‘Air and Water’ No Longer Free at Cooper Union
Policy + Politics

‘Air and Water’ No Longer Free at Cooper Union

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There wasn’t a stone’s-throw chance in hell that any of my children would one day go to Cooper Union, the Manhattan-based scholarship college with highly regarded programs in art, architecture and engineering – my kids don’t want urban.

But the mere fact that there was a prestigious and free college in the heart of a great city – an apple ripe for the picking – was just good to know.

It was refreshing, somehow, in an age of budget-busting, backbreaking costs.

But that was yesterday. Cooper Union has just announced that beginning in the fall of 2014, it will charge tuition to undergraduates.

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Why? Budget troubles, of course. The school has been operating at a $12 million annual deficit, administrators say. Fundraising drives haven’t yielded the goods. The college’s expenses, including rent payments, have ballooned over the years, while loan payments and health care costs have also been swelling.

Not one undergraduate has paid for an education at Cooper Union in more than 100 years.

“The time has come to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future,” the school’s chairman of the board, Mark Epstein, said in a statement. “Under the new policy, the Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.”

Using a slide scale, the school says it will now charge those it deems able to pay approximately $20,000, while others – including those “with the greatest needs” – will pay zero.  

Some of the students and faculty were so distraught by the decision they decided to give the school a giant “symbolic hug,” as The New York Times called it, literally joining hands and wrapping themselves around one of the school buildings after the news broke.

​There are, of course, still a few other schools in the country that don’t charge for tuition. The College of the Ozarks, a Christian-based work college in Branson, Missouri, requires students to work 15 hours a week and do two 40-hour work weeks during the academic year.

The work hours are then “applied to the cost of education (tuition),” the college says, which in the 2011-2012 academic year totaled $17,600. “Earnings from participating in the work program, plus any federal and/or state aid for which students qualify, plus a College of the Ozarks ‘cost of education scholarship,’ combine to meet each student’s full tuition charge,” the college states on its site.

The service academies in this country are generally “free,” too, although graduates must, in return, give several years of their lives to active military duty. The United States Military Academy at West Point, for example, still requires five years of active duty. Students graduate as commissioned officers in the Army. 

Then there’s Macaulay Honors College at The City University of New York in Queens. Founded in 2001, the school provides free tuition for in-state residents. Students are also given a $7500 fund “to pursue global research, study, service and internships,” as well as a laptop and “a cultural passport” that gives access to arts and cultural venues in the city.

The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which educates “exceptionally gifted young musicians for careers as performing artists on the highest professional level,” has had an all-scholarship policy since 1928, providing “merit-based full-tuition scholarships to all undergraduates and graduate students, regardless of their financial situation,” the school says. Its total enrollment for the 2012-2013 academic year? Just 166 students. 

Still and all, there was something about the iconic Cooper Union, whose education was long revered as “free as air and water” (as its unofficial motto put it) that stood out.

Mourning the loss of a free college is directly proportional to the angst about the high costs of a college education. Since 1978, college tuition has increased 1,120 percent, says CourseSmart, an e-textbook provider. The average debt total at graduation is about $27,500. And nearly one in five households in this country is paying off student loan debt, according to the Pew Research Center.

What happens when a child doesn’t even graduate in four years – but stretches the experience to five years or more? That’s a whole other (pricey) story.