COVID-19, Relevance|

By Mary Follenweider

Let’s Talk about Student DebtRecently, I was talking to a principal of a major architecture firm about my commitment to develop resources to reduce architecture student loan debt.  He said, the young professionals in his firm do not talk about it.  This view is reiterated in a 2014 feature on “Archinect” in an article titled, “The State of Debt & The Price of Architecture.” It states “For whatever reason, the culture of today’s architecture community in the U. S. often places a taboo over frankly discussing debt.”

So, I thought now is a great time to speak up about the burden of student loan debt, and make sure those who have it, know there may be relief.

  • In the January 26, 2020 Los Angeles Times’ article, “Students Borrowing Less but Owe More,” “New loans are down since peaking in 2012, but debt load keeps rising because repayments are slow….  The growth in U. S. student loan debt, on the other hand, has been entirely predictable for the last 17 years, rising to $1.5 trillion…. (representing 40 million people).  The costs of young Americans saddled with onerous debt burdens are well chronicled:  declining home ownership rates, dwindling small-business creation, delaying marriage and having children.”
  • According to the website org, 40% of student debt is attributed to graduate and professional degrees.
  • In the January 9, 2020 Ventura County Star’s article, “High Student Loan Debt Is Soaring for People over 50,” People ages 50 and older owed 20% – or 289.5 billion – of outstanding student loan debt at the end of 2018.” “These loans are really impacting an individual’s ability to have security in retirement.”
  • Although not impossible, bankruptcy cannot be used to forgive student loans debts, until like medical debt.

I was surprised to learn that my oldest son and his wife, both in their fifties, still owed more than twenty thousand dollars each in student loan debt.  This after obtaining degrees in their twenties, almost thirty years earlier.   I then researched similar impacts on architecture students. Here are some alarming facts:

  • A five-year B-Arch is 20% more expensive than a four-year B.S. or B. A. The additional cost attributed to requiring the right tools and materials to do the coursework.

  • A recent poll done by the American Institute of Architecture Students showed that an architecture student graduates with an average student debt of $40,000 while the average student debt in the U.S. is less than $30,000.

The April 14, 2020 AIA COVID-19 Weekly Update stated: One area we’ll (AIA) be spending time on resources for emerging professionals.  This overview, (Architectural Practice, Pipeline Stimulus Bill Provision) from AIA’s advocacy team discusses student debt relief provisions in the CARES Act, including repayments, how your employer can help.

The federal government response to COVID-19 includes some important provisions for those with student loans—or those who employ those with student loan debt. Here are two policies within the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that are very relevant to the architectural field.  More information on the Department of Education‘s policies in response to the COVID-19 is available at:

Student loan repayment is on hold

  • The Department of Education is putting existing student loan debt on automatic forbearance until September 30, 2020. The borrower does not have to make payments on during this period, with no penalty and no added interest.
  • The forbearance takes place automatically on April 10 but is back dated until March 13. So, if a payment was made between March 13 and April 10, a refund could be sought. Go to Federal Loan Servicing for details:
  • The student loans that qualify for this forbearance are the Federal Family Education Loan Program or the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. Private loans do not qualify.

Employers can help pay back your student loans

  • Employers are usually prohibited from paying their employee’s student loans directly. That restriction has been waived until January 1, 2021.
  • Employers do not have to pay into student loans. But for those who choose to do so, the CARES Act enables employers to contribute to their employee’s student loan repayment on a tax-free basis.
  • Employers can contribute up to $5,250 annually.
  • The amount the employer contributes is deducted from the employee’s salary. It works the same as if the employer pays into an employee’s retirement account—it’s money from the employee’s salary, but it is pre-tax dollars, so it goes farther.

I believe, when the next economic downturn happens, which it will, the profession may again (It has happened in the past.) lose a generation of emerging professionals, because they cannot financially justify their chosen career.  They will take their talents, skills, visions and ideals elsewhere to obtain greater financial security and architecture will be poorer because of this exodus.  We need to acknowledge the burden student loans carry and support our emerging professionals with real action. I have already started conversations at the AIA National and State level regarding architecture student debt reduction opportunities and challenge each of you to begin discussions about the lived experience of debt and to use this unique (virus) time to support each other, particularly our Emerging Professionals.

Mary Follenweider AIA LEED AP

2020 AIA Ventura County Treasurer

AIA CA Advocacy Advsory Committee

2017-2018 AIA CA Vice-President of Government Relations

Mary Follenweider, AIA

Mary Follenweider, AIA

About Mary Follenweider, AIA:

Mary Follenweider AIA LEED AP is a long-time architect advocate committed to professional activism, served as the 2017-18 AIACA Vice-President of Government Relations promoting a more proactive legislative agenda, and Chair of AIA Colorado Government Affairs Committee.  She served as President of AIA Santa Clara Valley and currently serves as AIA Ventura County’s Treasurer.

She was a Senior Architect with the City of San Jose and as Building Official for Boulder, Colorado, initiated some of the nation’s first sustainable building codes.  She holds a Master of Architecture from the University of Colorado and a Bachelor of Science from DePaul University.

AIA California
AIA California
Celebrating over 75 years of service, the AIA California actively promotes the value of design and advocates for the architectural profession. AIA CA is an association of 11,000 dedicated and passionate members who share a commitment to design excellence and livability in California’s natural and built environments.

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