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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Cooper Union begins charging tuition

Published: January 17, 2014
Section: News, Top Stories

A selective arts school in New York City has decided to make a radical move that may change the school’s future course. Cooper Union, whose college of art has the lowest acceptance rate of any fine arts school in the country, has decided to charge new students tuition beginning in the fall of 2014. Returning students will continue to receive full scholarships.

Due to the school’s financial assets and small enrollment since its establishment 155 years ago in Manhattan’s East Village, Cooper Union, officially The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, has been able to award all students full four-year scholarships, currently valued at approximately $150,000.

This unique practice in American higher education began after businessman Peter Cooper witnessed the free higher education given by the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris. Cooper believed that “an education equal to the best technology schools established should be accessible to those who qualify, independent of their race, religion, sex, wealth or social status, and should be open and free to all.”

Cooper, the son of a hatmaker, gained his wealth after building the first steam railroad engine and remained a part of civic life before being nominated for President of the United States on the Greenback Party Ticket at the age of 85. Cooper finished in third behind the popular vote winner Samuel Tilden and electoral winner Rutherford B. Hayes.

Like many individuals and institutions, Cooper Union has faced troubles during the recent economic recession. Students and alumni believe that this, along with premature spending, poor financial management, a lack of accountability and selling of assets, has contributed to the school’s current state. The board of trustees does not believe the school can continue under the longtime free tuition program.

The school received the deed to the famous Chrysler Building in 1902 from Cooper’s family, which remains a source of 84 percent of the schools assets, as reported by The New York Times. The school has an agreement with the city so that they receive the taxes assessed against the Chrysler Building lease instead of the city itself, an amount that will increase over the decade to $32.5 million in 2018. The income from the famed landmark has not been enough to break even, though, as the school regularly has multi-million dollar annual deficits and is $230 million in debt with only $100 million dollars in assets.

The school’s managed endowment, excluding the fairly stable asset of the Chrysler Building, lost half its value in the beginning of the 21st century and has continued to decrease. In the 2009 fiscal year alone, the school’s managed assets dropped by 14 percent.

The college, made up of fewer than 1,000 students, recently completed a new building, 41 Cooper Square, which cost $166 million. Incoming donations were expected to pay for this massive expense, but the school fell far short of the fundraising goal. This lack of donations has characterized the school’s history. Many alumni and school officials have had the impression that the school’s ownership of the Chrysler Building deed was enough to maintain the schools checkbook, but rising expenses have required a larger income flow to maintain the school.

The Board of Trustees rejected a 54-page proposal that was composed by an 18-member group of alumni, staff, students and trustees that attempted to maintain the school’s long-held policy. The report suggested a variety of tactics to increase revenue, including pay cuts and early retirement for faculty, the selling of the school’s sole residence hall, laying off some administrative staff and hosting bar mitzvahs in the school’s Great Hall, which has hosted speeches by six United States presidents since 1860. The trustees were not unanimous on the rejection of the proposal, but even some in favor of keeping the school free did not approve of the alternatives proposed by the group.

Kevin Slavin, an alumnus and trustee, voted in favor of the proposal but called it “the plan that sucks.” In regard to the change the school is making, according to Gothamist, he stated, “If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.”

Students and alumni alike agree with Savin’s tone. To many, a $20,000 tuition seems like quite a deal for such a high-quality school compared to the $50,000 and $60,000 tuitions at other schools across the nation, but those directly involved with the institution agree that it was not the price tag itself that drew them to Cooper Union but the ideas behind the policy and its long lasting history distinguishing itself from other schools.

The administration announced the initial plan to charge tuition in April, which prompted students to occupy the president’s office for two months. The protest ended when the administration agreed to make a sincere effort at alternatives. Prospective students have also reacted to the news. Inside Higher Ed reports a 35-percent decrease in Early Decision applications since the school’s announcement. The vice president of finance and dean of students resigned amidst the financial turmoil in August.

The New York Times reported that the school hired a consulting firm to see how the change in tuition would impact the school. The firm suggested that the school charge no more than $10,000, otherwise desirable applicants might be driven away. The school will still offer a “half-scholarship” to all incoming students, valued at $19,250 per year. A member of the board of trustees, Mark Epstein, said that nearly a quarter of the incoming classes will still receive full scholarships although as many as half of the students will have to pay $19,250.

Cooper Union has long been an enclave and breeding ground of artistic expression in the city, educating world-famous artists, engineers and architects on its Third Avenue campus located blocks away from Washington Square Park and New York University. It was named the most desirable small school by Newsweek, and it’s overall acceptance rate of less than 10 percent indicates its selection of only the hardest working and most ambitious young students. The school’s radical transformation may cause just a small change in student recruitment, or it may fall back into a crowded category of art schools in New York City and around the country.