Landscape Architecture Students and Debt — Is this a realistic picture?

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums GENERAL DISCUSSION Landscape Architecture Students and Debt — Is this a realistic picture?

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    Lucy Wang


    Image from LAM

    Last month, Landscape Architecture Magazine published Value Subtracted, an article that takes a look at the average landscape architecture grad’s staggering debt load and how that stacks up to their pay and monthly expenses.

    I graduated in December 2011 and was extremely lucky to have left school without debt (I went to my state school, qualified for financial aid, and applied for a lot of scholarships). I have friends and family members with school debt and I know that graduating with twenty to thirty thousand dollars in debt is not unheard of.

    But the examples given in this article seem so extreme. Take the diagram above (and an even more extreme one in the article): rent is shown as taking up over 50% of the take home pay. Since they’re not living in NYC or San Francisco, it seems likely that the rent is for a multiple bedroom apartment that is split with other people–IOW they are not footing that $1k+ bill on their own. The example of Polly seems even more skewed when you see that she’s only allocated $272 for “food, healthcare, transportation, entertainment, etc..” Not to say it’s impossible, but it doesn’t make sense if she’s willing to be extremely frugal on one end but spend lavishly on rent. 

    But while the diagrams have likely been edited for dramatic effect, the article does delve into the grim financial reality for many landscape architecture grads and much of America. The average cost of landscape architecture school debt is sometimes equal to or even exceeds the annual pay of an entry level landscape architecture position.

    What do you think about the debt situation? Are you a recent land arch grad in need of financial help? Or are you considering going back to school for landscape architecture but turned off by the idea of debt?

    Tosh K

    I would think this greatly depends on how you structure your loans and how you prioritize your distribution of income.  With IBR and ICR options on federal student loans and even private consolidations you can lower the required loan payments quite a bit (7~10% of income).  Though it would mean a longer term repayment, student loan rates are often much lower than any other kind of loan – even investing a portion of your pay into an IRA or 401k would make more sense than increasing the debt payment (unless the debt is an issue otherwise). 

    The rent in both cases seem very high – even in SF or Brooklyn with roommates $600/mth for a reasonable apt is possible, while lifestyle and convenience can drive up rent costs it’s a silly place to tie continual expenditure when the debt service amount is so high.

    One thing that is overlooked perhaps is the benefits packages from the employer, which can vary greatly.  Full health insurance coverage (often $2~4k+/yr) or matching 401ks (even 3% is an extra $1k+) make a huge difference – my guess is the ‘Polly’ scenario has insurance coverage by the employer.

    Debt can seriously narrow your options upon graduation and is not to be taken lightly (I was told in college the total student loan debt should be below your projected first year salary), but there are options to study LA w/o the debt and that shouldn’t necessarily stop you from pursuing an education in LA. 

    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    I had the same thoughts on this article. Based solely on the numbers presented, the killer element of these budgets is not the student loan payment, but the amount they are all shelling out for rent. There are most certainly less expensive places to live and practice landscape architecture. If I had had 5 or 6-figure student loan debt when I graduated, I’d have only been applying in those lower-cost-of-living cities. 

    The issue of debt is not unique to landscape architecture. The cost to obtain many professional degrees, even engineering, which can typically command higher salaries than LA, can exceed entry level pay. There are certainly ways to obtain a landscape architecture degree without taking on the financial obligations that these examples portray. I don’t doubt that the cost to obtain an education is rising and can create hard choices for some individuals, though I would have liked to see a more balanced approach to the article.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Choice of schools and MLA vs. BLA comes into the cost of school as well. I moved to another state that had a low cost state university, lived and worked there for over a year to become a resident …. even bought my first house there before enrolling. That saved me a ton of money.

    I can’t say that there are no consequences based on where you get your degree. It was not well received by the Ivy League filled LA offices here in Massachusetts when I moved back. However, I found that I did get a good education …. I found that out when I worked in civil engineering offices fixing the grading plans for those very offices.

