Ranking Architecture Schools: Is There a Better Way?

Posted: March 17th, 2009 | Author: James P. Cramer | Filed under: Education | Tags: |

For the past 10 years, DesignIntelligence has published its rankings of schools in architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and industrial/product design.

For the first time this year, DI also determined the top 60 schools based on its decade’s worth of experience using an expanded slate of criteria. This ranking, called The Cramer Report: America’s World-Class Schools of Architecture, uses a multidimensional rankings that are based on five criteria:

1. Current rankings by professional practices based on the question: “From your recruiting experience in the past five years, what schools do you believe are best preparing students for professional practice?” (More than 200 leading firms employing tens of thousands of professionals participated in this year’s research.)

2. Historic 10-year rankings by professional practices, with greater weight place on more recent years’ rankings.

3. Rankings by academic department deans and chairs. (More than 100 academic programs participated in this year’s research.)

4. Overall campus environment and students evaluations. DI staff have visited all accredited campuses, and more than 900 students participated in the evaluations this year.

5. Program accreditation. Accreditation includes 141 programs in the United States. All have been visited by DI staff.

The maximum possible score for 2009 was found to be 485, and the top 60 programs scored within a range of 435 to 477. Four schools tied for first at a 477 level. They are:

  • Columbia University
  • Harvard University
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Yale University

(Read more about our methodology.)

For the upcoming 2010 world-class rankings, we will bring together an expert jury to advise editors on the above criteria and to develop further analysis that objectifies the subjective and subjectifies the objective. We will also be asking for possible new layers of analysis. For instance, should Architect Registration Exam pass rates be a criterion in the Cramer Report rankings? How about graduate or alumni evaluations?

DesignIntelligence is committed to continuous improvements in our rankings. We enjoy dialog on this issue from students, faculty, and administration, so please feel free to comment publically here or to e-mail your comments to our staff.

19 Comments on “Ranking Architecture Schools: Is There a Better Way?”

  1. #1 Lee W. Waldrep said at 6:38 pm on March 25th, 2009:

    Perhaps the question is not “is there a better way” but instead “why rank the architecture programs?”

    Rankings are not what is necessary to assist prospective architecture students. What is needed is unbiased information from programs — details about a program relative to another program, i.e., enrollment totals, faculty, facilities, etc.

    Rankings are only as good as the criteria used are parallel to what prospective students would use. From my experience, very few would use the opinion of design firms.

    My thoughts.

  2. #2 James P. Cramer said at 10:38 am on April 3rd, 2009:

    Why would students not want to know the schools that are most admired by employers? When I was EVP/CEO of the American Institute of Architects I noticed that principals and partners of firms often shared information with one another on the schools they believed were best preparing students for the future of architectural practice. This was common practice and I took note that patterns developed. The Design Futures Council then conducted private research on the subject for several years before there was a strong outcry to make this information transparent. Thus the DesignIntelligence rankings were born.

    In the opinion of educators, students, and practitioners quality education makes a difference. Schools are very different in their value proposition. Some schools lead and others are not admired by the people who employ graduates. I believe the students should have this information.

    James P. Cramer

  3. #3 Jesse Ehrlich said at 8:52 pm on April 6th, 2009:

    We found the D.I. rankings to be very useful. Our son is entering an undergraduate architecture program this fall, and the rankings gave us a easily definable starting point in our search for the right institution. As it turns out, he’ll be attending a school that we might not have considered if we hadn’t become familiar with the well designed D.I. survey and report.

  4. #4 Edward J. Shannon, AIA said at 7:19 am on April 8th, 2009:

    Two thoughts here. While it strokes my ego to know that my alma matter is one of the top ranked. I can only wonder that the larger more established programs are going to fare better, statisically.

    But a better question to ask is whether an architectural education is supposed to prepare a student for professional practice. Is this the role of architecture schools? If so, why have a three year internship? Instead, I would hope an architectual education would prepare one to think like an architect, meaning point the graduate in a direction of life long learning where they can learn to think critically and come up with architectural solutions for the buitl environment.

    This survey asks the wrong questions. It does not measure the quality of an architectural education, but asks seemingly employers which schools give the best bang for their buck.

  5. #5 James P. Cramer said at 8:13 am on April 8th, 2009:

    Edward, you make an interesting argument, yet I do not think the survey asks the wrong questions. To become a licensed architect, the system requires graduation from an accredited school, passing of the ARE practice exam, and three years internship some of which can be taken during the education experience (This is the three leg stool). Almost all the students who are enrolled in the schools tell us they are there to get the professional degree and to work in the future as a licensed architect. It’s above 85% and at some schools above 95%.

