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    Credit: William Stewart

I worry about the young men and women enrolling in architecture school. No longer is keeping up grades the most pressing challenge; now it’s the cost of education. I was lucky—I had a scholar­ship to pay tuition, but I still struggled to find ways to earn money to make ends meet. Nevertheless, by comparison to what today’s student is expected to pay, my education was a bargain; and when I received my diplomas, they didn’t come wrapped in the IOUs of crushing student loans.

We’re in danger of making cost an insurmountable barrier to pursuing a college education. Couple that with the challenge of finding employment upon graduation, along with the recent irresponsible articles on architecture as an undesirable degree, and we could be facing a crisis in attracting creative young people to the profession. It’s in this context that the growing phenomenon of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) appears to be a creative response to rising tuition costs. Yet, leaving aside the question of how applicable this flexible, low-cost teaching model is to the discipline of architecture, it appears to have little room for the magic of inspired mentorship and the spirit of the studio culture that makes our profession unique.

I only have to think back to the AIA Convention in Denver when I listened to the eloquent acceptance speech of dean Robert Greenstreet, Intl. Assoc. AIA, of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, this year’s recipient of the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architecture Education. I envied his students. I wanted to be in his class, or be involved in one of his community projects, or even have a beer with him at a local pub. More than even knowledge of his field, the way he lived his values reminded me why I became an architect. It made me think about those professors whose mentoring had such a positive effect on me when I was at the University of Detroit.

We talk a lot about mentoring, as if it were solely a bridge between different generations. Yet, in the end, isn’t the peer-to-peer mentoring of our fellow students what ultimately has the greatest impact? This peer-to-peer interaction and bonding beyond the studio develops the collaboration skillsets that are not taught in classrooms but are necessary to transform independent-thinking students into a community of professionals. How do we make sure succeeding generations continue to have access to this kind of mentoring, which shapes not only careers but lives? This is what’s at risk if we allow a college education to be priced beyond the reach of those who hold the key to our future not only as a profession, but as a nation.

I’m aware that cost is not the only hurdle facing those who pursue a career in architecture. There are the challenges of sitting for the ARE, as well as the rigors of the Intern Development Program, as they all the while try to earn a living. These are issues the AIA is working on with our collateral partners in the academy, NCARB, and state licensing boards. We are making progress here to improve the process—and it’s about time we did.

But the cost of an education that financially burdens young people beyond graduation and far into their careers is a larger issue. It transcends any single discipline. It demands a quality of national leadership that recognizes the risk of failure to act. To address this problem head-on is our responsibility as citizens. If we don’t, then we will not attract the dynamic individuals who will lead the creative, sustainable, and diverse future we aspire to. That’s a cost this nation cannot afford.

Learn more about architecture’s 21st-century challenges at aia.org/repositioning.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President