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 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.