  6. #6 Jesse Ehrlich said at 11:56 am on April 8th, 2009:

    I agree that the survey asks exactly the right question. By definition, the assumption is that a professional degree is supposed to prepare a student for professional practice. This is true for medicine, law or architecture.
    An additional assumption is that a student should be well enough versed in the current knowledge base to pass whatever Boards or certifying exams are required for practice.
    Finally, the best programs should inspire students to pursue a commitment to life -long learning in their field.

  7. #7 Kenny Jacobs said at 1:26 pm on April 10th, 2009:

    I think too much emphasis is put on “rankings.” What matters most is the particular student. If large firms are going to limit students based on the name of the school they are only limiting themselves. These rankings also discourage students from entering a particular program simply because of a rating. They shouldn’t, but they do, fear not being able to find employment just because a particular program isn’t in the top 10, 25, 50 or even 100.

    Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, but there needs to be more information available for prospective students. These rankings should not count for more than 10% of their final decision when it comes to choosing a school.

    Just my 2/100 on the issue.

  8. #8 James P. Cramer said at 9:22 am on April 13th, 2009:

    This is why I believe rankings are important: Today’s architecture and design professions are fast-moving, hyper-competitive, and rapidly changing. Talent, motivation, trend shift openness, and leadership skills matter more than ever before. Some schools are forging ahead of the pack with practical, specific, and prophetic view of what’s ahead. Teachers at these schools are full of energy, coaching skills, and are in-touch with their students and with the professional community in the real world. We have found that there is a lot of sharing, of information flow between professional practices about the schools who are best preparing their students for the future. Firms do have preferred recruiting sites. Quality matters. There is a difference in education between great schools, good schools and average schools. Some schools and their professors are not keeping up with the changing design professions. Why shouldn’t students have access to this information? In my opinion the rankings should count for at least 25% of students final decision when it comes to choosing a school.

  9. #9 Scott Ewart said at 7:04 am on May 16th, 2009:

    The DI survey provides a valuable insight into practicing architects’ opinions of different schools. But it would be even better if it let you see what professionals at different size firms, and in different parts of the country thought of the schools. (For instance, if you are set on living at practicing in the Pacific Northwest, you really just care what architects in the Pacific Northwest think about schools, or if you really want to work at a very big firm, you’d want to know which schools those professionals respect the most). I would guess that you guys at DI have the raw data to publish rankings sliced and diced this way. But if only about 200 firms participate in the survey slicing and dicing the rankins by region and firm size might make the resuslts less statistically robust, or even present confidentiality problems.

    Also, I think it would be very useful to look at what alumni are doing 5 or 10 years after graduating. What percentage of a school’s alumns are working at big, international firms? What percentage have started their own firm? What percentage are teaching?

  10. #10 John Quale said at 9:58 pm on June 7th, 2009:

    Speaking as a faculty member at a school that often ranks highly in the D.I. rankings, I want to add some thoughts. I find the new strategy described at the top a bit better than just asking professionals for their opinion, but I still have many concerns about the methodology. I am not an expert on academic ranking systems, but it is clear to me that the D.I. system places far more emphasis on one pool of data (the comments of professionals) than any other commonly accepted ranking strategy - such as that used by U.S. News. (I don’t mean to imply the U.S. News system is perfect - I’m aware of the many controversies surrounding it.)

    I’m concerned about three things in particular:

    1) While the opinion of professionals is important, a survey of architectural educators is at least as important. You could argue we would be biased in favor of our own institution, but the same could be said of professionals (favoring their alma mater) and the newly added survey of current students. Yet architectural educators are far more sophisticated about the nature of architectural education than the average professional or student. We not only understand the subtleties of academia, but regularly read articles about and attend conferences focused on architectural education. We know what is happening at other schools, and are constantly comparing curriculum with others. Ask any random architecture professor and they are far more likely to have an accurate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of other design programs than a randomly selected professional.

    2) It seems obvious that any system emphasizing the comments of practitioners would favor the schools with the largest pool of alumni. Newer or smaller schools struggle for recognition. Some programs have huge numbers of graduates every year, and they are often found near the top of the D.I. rankings. This is not to say they aren’t good schools, but I’m often surprised by the rankings - and the relative strength of the large schools in particular.

