Is it worth the debt?

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  • #197982

    Hi everyone,

    I’m hoping some of you out there may be able to give me a bit more clarity about pursuing a MLA I degree. I have my undergraduate BA in Environmental Studies (2015), in which I’m struggled to find an enjoyable full time job that pays more than $12 an hour..

    In my time off I have been really considering going back to school. As i’ve talked with many people and explored my interests in nature and art, Landscape Architecture has presented itself; however, I’m really unsure as to whether it will be the right path for the amount of debt I will likely accumulate and the seemingly limited returns.

    I like dynamic changing environments, with changing projects and goals. I do not enjoy daily monotonous tasks, or dull windowless offices. I’m very affected by my environment and immensely enjoy aesthetic atmospheres; I will admit I’m partially attracted to the field because I would hope that working with designers and planners would mean a beautifully designed office space 😉

    Anyway, I really like the sound of most of the programs out there and think I would have a good shot at some of them, but I am also very apprehensive about the tuition prices of some of them compared to the entry level salary… 100K for a 40K entry salary? What???

    I’m still open to other fields but haven’t really found anything that I feel combines science/nature/art/and society as well as LA. Urban Planning I suppose would be a close second, but I don’t really have any interest in making highways and traffic systems.

    Thoughts or advice?



    Leslie B Wagle

    I thought this had earlier answers but I may have it confused with another post. The question in various forms (whether to change degrees etc.) comes up a lot and you may want to scan earlier history of postings to see more professional answers.

    Basically, I didn’t have to incur debt myself due to being in an earlier era when education wasn’t so expensive. What I can say is that the field is not as recognized or established as a “necessity” in development as we all would like to believe it should be, or may become. Unless you are in a fortunate market and well-established firm, there is real exposure to economic downturns, although yes it can be satisfying when things are good. I know $40-$50k doesn’t sound fabulous for a beginning salary, but you can hardly expect $80-$100k with no license or experience. So the debt could be a drawback unless all roads you look at are equally debt producing.

    Urban Planning demands much less creative graphic design skills and is I think better entrenched in local government organizations. It definitely is not about highways and traffic systems unless you gravitate towards transportation planning. Even then, you would be doing studies and engineers the designing. Most planners work on long-range land use / “area” plans, updates to local ordinances, zoning cases, conditional or special use cases, variances, historic preservation. They also review submissions for building permits and check plans for proper setbacks, watershed compliance and other issues that may need revision. (Fire, public services, police etc. add separate comments before issuance of permits). At least that is my experience.

    As far as office environments, nope if the office can’t afford it or the local government is using older structures there is no guarantee of any aesthetic office space but I’ve never been in a truly dark or depressing one either.

    I hope that helps, sorry for late response.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    My view of the profession is that it is a lot more rewarding if you are not working for someone else and you have to put in your time working for others in order to position yourself to get out on your own.

    It is not a great profession if you want to have a job working for others until you retire expecting promotions and increasing pay year after year. It is much more rewarding if you can get out on your own which might not be for everyone.

    One primary designer can do a heck of a lot of projects if there is production and management staff to take it to completion. That means there is not a lot of need to elevate production staff into designers.

    This is why some salary numbers are low. Interns that are well trained in school are used for production and need to do their internships to get licensed – that leads to low pay and a steady stream of replacements if someone finds employees leaving after 2 years because of pay.

    The good news is that there is not a lot of difficulty or overhead in setting up an office of your own if you can position yourself to get work. If you get a steady stream of work you can make a very decent living with or without employees. The hard part is getting into the position where people will come to you to have you do projects. It is a business where referral from others is what gets you work. Advertisement and pounding the pavement does not seem to be a good way.

    You really need to constantly study how business is being done and figure out how to make others want to have YOU do their projects. Most people think it is by being the best designer, but there are tons and tons of good designers. The thing that will separate you is how you work with the other people who are already involved in projects so that they will prefer to work with you over the next good designer.


    I have to agree with most of what Leslie and Andrew have stated above.

    I earned my B.S.L.A. degree @ Texas A&M and went thru on the G.I. Bill (after serving 4 yr. in the U.S. Navy). Well, all of my expenses weren’t paid…but, I managed to get thru (with my ex-wife’s assistance as she worked locally full time – minimum wage)…I graduated with zero debt.

    If you’re going to pursue an MLA…I would recommend researching various MLA programs (search for the best value…in a location where living expenses are reasonable too). If you can get a partial Grant or a College Student Loan, it could be worth the debt. Be sure to research “Landscape Architecture” and the types of courses you will be expected to take. Having an artistic background will help. And, realize you will need to learn several computer software programs. Learning all you need to know in a 2 yr. MLA program would be tough…a 3 yr. program is more realistic for your situation. I would recommend trying to work in Landscape Architecture firms’ offices in the Summer…at least try to get paid $12 to $15…it would be GREAT experience for you…and sometimes, doing this will open the door for a “possible” entry level job after your earn your MLA.

