On Cooper and Tuition (The Tragic Loss of a Virtue) - Oct. 30, 2011

Simon Ko October 30, 2011

Ever since hearing rumors that Cooper Union may start charging students for tuition, I have reflected upon my experiences at Cooper and thought about its value and impact upon my life. I have signed the petition, but admit that I have largely neglected to understand the scale of the issue until today. I will explain why I believe there is a moral obligation to care about this issue.

To say that attending Cooper Union has fundamentally changed the way I see and interact with the world would be a severe understatement. The value of the opportunities and revelations that happened within and through this great institution cannot be calculated. The way that I came to believe that higher education can change a person’s nature and affect his character and way of life came from the people and resources that I was fortunate enough to encounter and receive at The Cooper Union. It troubles me that the essence of the institution may change irreversibly if the present and succeeding generation of students were to be charged for tuition.

In 2007, my father lost his job. I had no idea that It indicated the beginning of a giant shift in the political, economic, and cultural climate that we were used to. My father’s situation began to affect my life and education as soon as he was laid off. Every type of expense was scrutinized and debated, and anything considered non essential was eliminated. My parents and I came to depend heavily on credit, and to this day we still have considerable debts to pay. The idea of completing my education on time with my peers was at risk. I discussed ideas about how I could take time off from school to find temporary work and help pay bills. However, I was encouraged to continue with my studies despite the enormous amount of stress and anxiety that burdened my parents for over two years. I think about just how extraordinary it was that I was able to receive a full tuition scholarship during such a stressful time. To learn that this blessing could be taken away from succeeding generations of students causes me to feel guilt and shame.

A full tuition scholarship based on merit is needed more than ever. It accounts for the sudden tremendous rise in applicants over the past three years, and it is one of the attributes that put Cooper on the map and into the public’s consciousness. It raised issues about how higher education could, and should be functioning within the society we live in now. I didn’t really realize just how radical Peter Cooper’s mission was until I graduated and started to reflect upon my time there. I am inspired by the spirit and audacity of an institution that builds upon a moral and ethical belief; that simply, higher education should be free. It is truly a rare conviction in the context of our time, and to see that disappear indicates the loss of a virtue within a much larger fabric.

To start charging students for tuition would be taking a step back in what should be a highly respected and progressive legacy. Aspiring students of higher education in the arts and sciences are deeply drawn to The Cooper Union because of its radical ideal: An unparalleled education in the arts and sciences of the highest caliber, within one of the greatest cultural centers in the world, all provided free of charge, by one great school that stands as a peculiar yet amazing example of what it means to be a player and contributor to culture and society. It stands in history as a strange and unique beacon of hope and resolve, something that I personally strived to earn and aspired to.

Cooper Union has defined what it means to provide a quality education, and have always done so on its own terms- that at its core, higher education should be free, with the hope that some day, the people that this institution cultivates would serve and uphold the rights, virtues, and ideals that the mission of the school helped provide. I believe that I am practicing what I have learned from that statement. Let us fight not just for the present, but for the future generation that may pass through those battered brown iron doors- that they may receive the same kind of generosity and opportunities that I, and countless previous generations have had in learning that there is a much greater, richer, deeper, better world out there that we can reach through an institution that will surprise and change them through its radical spirit and agenda.

Tuition was free while I was at Cooper, and Pluto was still regarded as a planet. Although I don’t care about Pluto, I do care about Cooper, and so should you.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” - Nelson Henderson

“Art is a gift.”  - Lewis Hyde

Simon Ko
school of art alumni / class of 2011

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