Challenges for Planning Education

By Frederick Steiner
Dean, School of Architecture
Professor of Community and Regional Planning
University of Texas at Austin

During the past year at least five planning degree programs were targeted for elimination. Other programs face major reorganizations which in some cases will significantly diminish the character of planning education on those campuses and states. One targeted program appears to have been eliminated. That program is the oldest in a rapidly growing state with numerous planning issues. With state budgets evaporating and endowment incomes in decline, there will likely be more. For example, overall state support for my university has dropped from 50 percent to 17 percent in just a decade. If we consider only direct support for academics, that level has declined from 85 to 35 percent during the same period. This past summer I cut 6 percent of my school's budget and I'm lucky because our reductions were not as deep as many others. Public funding has declined so rapidly that state supported universities have become state affiliated institutions or even merely state located schools. Miami University in Ohio proposed charging in-state and out of-state students the same because state support has become so small.

As a member (and current chair) of the Planning Accreditation Board (PAB), and as dean of a multidisciplinary school that includes architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, historic preservation, and architectural history in addition to community and regional planning, my vantage point is unique. As a result, I can offer several observations concerning the challenges that academic planning programs now face as well as the possible responses.

The stand-alone department with solely a master's degree in planning appears to be especially vulnerable. Since the Second World War, the master's degree emerged as the principal degree for professional planners. There is ample evidence to suggest that schools or departments offering only the master's degree will not be able to sustain themselves because they are too small.

One reason for the small size can be linked to the PAB criteria for program accreditation related to faculty and student body size. We expect that a degree program have a minimum of five faculty with a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. These guidelines yield a maximum minimum size of 50 students, although minimum minimums exist in the 20-30 student range.

Such numbers cannot be justified at most public and private universities especially if accompanied by the normal expectations of a complete academic department. Such status implies a "chair" with at least some summer salary and a departmental secretary. Units with such a profile — under 50 students, five faculty including a chair, and a secretary — are ripe for riffing.

One response from within the academy is to create a doctoral program. Often, but not always, such degrees generate greater formula funding per student than master's or bachelor's programs. Doctoral programs can help academic enterprises expand their research portfolios. Increased funded research is essential to the future health and very existence of academic planning programs.

But this combination of doctoral degrees and enhanced funded research can distance the academy from practice. Doctoral level explorations differ from professional training at the master's level. The best sources of research support usually lie outside the city or county planning department, which should come as no big surprise to practitioners. I have found the best topics to attract research support tend to involve environmental issues, transportation, housing, GIS, and economic development. I suspect health-related research could be lucrative too, especially with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leading public health journals inking health issues to suburban sprawl. The sources of such funding include federal and state agencies, (other than planning) city and county departments, foundations, and increasingly non-governmental organizations like land trusts and affordable housing advocacy groups.

Some practitioners express concern that academic planning programs do not focus on comprehensive planning, that we've drifted from the fold. In contrast, I argue we academics have broadened the field. Furthermore, I know many examples of faculty and students being engaged by the local planning departments in comprehensive planning studies. I've been involved in many myself. But, when the planning department calls, seldom does significant funding follow. To some extent, this is fine. State academic institutions are expected to do public service and such projects fulfill that part of our mission. However, out of economic necessity, academics will pursue the money.

Academics can combine forces with practitioners to leverage resources that would be unavailable to either working alone. I've employed this strategy many times during my career. For several years, I spent my summers and one day a week during the school year working at a regional planning agency. With planning director Bill Wagner of the Whitman County Regional Planning Council in eastern Washington, we were able to secure grant funds to help implement a county comprehensive plan and further farmland preservation efforts. These funds would not have been available to either the university or the planning agency working alone and we were able to do creative things. For example, we produced a public television documentary on farmlands preservation that enjoyed wide distribution and made our county commissioners minor media celebrities.

More recently, I worked with former Phoenix assistant planning director Ray Quay on the 130-square-mile northern portion of the city. Ray urged me to prompt my colleagues to "adopt" this largely undeveloped area that encompasses roughly 20 percent of the city and was facing significant development pressure. The concept was to use the area for class projects and as a focus for our research and service activities. Ray and I organized an informal group that we dubbed the North Sonoran Collaborative of academics, city and state officials, and private practitioners from planning, landscape architecture, and architecture firms to meet and discuss planning for the area. We organized charrettes to explore the future scenarios for preservation and development. Ray employed a clever strategy: he used faculty and students to float ideas. When unsuccessful, well, we were those crazy academics from Tempe. When successful, well, we were those serious university scholars. We received funding from several sources, including NASA, to conduct specific studies. For example, we built the GIS database for the area as well as a system for conducting land suitability analysis. One young professor went to work half time for the city parks department to prepare a preserve plan that was published by the university. Our efforts led to one-third of the area — about 25,000 acres — being set aside for preservation. Cooperation continues between the city and the university to this day.

I'm continuing this work in Austin, where we've formed a community engagement center called the Partnership for Quality Growth and Preservation. The Great Springs of Texas Partnership, a group like our North Sonoran Collaborative, is our first initiative. We organized this partnership to focus on growth issues over the Edwards Aquifer. I'm also on the board of directors and executive committee of Envision Central Texas, a five-county regional planning process. Our consultants include Fregonese & Calthorpe. We believe our partnership can help continue the momentum of this innovative effort. In addition, the co-director of the Partnership, Jeffrey Chusid, is leading the preparation of the historic preservation plan for the City of Austin.

