Job prospects for landscape architecture graduates are excellent. So why aren’t more students enrolling?
By Brian Barth
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In many respects, we’ve entered a golden era of landscape architecture. The profession’s profile appears to be on the rise, as environmental crises become more urgent and unavoidable and landscape architects increasingly take on lead roles in major projects. Interest in stormwater management, habitat restoration, and the public realm has expanded dramatically in recent decades, driving demand for landscape architecture services. The industry took a hit during the Great Recession, but since 2012, the American Society of Landscape Architects’ quarterly survey of firms (which tracks billable hours, inquiries for new work, and hiring trends) has found consistently robust growth.
One would expect new recruits to flock to the profession as a result. But this is not the case.
The number of people working in the field of landscape architecture peaked at around 45,000 in 2006, then nose-dived to about 30,000 in 2013. The postrecession boost in demand for services, though welcome, did not translate into warm bodies at the office. By 2016, the most recent year for which Bureau of Labor Statistics data is available, landscape architecture employment had dropped below 25,000.
Student enrollment in landscape architecture programs has followed a similar trend, says Mark Boyer, FASLA, a former president of the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture who is currently the head of the landscape architecture program at Louisiana State University. “Things started looking bad in 2009, and by 2012, there was no program in the country that wasn’t off by half in their enrollment.” Collection of enrollment numbers at a national level was inconsistent during that period, but ASLA data shows that from 2013 to 2017, enrollment in bachelor of landscape architecture (BLA) programs declined an additional 15 percent. Enrollment of master of landscape architecture (MLA) students remained flat from 2013 to 2017, though the number of domestic MLA students slid by 16 percent, with the balance made up by an influx of international students.
Stephanie Rolley, FASLA, the head of the landscape architecture program at Kansas State University, says the gap between the demand for services and the supply of designers predates the recession. “We knew at least 15 years ago that we were not filling the positions of retiring landscape architects, so we’ve seen it coming. We just don’t have enough people to fill the slots.”
So what is it blocking prospective students from seeing the value of a degree in landscape architecture?
One way to assess the psychology of career choices is simple arithmetic: the cost of a degree divided by the income-earning potential it provides. In other words, the return on investment, or ROI, a person can expect from an education.
While there are many ways to crunch those numbers, and innumerable variables based on personal circumstances, student debt and median income are the most readily available apples-to-apples data for comparing education ROI across professions. According to DesignIntelligence, the average MLA student leaves school with $39,284 in student loan debt. Median pay for landscape architects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is about $65,760 per year, for a 1.67 ratio of income to debt. For architects, the ratio of median income to graduate student debt is slightly better at 1.72; interior designers have it slightly worse at 1.32. I was unable to find student debt data for planners, though employment in the planning field is expected to grow 13 percent by 2026 compared to 2016 levels, about twice the rate of landscape architecture. Architects have the highest average income of the four professions (more than $78,000), but a low projected growth rate of 4 percent.
Those numbers provide little indication that allied professions are the culprit in siphoning off would-be landscape architects. Those fields are also hemorrhaging students: Graduate student enrollment in architecture and planning programs fell by 10 and 11 percent, respectively, from 2013 to 2016.
A more likely culprit is the information technology (IT) industry, in which the median pay is $84,580, and some specialties pay upward of six figures. Unlike law and medicine, which offer high income-earning potential but come with proportionally higher tuition, careers in tech are unlikely to incur greater education costs than the design professions, leading to a high ROI ratio. And for the entrepreneurially minded, the seven-, eight-, nine-, and 10-figure potential of tech executives dwarfs that of design firm owners.
While landscape architecture lost a third of its workforce during the recession, the tech industry barely registered a blip. Since then, tech has continued its march to world domination, or at least domination of the campus career office. A 2018 analysis by CompTIA, a tech industry professional association, found that IT job postings were up 30 percent from the previous year, with astronomical growth in some specialties: in artificial intelligence, 149 percent, and 370 percent for blockchain positions.
