After 153 Years, Cooper Union Might Be Forced to End Free Tuition For Students

What originally began as an opportunity for society’s disadvantaged members to access quality higher education is now a popular, highly selective institution renowned for its world-class instruction. Cooper Union, a New York private university, was established in 1859 by Peter Cooper. The inventor, industrialist, and philanthropist believed deeply that education was not only a way to move up the economic ladder but also a path to self-betterment and civic virtue. Cooper Union was the first school to allow the working poor, women, and people of racial backgrounds to learn art, architecture, and engineering — for free.

The free tuition, along with its great professors, is what makes Cooper Union one of the most sought-after institutions by high school seniors and others who wish to get an art, architecture, or engineering degree. But with rising tuition costs and a possible devaluing of property, those days might be at an end.

The main reason Cooper Union has been able to keep their tuition free is because they own the plot of land that currently houses the Chrysler Building. The school is currently paying off a $175 million loan — the purpose of which was to have some money to invest in the stock market before the downturn — in $10 million installments, resulting in costs being higher than revenue. Some solutions that have been on the table include having only graduate students pay tuition, but Dr. Bharucha, the current president, has said nothing has been finally decided.

The news that tuition may no longer be free has angered many students and faculty, who have produced great visuals as a form of protest. At the end of 2012, 11 art students occupied the Peter Cooper Suite in Cooper Union’s Foundation Building to protest the possibility of having to pay tuition.

The schools within Cooper Union have reacted differently to the news. The engineering department started two committees dedicated to proposing solutions, but the faculty hasn’t voted on anything yet. The architecture department has declared its belief that Cooper Union’s free tuition is essential to its public role, while the art department has vehemently condoned Dr. Bharucha’s  attempt to impose any form of tuition on students, undergraduates and graduates.

Dr. Bharucha became president in 2011, and so the latter departments believed that Dr. Bharucha has not taken enough action against preparing for this crisis. Perhaps this animosity is directed toward the leaders of Cooper Union especially, because a new, expensive, state-of-the-art Cooper Union building (41 Cooper Square) was erected in 2009. The engineering department, however, has continued its support of the president and various board members, who, ultimately, have to decide how to solve this problem.

Many claim that free tuition is central not only to Cooper Union as an institution, but to its students as well. It seems to be the one place where you know “that the only thing that got you there is your ability,” as Kerry Carnahan, a 2000 graduate, told the New York Times.

While the president and the current board debate on how to continue to balance the budget — as they did at the end of last year — let’s hope that any on-campus animosity against Dr. Bharucha distracts Cooper Union from its true goal: to continue to maintain an excellent, free education for those who are fortunate to gain admission.