Another strategy for coping with the challenges academic programs face is to expand undergraduate offerings. Administrators find it difficult to justify small master's degree programs (especially those without funded research) with undergraduate programs across campus overflowing. Several undergraduate options exist. First, the planning program can offer a few relatively larger undergraduate courses such as "The History of the City" or "Introduction to Planning." The topics of smart growth, livability, and suburban sprawl are generating considerable interest among undergraduates. At the University of Texas at Austin, I currently teach a required course for undergraduate architects titled "Principles of Physical Planning." Undergraduates from my university's honors program as well as geography, urban studies, the social sciences, and biology regularly enroll.

A second option is to offer a minor in planning. At my previous institution (Arizona State University), we created such a minor and found it attractive to students from architecture, landscape architecture, and geography. A minor in planning assists with the recruitment of good students into graduate programs.

A third possibility is to offer an undergraduate degree in planning. The number of accredited undergraduate planning degrees has doubled in the past decade. New programs are being created at historically black universities as well as at schools in rural, often poor, regions. The reaction to these BS in Planning degrees is mixed from both academics and practitioners because of the traditional dominance of the master's.

Conversely, bachelor's degrees are warmly received by many employers. These are especially true in rapidly growing places where there is a need for plan, zoning, and permit processors. In addition, rural county employers often prefer individuals with bachelor's degrees because of their budgets and culture. Many advertisements for planning positions specify a bachelor's degree as a minimum requirement — often with GIS skills identified as preferred. I think we should respond to this market.

In exploring the bachelor's degree option, I think it is important to mention the nomenclature controversy in our allied profession of architecture. A few years ago, the National Architecture Accreditation Board (called NAAB) imposed a freeze on accrediting new bachelor's programs. Several prominent architecture educators advocate a single graduate degree, an M.Arch. or a D.Arch., comparable in status to a J.D. or a M.D. This proposal and the NAAB freeze elicited considerable debate.

As the dean of an especially strong school of architecture, I was dumbfounded by the proposal because quite literally the best-and-the-brightest high school students are attracted to B.Arch. programs. For example, we receive some 1,200 applicants for our undergraduate architecture degree program. Of which about half are automatically qualified to enter the University of Texas at Austin freshman class because they graduate in the top 10 percent of their class. Our recent entering class of 70 students included 12 valedictorians, 4 salutatorians, and the average class rank was 7. Our average 1355 to 1390 range SAT scores are regularly the highest on campus. A student member of the search committee that selected me was a Rhodes Scholar and is currently in her first year of law school at Columbia.

Other universities also boast similar profiles of architecture undergraduates. Now a question for another audience is: with such bright young people entering architecture schools, why aren't architects playing a more important role in our society? But that's another audience. NAAB and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture have backed away from eliminating bachelor's degrees and are now exploring a three-tier approach: B.Arch., M.Arch., and D.Arch. The D.Arch. would be different than a Ph.D. Candidates would produce a final design rather than a dissertation. As a result, architecture is moving more towards an engineering or business model than medicine or law.

Another response to the challenges facing planning education is to merge with a like-sized, compatible program. Landscape architecture, public administration, and geography appear to be the most frequent partners because these disciplines possess similar profiles within many universities. Such mergers have the benefits of economics of scale for common courses, such as GIS. Mergers can also enhance the potential for multidisciplinary research. In my School, we've gone further and eliminated departments altogether.

Planning programs can respond to the challenges we face by connecting to practitioners through continuing education. Post-graduate certificate programs are potentially lucrative and mostly untapped market. Such specialty certificates (for example, historic preservation, sustainable development, GIS, urban design, brownfields reclamation, environmental justice, and affordable housing) can prepare planners for the next step in their career. Over the next five to seven years many of the current directors and senior managers will be retiring, opening up the way for new rising managers. What makes this shift particularly significant is that many of the folks at the top have been department directors and city managers for a very long time.

Following the business school model, short intensive courses (full time for two or three weeks) or courses available on-line or in the evening that lead to a specialization certificate could respond to this demographic transition. This approach would also help strengthen the ties with practice. Part of the difficulty in making the link to practice in traditional master's programs is that it is difficult to work with students who have no experience in the field. The focus on mid-career training would almost guarantee a praxis approach as the students would bring tremendous practical experience to the table. Sprinkle in some "traditional" full-time students at the beginning of their careers and all could benefit.

Another challenge we face is student support. Tuition at the Ivy League schools hovers around $30,000. Some out-of-state charges at leading public research universities are in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. For example, out-of-state graduate tuition for an urban planning student at the University of Michigan is $24,658. As a father of two college students, I can report in-state tuition and fees are also increasing. The in-state tuition for the graduate urban planning program at the University of Michigan is $13,622. The state university that my daughter and my son attend raised tuition 40 percent for this academic year. The equity and access issues of these tuition hikes are quite profound. Meanwhile, some of the same hypocritical politicians who were responsible for significantly reducing funding for public education now are calling for curbing tuition hikes.

In the most recent U.S. News and World Report college rankings, there are no public universities in the top 20 where there were several a few years ago. We're witnessing a dismantling of public higher education in this nation. Funded research is one response to raise student support. Building endowments from alumni and friends of planning for scholarships is another. Support from organizations like the American Planning Association and the American Institute for Certified Planners is a third possibility. The professions with strong student and program support will thrive. Those without funding for students and degree programs will decline.

The academy is changing and we are responding from within. I don't think we have adequately explained our responses to those in practice. Planning is both a profession and a discipline. It can only advance through better dialogue between practicing planners and planning professors. Our field is much too important, too pregnant with possibilities, not to engage in such a dialogue. I hope this perspective from within the academy can help.