In 1898, there was one university curriculum in Landscape Architecture, at Michigan State University. A second program, at Harvard, was added in 1900. Choices were simple then.

In 1898, there was one university curriculum in Landscape Architecture, at Michigan State University. A second program, at Harvard, was added in 1900. Choices were simple then. Since that time, Landscape Architecture programs at institutions of higher education have spread and are emerging in Africa, many Asian countries, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The evaluation and assessment of these programs is always of interest to potential employers, students, faculty, parents, administrators, and citizens.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Gourman Report evaluated programs in 105 disciplines at 1,273 undergraduate institutions, including programs of Landscape Architecture. Jack Gourman’s methodology was not very transparent. It was evident that factors such as the numbers of undergraduates, the strength of an alumni body, or the size and prestige of research programs were all being taken into account; but were these schools producing quality first professional degree landscape architects? The Gourman Report was not tuned to the needs of programs educating students for a first professional degree – and so the evaluations could not address that issue very well.

The DesignIntelligence rankings are based primarily upon responses from employers, a consumer group very interested in high quality graduates. This approach has some merit – after all, those of us in education are very interested in evaluating the outcomes of our programs. However, in these still early stages of developing rankings it is necessary to apply some caution. For instance, until a stable and regular reporting source is developed, it is inevitable that the results from year to year may be quite unstable. While some instability naturally exists, the schools usually do not evolve or rapidly change as the results might suggest. The results for smaller schools may also tend to be more volatile as their graduates are spread more thinly, so that those from smaller graduating classes will have relatively less influence upon the survey outcomes.

Another factor hard to capture is the variability in the needs and thus values of the responding firms and agencies, and how that reflects on the equally variable strengths and weaknesses of individual schools. For example, in some settings computer-aided-drafting skills will be of paramount importance, whereas in others international experience will be critical. For some firms the goal is to attract a rising star, while others would be better served by a graduate with less design ability but more skill in negotiating the constraints of public service. Meanwhile, some institutions believe their strength lies in providing a broad liberal education to build outstanding citizens, while others focus on developing the ability to comprehend and conduct research as opposed to planning and design.

The variability of programs and needs within Landscape Architecture, and the small number of programs relative to our allied profession, Architecture, does present a challenge for creating a reliable evaluation tool. The Gourman Report gave excellent ratings to many of the accredited Landscape Architecture programs in our great land-grant universities. Any one of the programs from thirty or more top ranked schools could provide an excellent education. The detail distinctions between rankings 1, 2, 3, then, may be less important, because the difference between school number 4 and school number 44 may be small in the context of a student’s professional goals.

Often students are geographically or financially limited in their choices of where they can go to school and they need to know that their nearby school is a reasonable quality choice. As DesignIntelligence refines its ranking system through time it will be important to highlight the wide range of criteria and characteristics that may be a bigger issue in determining program choice.

Dr. Jon Bryan Burley is an associate professor and director of Landscape Architecture, with the Michigan State University School of Planning, Design, and Construction.

Brian Orland is professor and department head for the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn State University.