    3) The emphasis on professional’s opinions could be particularly harmful for schools that tend to produce a significant percentage of alumni that enter academia or take another non-traditional career path — rather than becoming conventional professionals. The suggestion that ARE success should be used to assess the schools is particularly troubling. The architecture discipline has expanded significantly in the last decade, and so should our definition of ’success.’ The choice to go work for a non-profit organization, or to start a design / build company, or find employment in one of the many parallel or overlapping disciplines (engineering, landscape architecture, planning, real estate development, etc.) should not be seen as lack of success — and certainly not as a measure of any problem with an architectural education. The reality is that putting the three letters “AIA” after your name is no longer the only legitimate measure of professional success in architecture, and any fair ranking system should not emphasize only the schools with a heavy professional orientation.

    One last comment - I don’t get a chance to see the rankings every year, but when I see them, I’m often surprised at the volatility of the placement of the schools. Some schools will be near the top one year and out of the top ten or 15 the next year - even though little has changed at that school during that time. This volatility is highly uncommon in U.S. News rankings of other disciplines. If the D.I. rankings continue to evolve, I would strongly recommend some research into why this happens — and whether the survey respondents are from a large enough pool to be statistically appropriate. It seems possible that there is a higher pool of survey respondents who are alumni of the more successful schools during any given year. In fact, the percentage of survey respondents that graduated from the top ranked schools should be public information if this is going to be the primary method of assessment.

    The rankings are only as good as the methodology — and few academics take the D.I. results too seriously because of these concerns. I appreciate the attempts that are being made to improve the system (as described briefly at the top) but ultimately, I recommend that any student reading this discussion forum ignore the rankings altogether, and instead ask a lot of questions - of friends, of mentors, of current students, and of faculty and administrators before making any admissions decision. You are the best judge of what is right for you — and don’t make any judgements without visiting the school in person. You can learn far more from a personal visit than any web search or ranking can tell you.

  11. #11 Robert Benson said at 10:42 am on June 10th, 2009:

    John Quale is absolutely on the money with his comments. The DI rankings are frought with problems that he has articulated quite fairly and correctly. It is interesting that DI says it has visited all the ranked schools. I was unaware of any such visit at my school. Were faculty and administrators interviewed or was it just students? While I value student opinion very highly, I also know–after 35 years of teaching in higher education–that enrolled students are not always aware of the value of their education and the curricula they are pursuing while they are in school. The extensive preparations required for NAAB and CIDA accreditation visits make such apparently anonymous or unofficial and unannounced visits DI visits seem superficial and at least unscientific. They also ignore the fact that some pre-professional undergraduate programs are extremely strong and not only produce superb candidates for design graduate programs across the country but also provide a solid liberal education that can’t be matched in a B. Arch curriculum. The variables in the composition of individual curricula in the schools needs to be seen as a disciplinary and professional advantage, not as a stumbling block to getting employed. They are certainly a key to true success in all kinds of personal and professional endeavors and they teach civic engagement.

  12. #12 James P. Cramer said at 12:57 pm on June 10th, 2009:

    thank you for these comments. I don’t agree with each of your points. However, I really appreciate these ideas and I especially agree with your point — well made — about the importance of quality pre-professional programs — these are not covered in the DI research yet.

    Regarding the comments by John above I just want to say that this year over 1,800 students, 460 professional practices, and over 100 deans and chairs responded. The results will be published in November.

    You will note that each year I comment on the flaws of ranking systems and the benefits of a meritocracy. Quality of architectural and design education is improving — it can be measured, and it is increasingly in alignment with professional practices. The future of the design professions cannot be taken for granted and the supply chain for talent is in our professional schools. We realize that it is impossible to objectify the subjective in any perfect way. But we think it’s worth doing imperfectly.

  13. #13 Jordan Bissett said at 11:20 am on June 11th, 2009:

    I am joining this conversation as a recent undergraduate on the brink of graduate school. As I have gone through the process of application and selection of graduate programs, I found rankings to be helpful but only to the extent of measuring the “name recognition” of the school. Largely because of the limitations of these rankings (as excellently stated by Mr. Quale above), I did not see these rankings as being able to tell me anything concrete about the quality of education at any of these institutions. Rather, it’s a measure of the brand-power that each school has. I recognize many academics might cringe to hear me describe educational institutions as a business building their brand, but the mere presence of this discussion verifies that to some degree.

