’s just for the lowest paid specialties. Dermatologists and specialized surgeons frequently make double that or more. The national median first-year salary for lawyers is $135,000. For architects, the U.S. national median salary is $76,930, and that is including architects at all experience levels. Suddenly, architecture is not looking so good.

True, architects can get licensed without any fancy graduate education, which puts them a step ahead of doctors and lawyers student-debt-wise, but engineers with only bachelor’s degrees have way more earning potential than comparable architects. As a financial investment, an architecture degree doesn’t make a lot of sense.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t be an architect. It can be a wonderful profession for the right person. But a deep pit of student loan debt has a way of sucking the fun out of even the best jobs.

Not every potential architect has to think about this. Many students have a lot of help paying for school, and many established architects went to school when tuitions were much lower. A lot of architects also have a romantic attitude toward their profession and will not condescend to think about money when discussing the wonders of the mother of all arts, that noblest of callings.

But money is real, and it is important. Before you decide to be an architect, it’s something worth paying a lot of attention to.

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Top image via Sorensen Wealth Management

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