Architecture School and Student Loans

I love architecture and I want everyone who would like to get into the profession to be able. The essential first step in becoming an architect is to get your architecture degree. However, this is becoming more and more of a hurdle for the next generation of architects.

If you are applying to architecture graduate school in the near future check out The Architect's eGuide To Architecture Graduate School Portfolios.

Architecture school is expensive and often requires additional years of study beyond a traditional undergraduate program - the five year B.Arch is a common route.

Make no mistake about it, we are in the middle of a student loan crisis.

This is not going to be a political debate on the state of funding in higher education. Rather, I am going to take a realistic look at how you can complete your architecture degree, regardless of your financial situation. The key to pulling this off is planning. The better your plan, the more likely you are to succeed.

A little background on why I am qualified to write about this subject. I went to architecture school and took out student loans because everyone did. We were told that it was “good debt” and that it was an investment in our future. I have since paid off my student loans and in the process I have become very well read on personal finance. For whatever reason architects and personal finance rarely seem to go hand and hand. Maybe it is a fear that using excel will remove all of our creativity?

In addition to my career coaching I also help others with their personal finances and in my conversations with many young professionals student loans almost always come up.

According to a recent WSJ article:

The average class of 2015 graduate with student-loan debt will have to pay back a little more than $35,000, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors, a group of websites about planning and paying for college.

Just a note to my international readers, I am going to be speaking about the American student loan and college system, however many countries are dealing with the increasing costs of higher education. Also, when I refer to “school” I am talking about university.

This is not a going to be a dissertation on how life isn’t fair and all things education should be forgiven. In fact, quite the opposite. I want to cover three different life stages my readers may be at in the architecture school process. I wish I knew then what I know now, the best I can do is to try to help you avoid making some of the mistakes I did. I want others to begin their architecture careers headed in the right direction.

Situation 1: You are attending architecture school in the near future

Congratulations! This is a big first step and a defining moment in your life. Now for a less exciting question, how are you going to pay for this?


In your final two years of high school you have a part time job: filling out scholarship applications. You need to be filling out 3-5 scholarship applications PER WEEK. Get anything and everything you can get your hands on. You may only get 1% of the scholarships you apply for, but that is 10 if you apply for 1000.

Also you should be focusing on getting your SAT or ACT scores as high as possible as it will increase your chances of getting a scholarship. There are self study online courses, books and one-on-one tutors. It may seem expensive at the time but it will be worth it in the long run.

Work during school?

More on this below, but you need to have a part time job during school and working full time during the summers to build up a pile of cash to pay for as much of the next semester as possible.

Family contributions?

This is great if you have the option, but unfortunately it isn’t financially feasible for many families to make a significant contribution toward funding a college education.


Student loans should be an absolute last resort. If it is unavoidable please only borrow the minimum amount needed.

Usually most of the potential architecture students I speak with are primarily concerned with getting into a certain school. This is a major decision, think carefully WHY you want to go to this school?

I heard in a recent interview with a high school student that said she wanted to go to the school because she said it was the “prettiest” school she had seen. Forget the fact it was $20,000 a year more than her in state school.

The great debate: In State vs. Out of State

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

I don’t mean to be a dream crusher but unless you (through working and scholarships) or your family can afford out of state tuition, you need to go to an in state school. The number one factor affecting the cost of your education is school selection.  

For US architecture schools check the National Architecture Accrediting Board’s website to see what accredited schools are in your state.

Attending an accredited architecture school is very important:

Since most state registration boards in the United States require any applicant for licensure to have graduated from a NAAB-accredited program, obtaining such a degree is an essential aspect of preparing for the professional practice of architecture.

If you are forced to take out loans for whatever reason, I don’t blame you, we can still be friends.

However, I will furnish you with a few rules to follow:

  1. Never, ever take out private student loans. Many have variable interest rates and the repayment terms are much less forgiving than the programs offered by Federal loans. Don’t do it. Also, private loans often require a co-signer. Also if someone asks you to co-sign, run away.  By co-signing you are just as liable as the primary borrower. If they can’t pay, the bank will come for you instead.

  2. Don’t take out any more than you need. Studying abroad in Europe is not a NEED. Spring Break is not a NEED.

  3. Finish. You have to graduate. The only thing worse than student loans with a degree is student loans without a degree. Don’t take a year off. Don’t skip class. Don’t slack off. This will set the tone for the rest of you career. Don’t start off on the wrong foot.

Situation 2: You are currently in architecture school

Stop the bleeding: if you currently are in school and have taken out student loans DO NOT take out any more. Your number one goal for finishing should be to finish your degree without accumulating any MORE debt.

