Ever since the Student Loan Relief program was passed last week, there have been a lot of conversations around whether or not this is harmful or helpful to the US.
Since 1985, college tuition has risen by roughly 500%, according to this data. Although many colleges offer work-study programs and grants to support low-income students, statistics show that there’s clearly an upwards trend when it comes to the cost of college.
For this post, I’m not going to get into the reasons “why” this is happening, but I do want to share my personal experience as somebody who has recently graduated with a significant amount of student loan debt in the United States.
There have been a lot of conversations around this topic recently, and here’s what I’ve noticed.
The strongest negative opinions about the Student Loan Relief program are from those who:
Don’t qualify for the program because their income is too high.
Have already paid off their student loans, and therefore do not qualify.
I’m interested in facilitating discussions around the topic of student loan relief, so I want to contribute my viewpoint as a recent graduate from architecture school.
Before we jump in, let me address my bias.
My Bias: I graduated from a 5-year Architecture program in 2021, and I have student loan debt outstanding. I received a Pell Grant in my final year of college, and I qualify for the maximum amount offered by the Debt Relief Program. I started paying back the minimum amount of my student loans while I was in architecture school. I am not yet a licensed architect.
So what does the student loan debt relief plan mean for me? Here’s my perspective as a recent college graduate.
The Cost of Architecture School
My pathway to becoming an architect has been a long, winding road. As a first-generation college student, my higher education journey has been spread across 10 years. In 2021, I graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture degree — a 5-year, “professional” degree. Because of my work-school balance over the years, the total cost of my college education has been an elusive figure.
However, I can tell you that at this exact moment in time, I have over $50,000 of federal student loan debt.
Here’s a screenshot of my account through EdFinancial — my “official servicer of financial student aid”.
Despite graduating “Magna cum Laude” with a 3.7 GPA, earning over 8 scholarships, and receiving a Federal Pell Grant, I have student loan debt.
Unfortunately, that $50,000 is not even the bulk of my total debt to pay for school. I have credit card debt and private student loan debt as well — but I’m going to leave those topics out of this post.
I’m sharing this figure with you not because I’m looking for sympathy, or seeking any form of a handout to “make this go away”.
I own my debt.
What I want to do is give you a realistic perspective from somebody who “owes student loans”, and who is eligible to receive the current maximum amount of student loan debt relief. It’s important to see real numbers when talking about the federal student loan crisis.
I’ve always been open about my student loan debt because I believe we need to change the conversation about college education and the national student loan debt crisis.
Let’s look at the facts.
The cost of college education is higher than it has ever been in history and as a result, the total federal student loan debt amount echoes that total.
Adding to this — let’s take a look at average salaries based on degrees earned.
A career in architecture falls right in the center of the list. Based on this, it is implied that our profession falls within the median student loan debt figures.
Over the last week, I’ve witnessed a lot of stigma about taking out student loans. I’ve read comments like:
“Student loans are bad, and they will haunt you for the rest of your life…”
“If you need to take out loans, don’t go to college…”
“You don’t need a degree to have a career…”
“Don’t select a major that won’t earn a high salary”
“Stop relying on the government to pay for your poor choices.”
The list could go on… but I’ll reserve some of the harsher comments.
Hopefully, you get the point.
To be honest, I’ve shared some of those opinions at one point or another in my 10-year journey to earn my Bachelor degree. In fact, one of the main reasons I waited 5 years after graduating high school to go for my Bachelor degree was a money-driven decision.
I knew that I was going to have to pay for my education myself.
Now, let’s cover the legal constraints for candidates who are planning to become licensed architects.
Legal Requirements for Becoming an Architect
“Acquiring a professional degree in architecture is the most conventional path to becoming a licensed architect.”
Legally in the US, you cannot call yourself an architect until you have obtained a license to practice architecture. Prior to becoming a licensed architect, candidates are considered “Designers”, or “Intern Architects”. Theoretically, candidates can remain an “Intern Architect” for their entire career if they never actually acquire a license to practice architecture.
To become an licensed architect in the United States, there are a few pathways to take. The most common pathway requires candidates to earn either a Bachelor of Architecture degree (5-years of university education), or a Master of Architecture degree (5 to 7 years of university education).
Following that, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards also requires licensure candidates to acquire 3,740 hours of work experience, and sit for 6 licensure exams.
If you’re curious to learn more about the architecture licensure process, here’s a breakdown of that in another post I wrote.
In some states, you can forgo the university degree path via an “Education Alternate” pathway offered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), which requires 7,480 hours under a licensed architect — but that requires two things:
- Connections: You’ll need to know a licensed architect who is willing to hire you without a college degree
- Time: At the very least, you’ll need 4 years of relevant working experience (assuming a work schedule of 40-hours per week)
So yes, you can become a licensed architect without attending architecture school.
But to be honest, I’ve never actually met anybody who has completed the “Education Alternate” pathway… likely because of all the extra hoops that NCARB requires you to jump through.
That being said, if you are someone who has completed the Alternate pathway and you’re reading this… reach out to me. I’d love to connect and learn more about your experience.