For the rare breed who pursues a career in landscape architecture, money is clearly not the driving force. But even students in mission-driven professions can be smart about maximizing their ROI.
On the earnings side of that equation, options are somewhat limited. Starting salaries are typically in the $50,000 range, going up roughly $10,000 every five years before leveling off around $100,000, though high-performing designers at top firms can ultimately earn more. All else being equal, the larger the firm, the more people are paid; for designers with a decade of experience, the median salary at firms with 100 or more employees is about $7,000 higher than at firms with five or fewer employees. Working for state or local government is good for a $5,000 bump in pay after a decade of experience, compared to the median pay at a private firm. Self-employed landscape architects tend to make the most money, with a $10,000 bump over the median salary of hired hands after a decade.
An MLA degree yields a modest pay bump compared to a BLA degree. A survey of 2018 MLA graduates reported nearly identical starting pay as their BLA peers, though in previous years the bump averaged around $6,000. With an average of $15,000 more student debt than BLA students, who incur $24,412 in debt on average, giving them a 2.69 ROI, it seems that MLA graduates recoup the extra investment fairly quickly. But after 10 years of work, the MLA salary premium drops to about $3,000.
For students who already have a BLA, Boyer recommends getting a head start in the workforce rather than pursuing an MLA, except in two instances: for those who ultimately aim to teach landscape architecture or if there is a particular area of expertise one wants to develop through research. “Otherwise, an MLA really isn’t necessary,” he says. “It’s not going to make your income take a big jump. Extra work experience is going to be more valuable for that.”
On the debt side of the equation, students have a bit more latitude to drive up their ROI. One straightforward approach is to choose a school with low tuition in a region with an affordable housing market. Tuition at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, ranked number one among MLA programs by DesignIntelligence, runs $50,120; a one-bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rents for around $2,700 per month. Kansas State University, the number-four ranked graduate school, charges $12,294 for out-of-state students and $6,424 for in-state; a one-bedroom in Manhattan, Kansas, goes for about $400 per month.
Is an Ivy League degree really four times more valuable?
Douglas Smith, ASLA, the president of EDSA, says that at his firm, all else being equal, a degree from a prestigious school has little impact on pay or the likelihood of being hired. “We hire from what you might consider the blue-blood programs, but we also hire plenty of students from traditional programs like Kansas State and Iowa State. Students coming from Harvard have a certain pedigree, but frankly, that doesn’t necessarily mean they stack up against the top students from any other school.”
Mark Boyer, the program head at Louisiana State University, agrees, with one exception: “I think the gravitas of coming from a [prestigious] program is more relevant for students who plan to go into teaching.” He says that in his experience the most desirable employees are those with a balance of practical landscape architecture skills and conceptual design talent. “I’ve heard from many employers who say they’d rather have somebody from an LSU or a K-State than a Harvard,” Boyer says. “Because they know the person is not just someone who’s lost in theory, but got a training that makes them productive.”
He adds that one often-overlooked measure of a degree’s value is the number of alumni it comes with, which is less a factor of a program’s prestige than how long it has existed. “The intangible benefit of a well-established program—with thousands of alumni all over the world who support the program by hiring its students—is off the charts compared to a new program with 20 alumni.”
Rolley, at Kansas State, adds another overlooked tactic to the list: old-fashioned haggling. The silver lining of the supply–demand imbalance in landscape architecture is that prospective employees possess significant bargaining power. Never accept the opening offer, Rolley says. “All of our students at Kansas State are in a position of having multiple job offers.” Smith from EDSA acknowledges that it’s an employee’s market. “The competition for the top students is fierce,” he says.
The value of a landscape architecture degree changes not just based on where you are, but on who you are. ASLA’s annual graduate survey shows that the profession is slowly attracting more students of color and has tilted decidedly female (60 percent of MLA graduates were women in 2018). Data on debt loads, salary, and other measures of value are not broken down by race and ethnicity, but it is possible to discern gender-specific trends. In almost every measure, women get the short end of the stick.
