Sound advice for parents of high school students interested in pursuing an education in architecture, one of the many fields of design, or any of the visual arts

If you are at all like the hundreds of parents I have counseled over the past thirty-plus years of my teaching career, the task of how to best help your son or daughter choose the right path toward their goal is a daunting journey over unfamiliar ground. Here you will find the directions for that quest.   

Students, do not get your heart set on one school at the beginning of this quest. I highly recommend a first, second, and up to fifteen choices but do not limit your options at the beginning. The right choice will evolve if you keep your options open. Parents, it is not a privilege for your child to attend a particular school; it is a privilege for the school. A school may be a prestigious nonprofit institution, but it is still just a service provider for which someone has to pay.
My process is laid out in three simple steps with a few added pointers for those of you interested in scholarships.

Step 1: Preparation

Investigating and choosing the right school of architecture, art and design for any concerned parent or should begin by determining the qualifications of the student. This may seem obvious but I am not speaking of grades, SAT scores or AP classes. Naturally, your son or daughter should take the most challenging classes available for their ability level.       

Eighty-five to ninety percent of all college students change their major at least once during their undergraduate years. This situation can be avoided with better preparation during the high school years. Begin early. You should not make the mistake of waiting until senior year of high school. Assuming your child has taken the appropriate courses and prepared a professional looking portfolio (if required for the field or for competitive scholarship consideration and application), I highly recommend an intense personal examination to best determine the type of school most suitable.

Will the student be too distracted by a large state university campus? Will a small private/independent college or university be stimulating enough? Has your son or daughter visited a sibling or friend at college? Has he or she toured your alma mater? Is the student familiar with the actual practice of the proposed profession with personal experience; internship, summer job, a visit during working hours? Many colleges and high schools today have service requirements. How many companies do you know of that have a positive policy of community involvement? This can be as helpful to a college applicant as involvement in athletics or other extra-curricular endeavors.     

I recommend that all students take a challenging or (if possible) an overseas pre-college program between the junior and senior year of high school. Having a dormitory experience before college can help the student make a better choice for their first year roommate. Many schools offer college credit for the program and give the student experiences in several majors with the option to either specialize or try classes in a variety of areas.

Over the past thirty years of counseling students and parents to choose the best school for their child the final deciding factor in their choice is usually one or several of a variety of practical reason. These reasons may be obvious but are too important not to mention; they include money and/or cost, distance, housing, and proximity to a relative or significant other. Each of these deserves a serious review.

Step 2: Tools and Resources; finding all the appropriate options

This next step in preparation for finding the right school should have begun no later than in the spring of the junior year of high school. The first two publications usually concern parents more than the student because the parent is from the beginning thinking more about the after college job experience than the college experience. Once the student has an idea of compensation possibilities in the chosen profession they tend to get more excited.

The DesignIntelligence Compensation, Bonus & Benefits Survey covers wide range of professions; from architecture, and engineering to graphic design.

America’s Best Architecture & Design Schools  is a resource I purchase annually out of my school budget to share with students and their parents. This publication is very helpful in determining the current status of the most challenging programs of architecture and design. The schools and programs listed in this publication should be the starting point for any search. 

In addition to the excellent resources from Design­Intelligence, I also recommend The TGC (The Creative Group) Salary Guide.  The Creative Group is a recruiting firm which publishes the “Paylandia” guide and is directed mainly toward interactive design and marketing talent — People who design ways to sell things. This guide is on the TGC website and offered for no cost.

The next step in the process should be to continue your search via one or more of the next four web sites of professional and certifying organizations for architects, designers and other visual artists. These sites are a great resource for parents to access the web pages of institutions of concern to their child. From these accessible and user-friendly web sites parents may be able to find information of obvious concern like tuition, degree requirements, other costs, dormitory specifics, and so on.

NASAD (National Association of Schools of Art and Design). NASAD is the certifying organization for all Art & Design Colleges (both public and private, university and independent)

AICAD (Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design). This is a very helpful site that lists all member schools by name, city, major, and degree offered for each major. Affiliations include schools in Canada as well as the U.S.

ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture). Member listing of all association members by name.