    Andrew is absolutely right about working for yourself. However, designing for an established mid-size or large Landscape Architecture Firm would be a good opportunity to surround yourself with experienced and talented Landscape Architects. Work for a good LA firm for 6 to 8 yrs…be a sponge and learn everything you can from everyone around you. Be sure to begin to build a “professional design portfolio”…as that Portfolio will be very helpful to your LA career as you move forward (sketches, plans, color renderings, photos of final projects you helped design). You’ll know WHEN the time is right to go out on your own. Remember though, It normally takes (2) yrs. to get a start-up business of any kind up and running (regardless of your experience level, talents and amt. of start-up funds). I had (15) yrs. exp. when I went on my own…took me those 2 yrs. to get my own LA firm up and running…I was married during those 2 yrs., so, we had my wife’s income and I took on every little design job I could get my hands on (when not designing, I was marketing all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area for more work).

    But, going out on my own as a (1) person LA firm was the best thing I ever did for my LA career. I have worked out of my home design studio since 1991. As you get BUSY…you can always “consider” expanding and adding some younger LAs; creating a small design office & allow it to grow. I have several LA friends who have very successful LA firms…they expanded and have 3 to 12 LAs on their staffs. Working for other LAs doesn’t pay very well, as Leslie mentioned….but, after you gain enough experience to go out on your own…you should see your income increase substantially. It worked for me. Learn business and marketing along the way…you’ll need both.

    Like Andrew said, Landscape Architecture is a GREAT profession. A lot of long hours though and much to learn. When you DO start looking for an entry level LA position…do a LOT of research on the city/location; Because, every city has different costs of living. Some States have State income taxes too. Don’t be afraid to re-locate for the LA job you want. And always remember, your employer will be watching you very closely during your first 6 months to a year; so, being on time and doing all that is asked of you (and more) will be a big plus for you.

    If you do decide to go for your MLA and get into the LA profession…be sure to look down the road. Take control of your “career path”. Of course, you’ll probably have a certain amt. of student loan to pay each month, but, don’t forget to invest some of your income every month too.

    GOOD LUCK to you, whatever you decide!

    Best Regards,

    J. Robert (Bob) Wainner


    Landscape Architects are one of the lowest paid licensed professionals in a group of relative trades like architecture and engineering. A typical Bachelor’s degree for LA is a 5 year program and is very intensive with many hours spent on studio projects as well as the run-of-the-mill AS, history, etc courses. After graduating with a BLA or MLA you will need to work for two years in some states (CT) or three years in others (NY) as an intern before you can acquire your license. During your internship, you will need to take and pass all four LARE exams if you wish to be licensed at the end of your internship… these are expensive and time consuming. If you are looking at LA as a career change to make more money you may be very disappointed in the results and the amount of time required for the investment. I am three years out from receiving my BLA and half way through the exams (don’t count on getting the job you want as soon as you graduate; this takes time) and I owe as much for my student loans now as I did when I graduated. I also love nature but find that our business is more driven by “Human safety, health, and welfare” then it is by plants and animals, ecology, etc (although counter intuitive, human HSW is not necessarily informed by nature). I would think long and hard about your career change!

    Bridger DeMars

    If I were to do it over I would probably go with building architecture. If you are competent there will be a job waiting for you nearly anywhere you want to live with at least marginally better salaries. The design and process is similar and certainly applies to science/nature/art/and society. All my competent architect classmates are employed in their chosen city or state while a few of my LA classmates are still living the Home Depot life (possibly because they are unwilling to move or get their hands dirty with design build).


    It’s been a while since you posted this question, and by now you’ve probably made your decision. I hope you chose not to pursue an MLA simply because 100k student loan debt for a low paying profession is ridiculous. A degree is also not a guarantee that you will get a LA job too… for that you need a good portfolio, and a good portfolio has no relation to how much money you paid for school. I received a BLA in 08 with a little under 30k in student loans, that’s a more manageable number with an LA salary. 100k… too risky… Good luck.

    • This reply was modified 5 years, 5 months ago by Woodman336.
    Reif Larsen

    If you go to a state university, you’ll have less debt and more access to state scholarships/grants. There are a lot of good state MLA programs out there. I’m from MA, and UMass has a great program (did my undergrad there) – $30k in debt at graduation for 3 years, which is about what you’d get for a Master’s there too. They’re really good about on campus employment for MLAs so maybe even less. PA also has a good program, and some of the SUNY schools too. I know CA also has great programs. Where are you located?

    If you’ve done your research and really feel like landscape architecture is worth your time, forget about the money. Compared to fields like engineering, it’s a drawback. Truly. Architects are in the same boat, by the way. But you won’t be poor, and you will enjoy your work.

    If you want to work in an ecological design firm, those opportunities exist – and tend to end up in the hands of MLA students with BAs in Environmental Studies who do ecological design research with their professors. Some MLA programs are better for different aspects of the profession. I think Cornell has a very ecology focused program, as does UC Berkley and maybe SUNY.

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