In the end, the most straightforward path to licensure is for candidates to enroll in a 5-year, Bachelor of Architecture program — which is what I chose to do in 2016.
My Pathway: From Vocational School to University
I’ve written about my pathway to architecture before and I shared my experience in a podcast back in 2020. If you’re curious about my in-depth experience, be sure to check out this video.
I’ve witnessed many corners of formal and informal education in my industry — from attending vocational school, working a construction job, attending community college, and earning a professional degree from a university.
I’m a first-generation college student. By definition, that means that my parents did not earn a 4-year Bachelor’s degree from a university. While my family was emotionally supportive throughout my time in architecture school, I did not have a financial safety net to fall back on to pay for my education.
But it was worth the risk.
Here’s a summary of my pathway to becoming an architect:
➤ 2008 — Began Vocational CAD Program in High School
My pathway to architecture started when I was in high school, when I attended 3 years of vocational education to learned how to use CAD programs.
➤ 2011 — Started Associate Degree at Community College
After graduating high school, I enrolled in community college to earn an associate degree. I worked summer jobs in the construction business, and started saving my money.
➤ 2012 — Started job at engineering firm while continuing community college courses
For 2 years, I worked part-time while attending my community college classes at night.
➤ 2014 — Graduated with my Associate Degree
I switched to working full-time at the Engineering firm I was at, and started saving my money. I opened a 401k, a Roth IRA, and a savings account to start building a nest egg to pay for my college education.
💡 2015 — Life Epiphany: Go All-in for Architecture
After going back-and-forth on how exactly I should pursue my future in architecture, I finally decided that the only way forward was to “go all in”. I knew that architecture school was going to be expensive, and I was going to go into debt to pay for it.
➤ 2016 — Began Bachelor of Architecture Degree
I had saved up over $10,000 before I started school at the University of Houston, College of Architecture and Design. I applied for, and received a scholarship that allowed me to have my out-of-state tuition waived for my first year of college. We moved to Texas permanently in 2016, so I have been able to receive in-state tuition for every year following my first year.
Within my first semester of architecture school, I had already gone through my entire savings to pay for materials, living costs, gas, etc. This is when I realized that architecture school was going to be more expensive than I imagined…
➤ 2017 — Worked Part-time as a Materials Research Assistant
As my first year in architecture school came to a close, I started applying for scholarships to help fund my education moving forward. I was awarded two research scholarships in the summer of 2017 — which helped financially, but ultimately paved a new pathway for my career in architecture.
I became really passionate about research, and I made a lot of important connections with the people that I met along the way.
➤ 2018 — Started “Rascoh Studio” website
With my new-found passion for learning and teaching design (I was finally studying a subject that I truly loved), I wanted to create a platform to share the expertise I had acquired over the years — prior to architecture school.
➤ 2019 — Teaching Assistant for Architectural Programming Course
I had a wonderful opportunity to be a teaching assistant, and started building my network even further. I found a greater purpose for Rascoh Studio, and started creating more tutorials and content for students and professionals in architecture.
➤ 2020 — 2 Part-time jobs: Teaching Assistant and Materials Research Assistant
This was without a doubt, the hardest year of my life. Not only did the pandemic change the entire trajectory of my career, but I was facing a personal crisis in my life that ultimately changed who I am as a person. Still, I continued to work part-time, virtually as a teaching assistant, and a research assistant — all while continuing to excel in architecture school and create content for Rascoh Studio on the side.
In the background, my student loan debts were still racking up. I had acquired so much debt at that point that I was barely making enough money just to cover the interest rates that my loans were accruing.
I had to max out the borrowing amount of my federal student loans, as well as open a private student loan.
➤ 2021 — Graduated with Bachelor of Architecture, Magna cum Laude (3.7 GPA)
At this point, quitting wasn’t an option. I was definitely “burned out”, and 2020 had taken its toll. But I continued to give everything I had to my education in architecture.
The biggest financial relief I received that year was the Federal Pell Grant, which paid for my entire final year of architecture school. I was able to worry less about my finances and focus more on my school work again. After all, this was the year where students typically start planning their transition out of education and into the workforce.
I was completely elated when I realized that my hard work would finally pay off. I started my professional career in architecture only 1 month after I graduated working for my dream architecture firm. I work with some of the most creative and supportive people I’ve ever met who I know will help guide me to becoming a great architect.
Although I’m extremely proud of everything that I’ve accomplished — from my relentless work-ethic, to finding creative ways to help pay for my education at one of the most affordable architecture schools in the US, I still graduated with over $50,000 of federal student loan debt.
Key Stats: Paying for Architecture School
I have worked at least part-time for 9 out of the 10 years that I’ve been in college.
I worked full-time for 3 years, which paid for my associate degree.
I saved up $10,000 before attending architecture school.
I earned over 8 scholarships in architecture school, totaling to around $15,000 in awards.
I worked part-time for 4 of the 5 years I was in architecture school, and I started a “side hustle” in photography, earning enough money to pay for my camera equipment.