The 2018 survey found that graduating women received fewer job interviews and job offers. When they were offered a job, the pay was lower and the benefits fewer. Women left school with approximately $3,000 more debt than men last year. At the graduate level, women received fewer scholarships, fellowships, assistantships, and work-study offers—though the situation was reversed at the undergraduate level, the only instance in which women fared better than men in survey categories that affect ROI. Previous years’ surveys yield similar conclusions about gender bias; if anything, the situation has become worse.
I was unable to locate gender-specific salary data for the profession as a whole, though I did obtain such data from one of the offices of a large international landscape architecture firm. In 2017, 70 percent of the lower-ranking designers at the office were women, whereas only 30 percent of principals and associates were. The women principals and associates at the firm made approximately 85 percent of the pay earned by their male colleagues—even though all of the higher-ranking women had advanced degrees and fewer than half of the men did.
“When I brought up the pay gap with management, I was told that it’s even worse in other industries, and that in 15 or 20 years, if we wait patiently, the boys club will dissolve and it will be our time,” says the woman who provided the data, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The time is up. This needs to happen now. There are no excuses anymore.”
Kristopher Pritchard, ASLA’s director of accreditation and education, sees other changes on the horizon, albeit less charged ones, that the profession has little choice but to adapt to.
The growth of online education has added a wrinkle to students’ choices, for example, with implications for both tangible and intangible value. Online courses tend to be cheaper per credit hour (though not always); you won’t incur moving costs upon enrolling; the cost of rent is not a factor in school choice; and class time is flexible, making it more feasible to hold a regular job, or raise a family, while earning a degree.
Pritchard says that some landscape architecture programs now offer certain courses in an online format. He’s heard from several schools who are considering a fully online landscape architecture degree program, but only one, the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, has done so to date (bachelor’s and master’s degrees are available). The Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board approved accreditation standards revisions to allow online programs a path into the accrediting process last year, though as of this writing the Academy of Art University has not pursued accreditation, which is required for licensure in some states.
Whether an online degree becomes accredited or not, it’s fair to question its value in a profession rooted in collaborative studio culture. But in Pritchard’s view, educators will have to find a way to make it work. “Online education is growing exponentially, and if we don’t keep up with that, we’re going to be left in the dark,” he says. “I get a lot of calls about online degrees from people interested in studying landscape architecture, but they’re working or have children, or some other reason prevents them from moving to a place with a program. So there seems to be a need out there among people wanting to get a landscape architecture education, but not in the way it’s currently structured.”
Pritchard points to another potential disruption down the road: Landscape architecture could one day be a master’s degree-only profession. “There’s a question floating around about whether that’s where we are headed,” he says, noting that while BLA enrollment has dipped, MLA enrollment has been steady enough to encourage three new programs to open since 2013. But that steadiness rests on the fact that 41 percent of MLA students now come from other countries, mainly from China (see “ICEd Out,” LAM, February). Pritchard worries that trend may not continue indefinitely. “We’re looking at what’s going to happen to those programs if fewer international students enroll, because of visa issues or whether they’ll even be allowed to come because of their nationality…or whether they’ll even want to come here based on some of the politics that are happening right now.”
Would a greater emphasis on high tech help siphon prospective students from the IT orbit? Pritchard thinks it wouldn’t hurt. He occasionally hears from students who complain that their professors seem to be stuck in the Stone Age. But ultimately, the problem lies in where society places value, not in the actual worth of the profession. To avoid being left behind in a fast-paced world, landscape architects have to get better at selling their brand, demonstrating that the future lies not in the next great gadget but in healthy ecosystems, healthy cities, and healthy people.
“I think that our profession has not adequately explained what we do and generated public understanding of how landscape architects’ work impacts quality of life for people,” Rolley says. “It’s something there’s been a lot of talk about, but not enough action.”