After Tuition Part II: A Silver Lining

By Matthew Grattan (ChE ‘19)

The Pioneer interviewed Vice President of Enrollment Services Mitchell Lipton and Interim Director of Finance and Administration Keith Stokeld about changes at Cooper Union since charging tuition.

Immediately after charging tuition, Cooper had to scramble for a larger applicant pool. According to Vice President of Enrollment Services Mitchell Lipton, “if you all of a sudden go from $0 to $20 thousand, there’s going to be an impact.”

The administration anticipated a significant decrease in the number of applicants after the decision to charge tuition in April 2013 and quickly began recruitment overseas.

“We were given a clear mandate from [former President Bharucha] to do everything we could to maintain the quality of the applicant pool, so we could continue to have the same kinds of students come to Cooper,” Lipton said. “We didn’t have enough time to really think, other than just say, ‘we have to do everything we can’”

In addition to recruiting engineering applicants abroad, Cooper expanded preexisting relationships at STEM oriented schools in other parts of the US.

Prior to charging tuition, just 5% of students reported home addresses outside of the US; after tuition, that number increased to 11%. This observed increase in the number of international students seems to have taken place predominantly in the engineering school.

Is there a trend? Perhaps not. So far this year, Cooper has not visited schools abroad. Recruitment strategies change from year to year and so do the culture and administration at Cooper. “We were in a situation in 2014 where we had to go with what we thought the school wanted. The school didn’t have a vision at that point—other than ‘we want to survive,’” explained Lipton. Cooper is now in a position to determine its course over the next several years, and that could impact the recruitment process.

While the art and architecture schools attract some applicants from abroad, neither school seems to recruit overseas aggressively. Instead, recruiters from the art school—and more recently, the architecture school—attend National Portfolio Days around the US to attract prospective students.

In general, Cooper has seen a decrease in the number of first-year applications, but the School of Art seemed to be affected the most with a 30% decrease in applicants versus drops of around 10% for the engineering and architecture schools. However, retention rates have remained about the same.

Over the past decade or so, Cooper has struggled with not having enough revenue to meet expenses. According to Interim Director of Finance and Administration Keith Stokeld, “After years of $15 and $20 million deficits, we’ve got a hole of about $180 million that needs to be refilled in order to get back on a solid footing.”

In the past, strategies to address budget deficits were focused around selling assets and incurring debts. Not addressing the problem adequately early on led to dire financial straits. The decision to charge tuition could be seen as a last-ditch effort at fiscal responsibility. Ultimately to return to free, Cooper Union needs to increase revenues while decreasing expenses, and that appears to be the current strategy.

Tuition is one way to fill that hole in Cooper’s finances, and it constitutes 15% of the school’s total income. Payments go towards a general revenue pool, along with income from investments, contributions, and rental payments. Tuition is a consequence of previous financial trends, and it’s too soon yet to see long term effects, especially amidst larger financial restructuring.

Investments—namely the land underneath the Chrysler building—constitute 60% of Cooper’s income. In fact, the rent for the land is set to increase incrementally over the next several years. The first of these increases is due in January 2018 and will allow Cooper to have budget surpluses in the near future.

However, these budget surpluses do not mean that we can immediately return to free: the institution needs to establish financial health for the long term. Current projections in the Free Education Committee’s January 2017 progress report show that Cooper could return to free by 2039.

Under the direction of President Laura Sparks, Cooper is also trying to engage the community for more donations which are currently 15% of the school’s income.  (The remaining 10% of the school’s  income comes from other sources like the residence hall.)

While yearly donations have averaged around $9 million over the last five years, they’ve also ranged from $5.5 million to $16.8 million.

“We believe that Cooper alumni and other people in the Cooper community could be challenged to do a lot more in support of the school financially,” said Stokeld. “It’s as if everyone assumed that we never had to ask people for money. We had this huge endowment and we were set, so ironically Cooper has never really developed a robust fundraising program.” Donations are a significant part of Cooper’s financial strategy moving forward.

A recurring question regarding tuition is whether or not the academic quality of Cooper students has changed. According to data on high school grade averages and standardized test scores, it hasn’t. However, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that tuition has altered the relationship between students and Cooper Union.

In fact, tuition has caused the administration to reexamine how it operates. “A sort of silver-lining to the tuition change is that it forced us to improve things that we should have looked at years ago,” explained Lipton. He added that the administration is trying to “look at everything we do through the lens of a student.”

It’s hard to ignore the fact that tuition is a financial transaction, and there are unspoken expectations associated with it—even with something as abstract as education. If customers pay a premium, what services do they expect in return?

From the administration’s point of view, it seems that nothing like that is observed. “I don’t see the students being any more demanding at all,” said Lipton, “I don’t see tuition impacting that.” ◊


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