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Students hang banner below the historic clock tower of the Cooper Union Foundation Building in December 2012. (photo by Free Cooper Union, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2014, for the first time in its 150-year-history, the Cooper Union started to charge students tuition. Blaming dire financial straits, the chair of the school’s Board of Trustees, Richard S. Lincer, claimed that “tuition [was] the only realistic source of new revenue in the near future.” Today, in a dramatic reversal and a major victory for all those who fought to maintain the school’s legacy of offering all its students a free education, the Board and the Office of the President, Laura Sparks, voted to adopt a plan to once again offer full scholarships for all undergraduate students by 2028. (Though many have described Cooper Union as being historically tuition-free, it technically offered all students full scholarships.)

The plan adopts many of the recommendations of the Board’s Free Education Committee (FEC), outlined in a report released in January. A notable exception concerns scholarships for graduate students, which will be gradually reduced starting in 2020 (the FEC’s recommendations called for scaling them back beginning in 2019). The FEC’s plan does specify that, once the school has reintroduced full scholarships for undergrads and stabilized its finances, it will then increase graduate scholarships again.

The plan adopted today will see the school generate $250 million over the next 10 years and, presuming it meets its fundraising goals, begin to increase undergraduate scholarships in 2020. Scholarships for graduate students will be gradually reintroduced at a later, as-yet undetermined date. (According to the school’s website, its current enrollment is 853 undergraduate students and 74 graduate students.)

The Cooper Union’s Foundation Building (photo courtesy Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Trustees, a majority of whom are alumni, understand that the decision to begin charging tuition in 2014 deeply fractured the community,” the announcement of today’s plan states. “We are still in the process of healing those divisions. We cannot erase the past, but we must learn from it. The Board bears responsibility for strategic and financial oversight of the school. We know we must do better.”

The saga of how the Cooper Union, one of the most highly regarded art, architecture, and engineering schools in the US‚ came to charge tuition was indeed full of drama. After the school’s historic move to a tuition-based model — despite many protests, two occupations, and a lawsuit — its divisive president, Jamshed Bharucha, resigned and the school was investigated by New York’s attorney general. Today’s vote suggests a shift back toward the school’s original mission, as conceived by Peter Cooper when he founded the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859.

Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

2 replies on “In Major Reversal, Cooper Union Adopts Plan to Return to Full-Tuition Scholarships”

  1. This is wonderful news. I thought the earlier president and board made terrible financial mistakes possibly because they wanted to leave a legacy!! they built a building, not even designed by a Cooper architect, an extravagant building not funded properly and a new building many people do not like. The rumor is they thought they could find a donor after it was built, and plus it was the time of great speculation, easy loans, bad mortgages and generally unwise wild financier risky behavior, and eventually the 2006-8 financial meltdown. Those decisions almost sunk the institution which had survived, it tuition-free through the Great Depression and the US Civil War. Plus, Cooper had been in financial trouble for several years before that. I congratulate all involved in finding a solution– thank you.

  2. It is worth noting that from 2013 to 2014, spending increased by $4.8M, while from 2014 to 2015 spending increased by an additional $7.5M. According to 990 filings, office expenses increased from $1.76MM in 2014 to $4.8MM in 2015, occupancy expenses increased from $2.82MM in 2014 to $6.12MM in 2015, misc. admin expenses increased from $407K in 2014 to $2.76MM in 2015 & “Other” management & gen. expenses went from 0 in all past yrs to $669K in 2015. Thomas Driscoll, the former lehman brothers banker who was chair of the finance committee from 2009 until very recently, should be locked up for life..

    In 2013, the annual deficit was $18M. That number should have and could have dropped to better help the institution.

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