Cooper Union Announces Plan to Restore Free Tuition

In a historic reversal, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York has announced that it plans to reinstate free tuition for all undergraduate students within the next ten years. The legendary school was one of the last tuition-free colleges in the country before it decided to start charging students in 2014, sparking a public outcry and protests that eventually led to the resignation of the institution’s board and then-president, Jamshed Bharucha.

“The trustees, a majority of whom are alumni, understand that the decision to begin charging tuition in 2014 deeply fractured the community,” the school’s board and president, Laura Sparks, said in a statement. “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.”

According to the new plan, which was unanimously approved by its board of trustees Wednesday evening, Cooper Union will begin to increase scholarships over the next two years, while it works to generate $250 million through fundraising and other initiatives in order to bolster its endowment and build up the institution’s long-term financial health.

In its independent assessment, the financial monitor, appointed by the New York State Office of the Attorney General, said that the plan laid out an “ambitious and achievable path” for the school. In order to reinstate full-tuition scholarships, Cooper Union is committed to ensuring that it becomes, and remains, financially sustainable for years to come.

For many, the school’s decision to end its tuition-free model in order to overcome financial difficulties signified the end of an era. In a roundtable discussion on the state of art schools that was published in the October 2015 issue of Artforum, Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer wrote that Cooper Union’s crisis was a symptom of a larger cultural shift toward the corporatization of higher education.

Cooper Union alumnus Jory Rabinovitz noted that the move to charge students was against the school’s own founding charter of free education.

“Peter Cooper had achieved incredible upward mobility as an illiterate industrialist,” Rabinovitz said. “Not having had a formal education himself, he developed the idea of a school that would be free to all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sex. And this was during the time of slavery, the verge of the Civil War. . .He knew that economic freedoms would be exploited to strip human freedoms. This is why it’s so critical to understand that the ‘free’ in his vision of free education meant both gratis and liber.”

“Free education affords a type of autonomy, not only financial but psychological . . . So after this founding charter was eviscerated and the new $20,400 tuition was marketed as 50 percent off ‘normal’ tuition, it became hard not to believe that something more insidious than incompetence or ignorance had seeped into Cooper Union, something that Cooper himself had fought against his whole life.”

When Cooper Union began charging students, it was operating with a $12 million deficit. The school started working toward restoring its free tutition in 2015, after it was sued by a group of students, faculty members, and alumni who formed the Committee to Save Cooper Union. The lawsuit claimed that the institution’s board breached its fiduciary duties. Folllowing an investigation led by the New York State’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, the school agreed to explore ways that would allow it to be tutition-free once again.

Sparks, the first woman appointed to lead the institution, pledged to stabilize its finances, restore the community’s trust, and stay true to Peter Cooper’s founding vision when she joined Cooper Union's ranks in 2016, allaying some fears about the school’s future. Following Wednesday's announcement, Mike Essl, a dean and associate professor at Cooper Union, wrote on Twitter, “Cooper Union wouldn't be Cooper Union unless it's free.”