Cooper Union Looks at Charging Tuition
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Published: October 31, 2011
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Facing serious financial trouble in a weak economy, Cooper Union, the New York City college founded in 1859 to provide free education for the working class, may begin charging undergraduate tuition for the first time in more than a century, its president said Monday.
Times Topic: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
“Altering our scholarship policy will be only as a last resort, but in order to create a sustainable model, it has to be one of the options on the table,” Jamshed Bharucha, who took over as president in July, said in an interview.
Such a change would be a cultural shift for an institution whose tuition-free education and esteemed programs in engineering, architecture and art have made it one of the nation’s most selective schools, admitting 5 percent to 10 percent of applicants annually, depending on the department.
Peter Cooper, a self-taught industrialist, inventor and social reformer, founded the college with the mission of making higher education available to all; it was among the first to admit blacks, women, students of any religion and those who could not pay, making it need-blind long before the term existed.
Dr. Bharucha emphasized that lower-income students and many middle-income ones would continue to attend free, and that none of the 900 current undergraduates would be charged. He said that if the school decided to charge tuition, it was not clear whether it would set its price comparable to those at other private colleges, $40,000 or more, or adopt a different payment structure.
Despite consternation at the East Village school and on Facebook among students and alumni who had heard murmurs of a possible change, Dr. Bharucha said no decisions had been made. He plans to ask the board of trustees next week to approve creation of a task force to look into ways to solve the school’s persistent, and worsening, budget problems, and report back next spring.
“We have to find new, robust revenue streams, and we have to do that quickly,” he said.
For many Cooper Union alumni, the idea of charging tuition feels like an assault on the college’s identity and social mission.
“It’s a contradiction to everything we’ve learned about Cooper,” said Milton Glaser, 82, the graphic designer and co-founder of New York magazine. “It’s the last opportunity for free education on that level in the entire country.”
Gerard W. Ryan, an alumnus who works at Motorola and has been an adjunct professor of computer science at Cooper Union, said, “I think the idea is dreadful, and I really hope it doesn’t come to pass.”
“This spirit of Peter Cooper, that there should be an excellent education for everybody, that’s pervaded everything,” he added. “It’s in the DNA of the school.”
But he praised Dr. Bharucha for confronting financial troubles he did not create.
In its first decades, Cooper Union collected tuition from students who had the means to pay. But since 1902, following major gifts from Andrew Carnegie and Cooper’s descendants, it has been free for all undergraduates. (Students enrolled in nondegree night programs do pay tuition and undergraduates pay for room and board.)
A result has been a student body that, for an elite college, is unusually diverse, ethnically and economically. Fewer than half of Cooper Union’s students are white, and almost two-thirds attended public high schools.
Dr. Bharucha said that in recent decades, the school had resorted to unsustainable practices to support its operations — like selling assets and dipping into the principal of its endowment, which stood at $577 million in mid-2010 — rather than just spending the endowment’s earnings. In recent years, it also spent heavily on a new academic building and renovations of its historic building, both on Cooper Square.
The school also generates significant income from real estate it owns, including the land under the Chrysler Building, but the value of those properties has also been dropping.
Word of a possible change leaked out in recent days, leading to student protests over the weekend. On Monday night, Dr. Bharucha discussed the matter with a large group of students for the first time, addressing a gathering in the school’s Great Hall, site of dozens of famous speeches, including the first New York addresses given by Abraham Lincoln, in 1860, and Mark Twain, in 1867.
Dr. Bharucha said Cooper Union needed to introduce new sources of revenue, reaching $28 million a year by 2018, or about one-quarter of the expected operating costs. He said being more aggressive about winning research grants and raising money from alumni would cover part of that. In the meantime, he said, there will be belt-tightening, like a freeze on faculty hiring he has imposed.
He said the school needed money not just to keep up with current costs, but also to invest in academic facilities and provide more financial aid for poorer students’ room and board.
“I will not be forcing solutions on the organization,” he said, adding that he wanted employees, students and alumni involved in finding answers. “But we have to do the hard thinking now.”