“Shamefully Inequitable and Brutally Expensive”: Why Architecture Licensing is Broken

NCARB’s recent report on demonstrates that the path to becoming an architect is desperately in need of reform.

Gavin Moulton Gavin Moulton

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Licensure is the final step in the long road of becoming an architect. Certification by the National Council of Architectural Certification Boards (NCARB) represents an official endorsement of professional capacity and opens up important career opportunities. In this regard, licensure for architects is akin to other fields such as law, medicine and psychology.

However, precarious employment and low pay create a high attrition rate and impact racial and social equity in architecture. A recent NCARB report revealed that just 63 percent of architects stayed on the path to licensure and slightly over half passed the Architect Registration Examination (ARE). Broken down by race, there are significant disparities — 66 percent of White candidates remained on the licensure path compared to 46 percent of Black candidates and 57 percent of Hispanic candidates. NCARB President Alfred Vidaurri Jr., FAIA, NCARB, AICP described the disparity as “unacceptable.” As evidenced by both statistics and anecdotes from those navigating the system, the current path to licensure is shamefully inequitable and brutally expensive.

To achieve licensure, there are five requirements as outlined by the NCARB.

  • Obtaining an architecture degree from a National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB)-accredited program
  • Documented work experience in the field
  • Passing the ARE
  • Fulfilling any additional local requirements
  • Sending your NCARB record to local jurisdiction

Each step comes with its own financial burden. The average cost of an undergraduate architecture degree out of state is almost $180,000, not including an additional $50-100,000 for a Masters degree. The first years out of architecture school are particularly difficult as architects attempt to gain work experience in a notoriously low-paying field and must begin paying student loan debt. Given that experience is a requirement for licensure, employers may feel that by offering work experience to newly graduated students they are giving a favor, rather than a job. 

Test preparation is another expensive hurdle. The Baseline on Belonging study released by the NCARB and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in 2021 revealed that a plurality of test takers spend over $500 on preparation materials for the ARE. In response, NCARB is developing free materials to be released in 2022. The exam itself consists of six sections — practice management, project management, programming and analysis, project planning and design, project development and documentation, and construction and evaluation. Combined, the sitting time for the exam is over 24 hours with a total cost of $1,410. Retakes or an individual portion of the exam costs $235. As the pass rate is 54 percent, retakes are often a necessary step of the process and account for 35 percent of all exam administrations.

Nikki Crane, Assoc. AIA and Designer at Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects, voiced concern on how the cost of exams often falls on individuals and presents an insurmountable barrier to architects without the support of a firm. “These tests are so expensive and if my firm wasn’t helping me pay for them, I couldn’t afford 6 tests on my own, and that’s just the tests, not including preparing to test. I’ve spent (personally) around $1.5k on materials and study programs and I’ve only made it halfway through.” 

For Crane, change in the profession “starts with us.” In order to make an impact, “We should be advocating locally on ways to change these numbers in our cities/states. Start having these conversations in our AIA emerging professional groups. We can collaborate with our emerging and submerging colleagues on if there is a way to help make this path more equitable.”

Organizing is undoubtedly an important step to creating lasting change, but the structural barriers are daunting and require major social and economic shifts. In Baseline on Belonging, a candidate remarked on how, “Losing an architecture job during the 2008 recession prevented [them] from gaining relevant experience in a timely manner.” As architecture is particularly susceptible to boom and bust building cycles, ensuring fairly compensated opportunities to gain work experience during recessions must be considered to combat attrition rates.

The NCARB has pledged to further investigate inequity in the licensure and examination process, with newly inducted NCARB President Vidaurri vowing to make “analyzing, understanding, and addressing these disparities…a key focus.” As part of this effort, the NCARB is inviting architects to share thoughts on the evolving conversation on licensure. Feedback and comments to the NCARB can be submitted here.

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