    I thoroughly agree with the sentiments stated above that these rankings A) tend to favor larger, older and more established programs; B) have a frustratingly narrow definition and expectation of “success” in terms of architectural graduates; and C) misplace the “experts” of design education as design professionals as opposed to design educators. The academic field is much more qualified and informed to discuss the actual quality of education programs. Once the opinions of design professionals become largely influential to any ranking, then the rankings cease to measure the quality of education and becomes a measure of brand-recognition.

    Finally, it was good to see an educator from my school (Robert Benson) involved in this discussion and I echo his doubt that any one from D.I. has ever visited our school personally.

  14. #14 John Quale said at 3:54 pm on June 14th, 2009:

    Let me start by saying that I appreciate the openness of this discussion thread, and the willingness of D.I. to reveal how they determine the rankings. Each of the constructive suggestions made here and elsewhere have been considered by the authors of the reports — and are even spelled out in some editions of the rankings. The school where I teach typically does well in the rankings, so I don’t have a particular ax to grind here. But I still don’t know any architectural educators that take the D.I. rankings very seriously, so I have two more brief comments to add to my posting above.

    It is useful to see the total number of survey respondents posted in James Cramer’s followup comment above. Statistically, these are an extremely small percentage of the professionals and architecture students in this country. In the small school where I teach, we alone have 300-350 architecture students - fully 1/6 of the 1,800 respondents. Yet my school is not even included in the list of schools with over 10 student respondents in the 2009 edition - its unclear if any responded. Without a better idea of how the survey is distributed, its difficult to assess the validity — I hope serious attempts are made to reach out to as many students at all levels as possible. The respondents from the professional world are all considered leaders in architectural firms, with experience hiring new architecture graduates. Once again, this is but a small subset of the entire profession — and potentially a subset skewed in favor of larger schools (since they are more likely to interview more people from those schools) and well-known names. In addition, to limit the faculty surveys to a dean or a chair at each school is an incredibly small sample for a single school, let alone an entire academic community of architecture professors across the nation. Deans and chair have their finger on the pulse of architectural education, (although many of them don’t teach anymore) but certainly the opinion of the faculty who are at the very core of architectural education ought to also be considered valuable in a survey on the topic.

    Secondly, to reinforce my comment about the need to reach beyond the emphasis on the opinions of leaders of architecture firms, I think it is worth noting that while 100% of professional [design] employees in architecture firms have graduated from an architecture school, a smaller percentage of architecture school graduates end up working for an architecture firm. I think its something like 50% of undergraduates and 80% of graduate students at my school — and I believe these numbers are similar at other schools. Among those that work for an architecture firm for any substantial amount of time, a smaller subset of them become licensed (the 2009 D.I. Report has statistics on this). Most of the others work in related professions (landscape architecture, engineering, graphic design, industrial design, planning, etc), or go in entirely new directions - one of my former students in now a doctor and several are developers or builders. An increasing number of students study architecture with the intention of combining architecture with one of these other fields, and are finding creative ways to make this happen. Firm leaders that are licensed architects are not the only people that benefit from architectural education, and as our society wakes up to the need for thoughtful solutions to our global environmental and social problems from interdisciplinary teams, it seems short sighted to limit the process to such a narrow group. The iterative design process, with an emphasis on synthesizing a range of information — the very strength of design education — is extremely valuable both within and beyond the world of conventional practice. Preparing people to practice architecture will always remain at the core of architectural education — but limiting the definition of ‘practice’ to licensed professionals in conventional firms doesn’t resonate with current trends in the design world. D.I. is very familiar with these trends, so I’m merely suggesting they look at their own research, and recognize the ranking process should be rethought.

  15. #15 Jim Cramer said at 7:34 am on June 15th, 2009:

    Some great stuff here. I think we are in agreement except in degrees and nuances. However, it is sobering to think that an entire profession of architecture (as defined by public licensing law in all 50 U.S. states) is dependent on professional schools — who now have perhaps 40% of their faculty being architects. Problem with licensing? Problem with education? No problem at all?

  16. #16 Kyle McKenna said at 8:17 am on July 11th, 2011:

    * Columbia University
    * Harvard University
    * Virginia Polytechnic Institute
    * Yale University

    Hmm, one of these does not belong!

  17. #17 Matt Arnold said at 5:50 pm on July 18th, 2011:

    Jim, perhaps this is a predictable response from me, but I think that some weight should be given to the licensure rates of the graduates of the various programs.

    This would distinguish, for example, the programs that devote themselves primarily to producing professors from those programs serious about creating architects.

    This information, while perhaps not dispositive, would certainly be valuable to those considering pursuing a course of architectural studies.

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