Why Aren’t Architects Licensed Upon Graduation?

By Kevin Fitzgerald, AIA
Director, AIA Center for Emerging Professionals
Article provided by The AIA

When I sat for the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) 10 years ago, five years after graduation, I passed every division except one. I received a score report in the mail with the word FAIL—in all caps—followed by the statement that I was not “minimally competent” on the subject. Ouch! How could that be? Did they see my portfolio? Did they talk with my boss or the firm’s clients? Of course not.

But as a design professional, I felt I was much more than what an exam could reveal. And I wondered why I couldn’t have taken this exam a few years earlier, when the material had been freshly installed in my mind in college.

The hard truth is that I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the exam section. According to the rules, I had to wait six months to take the test again. With focused preparation and diligent practice with the graphic software, I passed that exam section the second time, and was granted my initial license to practice architecture.

This rite of passage is changing, so let’s look at the current process.

Today, as in the past, the heart of the matter is this question: How and when should jurisdictions require individuals to demonstrate minimum competency to practice architecture? Contemporary thinking is leaning towards the conclusion that examination should be better integrated into the education and experience requirements. The leading concept of “licensure upon graduation” posits the idea that prospective architects should not be retested for subject matter already met in a jurisdiction’s education requirements. But what would licensure upon graduation look like?

A way forward

With licensure upon graduation, internship and examination would have to be integral to the academic experience requirement. The current Intern Development Program (IDP) Guidelines allow some flexibility for the academy to include practical work experience in the degree program requirements, but most architecture students are not required to participate in predetermined work settings to graduate. In January at the 2014 Emerging Professionals Summit, leaders discussed the future of architectural education, licensure, career advancement and firm culture; licensure upon graduation rose to the top of the discussion. This falls in line with National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) Licensure Task Force findings to date. Model paths currently under review by NCARB include a seven-year degree with internships integrated into the professional degree, which would stretch past undergraduate programs with an evolved ARE that wouldn’t duplicate testing for subjects like structures or building systems.

There are some programs that currently exist, like the Boston Architectural College and the University of Cincinnati School of Architecture and Interior Design, that alternate studio time with internships that allow firms the opportunity to help interns gain credit. As a result, firms are assisting the schools with practical training for future employees.

The AIA and its components could seize the opportunity to connect the academies with firms and provide additional support to students, recent graduates, and ARE candidates. More collaborative support would lower the average age of individuals at initial licensure and potentially increase the number of women who become registered, as current post-college program requirements seem to take such a dramatic toll on retaining women in the profession. It would also give recent graduates more time to focus on work at their firms, and allow more ambitious young designers to hang their own shingle, offering more opportunities for emerging professionals to take fledgling steps towards entrepreneurial expertise. Most simply, in this scenario continuing education for emerging professionals could quickly move beyond the basic bureaucratic concerns about completing the IDP and getting licensed, and leave more time for architecture.

There are some important questions to address in licensure-upon-graduation models. For one, if this new unified model ever begins to dominate, and it requires students to go to school for a longer period of time (potentially even requiring a graduate-level degree instead of a bachelor’s degree), how many potential architects would be immediately disqualified from ever joining the profession because of the more onerous length of study and the additional money required to purchase it?

While this system may seem unwieldy, it’s important to remember that the profession as a whole is responsible for determining where to set the competency bar. The ARE’s content is rooted in findings from the Practice Analysis survey of the entire profession NCARB performs about every five years. Through a collaborative process among the collateral organizations of architecture and scores of dedicated volunteers, the bar for minimum competency is set. Ultimately, NCARB members—its 54 U.S. jurisdictions—adopt any changes to the internship and examination programs that this process provides. This rigorous process is why changes to licensing requirements tend to lag slightly behind the times.

Working together

Right now, architects are both broadening their practices and specializing. One exam, even at 33.5 hours, cannot cover everything. As architects, let’s not be defined only by our minimum competency, but by our aspirations for the built environment. An architect’s license is granted upon the individual, and a certain amount of personal commitment is required. Schools don’t often take the lead here. It’s up to firms to support a culture of licensure, and, along with the AIA, look for ways to better collaborate with schools of architecture to develop the potential employees they seek.

Current requirements provide the opportunity to become licensed right after graduation. An individual or student pursuing architecture can now sign up for the IDP after receiving a high school diploma and begin tracking credits for any relevant experience. Concurrency allows recent graduates to sit for the ARE while completing the IDP. An ambitious emerging professional could finish the IDP during school, graduate from a NAAB-accredited architecture program, pass all seven exam divisions, and become licensed almost immediately. Possible, yes, but is this realistic for most young adults? In this frenzied scenario, is enough time allotted for students to mature not just as designers, but as people, and build important social relationships?

Today we have one major route through the three E’s of aspiring architects: education, experience, and examination. Licensure upon graduation might be an alternative or its successor, but there could continue to be alternate routes for those who came through other education systems, such as unaccredited community colleges. But all the routes should be clearly marked and easy to compare. We can better communicate those paths to all emerging professionals, advisers, educators, firms, and parents upfront so that they can make better decisions.

Licensure is important for the protection of public health, safety and welfare. It’s also what allows us to legally call ourselves architects, and opens doors to business opportunities that the unlicensed cannot enter. Let’s continue to support a culture of licensure in the profession while collaborating with our academic colleagues, practitioners, and regulators on binding our respective fields together to best serve the next generation of architects.

Comments or questions? Contact the AIA Emerging Professionals team at emergingprofessionals@aia.org.