I owe the government $50,000 in federal student loan debt
I’m sharing my personal experience to paint a picture of what it actually takes for somebody to “put themselves through architecture school” in today’s economy.
For those who have to work to make ends meet and who don’t treat college like an all-expenses-paid vacation, graduating with a professional architecture degree is no easy feat.
With that being said, the Student Loan Relief program couldn’t have come at a better time for me — and I will not take it for granted.
What does the Student Loan Relief Program Mean to Me?
I was skeptical about the prospect of receiving student loan debt relief — and to be honest, a part of me still feels skeptical. But when it does go through, the student loan relief program will mean 3 things for me:
1.) The education that my future children receive will be more obtainable.
As optimistic as I try to be, I don’t see the cost of education going down in the near future. For now, I’m planning for a future in which the cost of college education is going to remain the same (or higher) than it is now.
I believe in the importance of higher education, and I want to give my future children the opportunity to learn like I did — but without having to go into debt.
Whatever ”student debt” figures look like 20 years from now, one of my life goals is to invest in my future children’s education.
If they choose to take a different path, that’s completely up to them. My path is my own, and theirs will be their own.
But the sooner I can pay off my debts, the sooner I can start investing in their future.
2.) I’ll get to start investing into my small business: Rascoh Studio LLC
When I started writing on this website in my second year of architecture school back in 2017, I had a vision to create a virtual platform where I could share some of the experience I acquired over the years in my unconventional pathway to architecture.
I used to tutor students in my community college in AutoCAD, and I continued that passion as a Teaching Assistant for 2 years while I was in architecture school. I love teaching.
Any form of debt relief will allow me to focus more on investing in my business — so the student loan debt relief will certainly help with that. Not only do I want to grow my business, but I want to keep sharing my experience with the hope that it could change somebody’s future for the better.
3.) I’ll get some breathing room for making choices on continuing my professional education
The cost of learning isn’t cheap — whether you’re in school, or working in your profession.
Many of the careers mentioned on that chart require “continuing education” courses, certifications, or other forms of professional development in order to advance to higher-tier salaries.
Even for those who choose not to pursue college as a career pathway, it’s important to acquire a set of skills that can evolve over time.
Obtaining licensure for architecture is not free. Take a look at the price breakdown on NCARB’s website, here.
Not only are licensure candidates expected to pay thousands of dollars for testing, but licensed architects must also pay annual fees to maintain their licensure.
Luckily, many large firms can help pay those costs — but small businesses and sole-proprietors will need to come up with the funding themselves.
Further Opinions on Choosing Higher Education
Frankly, I don’t really care if you have a degree from an ivy-league school. While many of the ivy-league schools in the US have impressive architecture programs, what’s important to me is what you make of your education.
I’ve watched people graduate from top-tier programs who end up working in unrelated fields, with massive amounts of debt and no plan to pay it off.
And I’ve also seen the flip side — students who have no financial safety net to fall back on, so they make the most of their time in school.
I own my debt.
$10,000 of debt relief… even $20,000 of relief only just begins to scratch the surface for most people who are part of the student loan crisis.
Is student loan debt cancellation is something that we should rely on in the future as “a way out”? No.
Students who are planning to attend college should have a realistic understanding of what their program requires, versus what the prospects of a career in that profession will yield. I don’t believe that the “solution” is to simply forgive student loan debt. However, that’s difficult to determine for many professions.
From a big-picture point of view, I do believe that the student loan relief program will help to make education more obtainable for students in America. Education broadens our perspective of the world and opens opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others.
From the top-down, the cost of architectural education is astronomically high — and the “entry” requirements for a career in architecture have continued to rise over the years. If the cost of education falls, more people may have access to learn and obtain new skills in art and technology.
From the bottom up, it’s important that college students understand the cost of their education. Sure, college is a great time for students to expand their social circles, try new things, and discover themselves… But that comes at a huge cost, depending on the university they attend and the classes they enroll in.
It becomes a question of accountability.
Whether students choose to waste that time, or to use that time to create a foundation for their careers — the accountability is on them.
If they’re lucky enough to have their education paid for, the accountability is on their supporters.
If I wanted to make the “best” financial decision, I probably would have continued to save my money before attending architecture school — working in a job that I wasn’t completely passionate about that didn’t pay well.
But I didn’t want to spend my 20s continuing to dream about what my future could be.
I wanted to act on it — no matter the cost.
I’m just lucky to even have the opportunity to choose my career and to be able to define my future.
Too many people in the world don’t even have that opportunity.
The Debt Relief Program is hitting at the “right time and place” for many people, but I can only imagine the frustration for those who don’t qualify.
Those who do qualify should not take this program for granted.
Those who don’t qualify — my hat is off to you for either making a lot of money ($125,000 single-income, or $250,000 household income), or for already paying off your student loan debts.
But for people like me who have made the most of their architecture school experience and are shouldering the debt of their higher education, the Debt Relief Program is just that.
A huge relief.
Jon HenningHi, I'm Jon. I write about emerging technology in architecture, engineering and design, and I want to help you push boundaries with the latest tech trends in the AEC industry.
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