Easier said than done?

Well if you haven’t already you need to get a job... or two. Your goal is to get the highest paying job(s) during the school year. I know, you want to have fun, you still can, find a fun job.

“But I am too busy studying to work!”

Studies show that working part time during college May Help Your GPA. Also, lets not kid ourselves here, most students could barely find the library on campus. Don’t tell me your Friday nights are filled with models and studio time.

Trust me, you will thank me later. Long after the graduation parties are over the loans will still be there.

Situation 3: You have already graduated architecture school with student loans

This is the situation I deal with the most so I will discuss all of the “options” - good or bad.

1. Don’t pay your loans

I say this as a joke but this is actually the “plan” for some graduates. Let me be clear, student loans only go away in two situations: you die or you pay them off. Actually, if you have the previously mentioned private loans even if you die the co-signer might still be on the hook for the balance.

Also, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. If you stick your head in the sand, it will not turn out well.

What is default?

If you don’t make your loan payments, you risk going into default. Defaulting on your loan has serious consequences. Your school, the financial institution that made or owns your loan, your loan guarantor, and the federal government all can take action to recover the money you owe.

The last thing you want is in the first month of your new job is for your employer to get a wage garnishment form in the mail. As much as we try to separate our personal and work lives, you are the same person. If you cannot handle your personal finances how can I depend on you to run a multi million dollar project?

Having control of your finances is key to successfully developing your career. If you walk into an interview and you need the job to pay rent next week you will project desperation as opposed to confidence. This also allows you to be patient and select a job aligned with your life and career goals instead of the first option that comes along.

2. Deferment and Forbearance

What is deferment?

During a deferment, you do not need to make payments.  What’s more, depending on the type of loan you have, the federal government may pay the interest on your loan during a period of deferment.

Depending on the type of loan you have there are different types of deferment programs. Hardship deferral is one of the most common. If you lose your job for example, you can put off making payments. Depending on the type of loan, interest can still be accruing.

Deferment should only be used in emergency situations and is NOT a long term solution.

What is forbearance?

If you can’t make your scheduled loan payments, but don’t qualify for a deferment, your loan servicer may be able to grant you a forbearance. With forbearance, you may be able to stop making payments or reduce your monthly payment for up to 12 months. Interest will continue to accrue on your subsidized and unsubsidized loans (including all PLUS loans).

As with deferment, forbearance is not a long term solution, it should be treated as a last resort.

3. Income Based Repayment (IBR)

This is an option many recent graduates select. The payments are typically capped at 15% of their discretionary problem. This seems like a good option until you run the numbers. Paying a loan over 25 years, basically making interest only payments until they “forgive” the remaining balance at the end.

By the way, depending on the program you will owe income tax on that balance forgiven. If you let your loan balloon to $200,000, over 25 years - which given compound interest is very possible… you could be hit with a $50,000+ tax bill. Ouch. Please don’t pick this option.

For more information on Income Based Repayment visit the FinAid site.

You do not want to be saddled with student loan debt for 25 years. This can affect your ability to buy a house, start a family, etc. Don’t allow student loans to make life decisions for you, which leads to the only option I recommend.

4. Pay them off now

Last but not least, the BEST option. To pull this off effectively need to get on a plan. This is a serious situation and the sooner you deal with it the better the rest of your life is going to be, delaying it only makes things worse. I could explain the best techniques to pay off debt but I will leave that to the the paying off debt expert, Dave Ramsey. I highly recommend his book The Total Money Makeover.

This book goes through step by step how to get on a budget and tackle debt aggressively. This is the first book I recommend to anyone struggling with debt. 

The basic steps of paying off loans are:

  1. Get on an extremely strict budget (no restaurants or bars)

  2. Cut your expenses: pay as little rent as possible, drive a cheap car (or no car at all if possible)

  3. Earn as much additional income above your full time job (freelance, part time weekend jobs, etc.)

  4. Aggressively attack the debt until it is payed off using the snowball method (smallest to largest debt)

When you are first out of school is when it seems most difficult to deal with debt, but things will only get more difficult as you get older. Getting married, buying your first house, buying your first minivan, are all going to be competing for your hard earned income.

If you can get the debt out of the way before many of these major life events it will put you in a strong position to win with money.

I hope this information has been helpful whether you are a prospective student, current student or architecture graduate.

Thanks for reading, see also my posts on:

The Two Page Architecture Portfolio

The Top 5 Architecture Interview Questions

Where To Apply For Architecture Jobs Online

Good luck!

Brandon Hubbard, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C

Have a suggestion for a future blog post? Please let me know in the comments below.

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