After Tuition Part I: Questions and a Brief History

By Evan Bubniak (ME ‘21) and Matthew Grattan (ChE ‘19)\

Since the announcement in 2013, The Cooper Union has admitted four tuition-paying classes. That is to say: Barring fifth-year architecture students, every undergraduate at Cooper pays tuition, and the first-ever class of tuition-payers in Cooper’s century-and-a-half history will graduate in the spring.

Cooper is not—and never has been—the typical American college experience. Yet, is it possible that tuition has changed our institution? Have we lost something beyond the full-tuition scholarship? Or conversely, have we gained anything?

In 2013, The Cooper Union was suffering from a massive hangover. The school was saddled with a $175 million mortgage after a poorly-timed gamble in the stock market with its endowment and the construction of a new, ultramodern academic building. Cooper was struggling to keep up with the interest payments.

The New Academic Building was the brainchild of George Campbell, who was the president of The Cooper Union from July 2000 until July 2011. The NAB replaced the Hewitt Building, which housed the School of Art; Engineering classes were, prior to the construction of the NAB, held at 51 Astor Place. (That building too was reconstructed in 2013 and now houses, among others, St. John’s University, IBM Watson, and soon Shake Shack as its tenants.)

Because of Cooper Union’s charter—which cemented its philosophy of providing a tuition-free education to all its students—the school’s financial crisis was an identity crisis. The Board of Trustees, which had approved the construction of the New Academic Building and the mortgage from MetLife needed to finance it, was overly optimistic about their ability to make up the difference with the increasing value of Cooper Union’s real estate holdings in the city and an ambitious fundraising campaign.

Jan. 10, 2018 will be the four-year anniversary of the Cooper Union Board of Trustees’ vote to ratify tuition for new students. As a consequence, all four-year undergraduate students at Cooper, beginning this fall, are part of the school’s new business model.

If our education is no longer just an enrichment but a financial investment, is it wrong to expect a financial return? But then again, is it wrong to apply economics to education?

Peter Cooper founded this school on the basis of merit and equality, education irrespective of class or wealth. Now, we students pay for our education in one way or another. Does that change the relationships between students, instructors, and this school? Do we—should we—expect more from this school? After all, we are paying to go here. We’re not paying to fail classes, or get poor critiques, right? If our education is no longer just an enrichment but a financial investment, is it wrong to expect a financial return? But then again, is it wrong to apply economics to education?

Cooper’s recent history can serve as a source of introspection and as a case study. Cooper was tuition-free but now no longer. Could a comparison be made between Cooper Union and other universities in the United States? If we’ve gained something from tuition, does that mean our financial woes have inadvertently led us somewhere better? And if we’ve lost something, what can be said about the tuition-based model of American higher education?

There’s an answer that most of us would prefer to hear: We were better off tuition free. But perhaps it’s more prudent to assume the worst, and prove ourselves wrong.

Ultimately, what can we learn about ourselves as students, as faculty, and as an institution? We owe that much to ourselves.

Over the coming weeks, The Pioneer will write a series of articles detailing how, since the introduction of tuition, the Cooper Union has, or hasn’t, changed, qualitatively and quantitatively. This series aims to investigate how tuition has changed the makeup of the student body, how it has altered students’ expectations from the school, and how it has affected Cooper itself.

The point of this article is to raise questions. The following articles will attempt to answer them in some capacity and ask more. Ultimately, what can we learn about ourselves as students, as faculty, and as an institution? We owe that much to ourselves. ◊

 

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