    You have to balance so many things and roll the dice. Do you really need that big name degree? Do you really need a Master’s? Will the degree that you get prepare you well to do what it is that you want to do. It worked out well for me, but it takes patience and time. I believe that no matter which way you go about it, it will take patience and time. Time is the enemy of debt. My advice is to not get over sold on the importance of the big school name if it is going to burden you with huge debt.

    The other advice is not to get sucked in to a longer program to get a MLA .This is the new business approach for LA departments to make more money – cut accreditation to the BLA and only accredit the MLA to force students to stay longer (and accrue more debt).

    Peter Graves

    In my experience talking with my coworkers and classmates, the depicted total debt load is not far off from the norm. I would say a standard debt amount for just the MLA could be anywhere from 20-40K, and you can almost double that for a BLA. The issue isn’t the cost of tuition, as many grad students are getting a break on tuition, but all of the miscellaneous expenses needed to survive – food, housing, etc – that the scholarships often do not cover. Add in the price of software and computers and the sticker price goes way up,sometimes unexpectedly. 

    Also I agree that the rent amounts shown here are a little ridiculous. $1600 in rent in Denver should get you a really nice I-bedroom loft apartment or something. It shouldn’t be too hard to cut that in half, leaving another $800 a month to work with. 

    Certainly the debt burden does impact how a lot of people navigate the landscape architecture job market as well – especially in a recovering economy, the options aren’t too great for a recent grad. It seems like a profession that has below-average starting salary for a professional or terminal degree-holder.


    After slaving away in studio for 3-5 years on pie-in-the-sky projects in college or graduate school, some students feel a part of the buzz.  Many want to be part of the IT crowd, having it all, being in the center of what’s happening: a walkable neighborhood with access to galleries and theaters and sidewalk cafes, and public transportation.  Nearly a decade ago when I started I lived way out the far western suburbs of Chicago to keep costs down (and they were still high because Chicagoland at large is expensive).  A trip downtown was a special occasion.  A meal at an Applebee’s was a special occasion.  There is nothing wrong with living in an older, somewhat shabby apartment building that is within driving distance to your job even if its not near anything remarkable.  We are a creative profession, so why don’t we do more about finding creative, affordable alternatives to spending our free time so we can live in more affordable rentals while we are paying our dues?


    I could get behind the idea of reducing credit hours in exchange for internship hours (for essentially all professions), but ours seems very applicable.

    As a small business owner I’m more apt to hire an entry level with 2-3 years of part/full time experience over someone with 4-5 years full time schooling upon graduation. 

    This is not to devalue academia, but I believe the higher ed industry and our professional organizations have become bed buddies with a trend toward increasing credit hours with little value added to the potential employer in the end.

    It may be crazy, but I’d love to see more teens go into apprenticeship programs with college playing a support role. Understandably, this cant be possible for every profession–certainly on one end of the spectrum you’d see a whole lot of essentially useless degree programs go away, you’d incentivize students to earn while they learn in a practical environment and colleges could supplement with more theory and research based education.

    But, this is crazy. Lets just add another year and $10 or 15k to our BLA programs and see what happens. Its a racket.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Could not agree more.

    Tonie C.

    This is probably a dead thread, but I wanted to offer a little reality ck in case anyone is still refrencing it.  There is no way you’d find even a room-mate situation for $600 per month in SF unless it’s with a relative or someone who has had rent control for 20 years.  They’d be more likely to pay around 2K to share, 3k+ in a one bedroom. If you can live with a few room-mates you can lower that number a bit, but probably not below 1K.  

    IMHO you need 75K plus to do ok in SF, living with a room-mate.  Ave SF salary for a landscape designer is 62K, and for a landscape architect is 72K. Starting salaries are in the low 50s.  

    I’m not trying to be negative, I just want people to understand what they’re getting into if they move here. Rents are similar in the surrounding areas until you get pretty far from the city, 45min – 1 hour away.    

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