NAAB (National Architectural Accrediting Board). The NAAB is the sole agency authorized to accredit US professional degree programs in Architecture.  This page posts document link to listings of accredited and associate programs of architecture in and beyond the U.S.

If the teacher of your child does not already do so, I recommend parents give their child an assignment the summer before his or her senior year that will save a lot of time during a very busy year of high school. This is the first assignment I give my seniors on the first day of class. It is a list of 14 questions1 that my students must complete for at least ten colleges they are considering for application. I give them about two weeks to complete the assignment. After the assignment is completed with an up-to-date resume, they must take the twenty page document home and present it to their parents for reference. Parents never have to call me asking when the university of wherever needs a transcript, letter of recommendation, portfolio review, personal interview, or in what form they should apply. How do I contact the college admissions office? Which admissions representative is responsible for this area of the country? Mom and dad will already know.       

Step 3: Examining the options and making the choice

Parent and child have done their homework. All possible information necessary to make a decision is complete and neatly secured in a well organized binder. You have researched all schools with the major most interesting, appropriate and affordable for your family. Now the real legwork begins and the agonizing process of actually making a choice. I have a list of suggestions and instructions.

  • If possible, visit every school where you apply. You and your son or daughter both need to get your own feel of the place. I can tell you a lot, but there is no substitute for your own experience. You might hate the dorms. Your child might love the male/female ratio. You need to take this place for a test drive as it will likely cost as much as a sports car. The admissions representatives who understand how to treat parents and students during a visit are likely a good reflection of the rest of the school and should be considered when making your decision.
  • Visit on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Avoid the temptation of scheduling visits that simply create a long weekend. Also find out when you are close to a grading period so you will see lots of students working in studios. Open houses are great also to give you an idea of the quality of work being done.
  • Apply to at least ten schools. Colleges hate me for this but you need options. You can’t get your son or daughter into a school that hasn’t accepted them and you can’t accept a scholarship that hasn’t been offered. Choose at least two local schools, two dream schools you either think they can’t get into or that are too far away, and never let them choose a school based on where a boyfriend or girlfriend will be. Have a first, second and third choice and never have just one that he or she has to go to. You must have options.
  • If you are tempted by early admissions, make the school prove to you why it is to your financial advantage more than theirs. Remember it is not your privilege to go to that school, it is their privilege to have you attend — unless they give you a scholarship.
  • Schools want you to attend their school, not the other ones. If, after all the acceptance and scholarship letters are in, you have a first choice and you cannot honestly afford to send your kid there, request a meeting with the financial aid office. They will do everything in their power to find a way for your child to attend. But do not try to negotiate by mentioning scholarship and grant offers from other schools, unless they ask.
  • Ask them how many full and part time professors teach in the department that interests you. This will give you a great idea of the commitment the college has to that department. Compare these numbers to other schools of interest in your search.
  • What are the opportunities and/or requirements for co-op or internship? This frequently leads to a great job or graduate school opportunity.
  • Ask them what they are known for and what their strengths and weaknesses are. No school has everything but they all have a reputation for specific areas.
  • What is their AP acceptance policy? AP courses signal to admissions officers that a student has undertaken the most rigorous classes his or her high school has to offer, and earned AP credits can potentially forestall thousands of dollars in college tuition, fees and textbook costs. Each college and university makes its own decisions about awarding credit and placement and will have a written policy spelling out things like the minimum required score to earn credit for a given AP Exam, the amount of credit awarded, and how credits are applied.
  • Ask if you will be too busy with class and studio work to belong to a fraternity, or play varsity sports. There are exceptions to every rule but I firmly believe that any program where you have time to party three nights a week will offer your child little promise after graduation.  
  • Find out the Departmental Outcomes for the relevant department.  I have a friend who teaches engineering at a local university and every department is required to have a realistic list of outcomes for students. The Studio Art & Design classes at our high school have them. What are those for the departments of Architecture, Art and Design?

Greg Stanforth has spent nearly thirty years helping generations of high school students begin careers in art, architecture, and design. As a group his graduating students regularly receive as much as $2 million per year in scholarship offers to top college programs throughout the country. Stanforth has taught on the college level at Rochester Institute of Technology and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He is recognized as one of the 30 Most Admired Educators by DesignIntelligence for 2014.

Stanforth has made a number of resources available at his website