After Tuition Part III: Turning a Ship

By Matthew Grattan (ChE ’19)

Fred Fontaine is Professor and Jesse Sherman Chair of Electrical Engineering at The Cooper Union. In addition to being a faculty member since 1987, Fontaine is also an alumnus of the Albert Nerken School of Engineering. Fontaine spoke with The Pioneer on the subject of tuition and how it fits into the school’s ongoing narrative.

“If everything else had happened, except they actually never put in tuition, we would have issues. It’s part of a symptom; it’s part of a larger problem.”

For a school that had been tuition-free for over 150 years, charging tuition was a historically significant event. Cooper Union is now a bit more like every other higher education institution in the US. Perhaps, something characteristic to Cooper has been lost, beyond being “as free as air and water.”

According to Fontaine, the full-tuition scholarship wasn’t just significant financially, but it was also a prestigious award. “It created an attitude that everyone was here based on their merit,” said Fontaine, “everyone was on equal footing.”

Fontaine acknowledged that his time at Cooper was a unique experience—and not just because of the lack of tuition. Cooper has always been a close-knit community. “You also have to look at the small size, the intensity of the curriculum, the fact that we don’t have a real campus,” Fontaine explained, “Everyone pretty much lives in the buildings, and certainly in the EE department, everyone lives in the labs.”

At the current price of $21,625 per year, Cooper Union’s tuition could be considered low compared to similar schools, but that doesn’t necessarily make Cooper the most attractive option for prospective students—especially when factoring in the cost of living in New York. “A lot of the students who would come here are very top performing,” explained Fontaine, “but they might also receive financial aid packages from other places.”

There’s no clear distinction between the pre- and post-tuition Cooper: It’s not as if one can point out stark differences between the tuition-paying and tuition-free students or that Cooper attracts different applicants because of tuition. “Over the years, a lot has been going on, and it’s not just the change in tuition,” emphasized Fontaine. “There was significant mismanagement by the prior administration; it created a lot of ill will,” he explained.

Cooper’s financial situation over the past few decades was problematic even before tuition, and financial mismanagement ultimately influenced the decision to charge tuition. 

Administrative issues didn’t stop there: Particularly for the engineering school, the aborted computer science program was an example of the disconnect between the administration and the rest of the Cooper community. Students were admitted to a program that didn’t exist. 

“It was really an unmitigated disaster,” said Fontaine. “The prior administration’s refusal to listen to the community created a challenging environment over the last few years,” he added.

In a way, tuition is more a symptom of previous mismanagement, rather than a source of current changes. But even that sentiment could be an oversimplification.

“You can’t say, ‘the only difference between then and now is tuition.’ There are so many other things going on that it’s hard to attribute all of them to tuition.”

“You can’t say, ‘the only difference between then and now is tuition.’ There are so many other things going on that it’s hard to attribute all of them to tuition,” said Fontaine. “If everything else had happened, except they actually never put in tuition, we would have issues. It’s part of a symptom; it’s part of a larger problem.”

Fontaine added: “Going back to tuition-free would have significant meaning in a spiritual sense, in the underlying emotional attachment to the school and what it represents in terms of Peter Cooper’s vision.”

Not all of the issues are internal to Cooper either: The preparation of students coming out of high school has also changed over the years.

“I think that students are coming in with fewer analytical skills than they used to, and that’s not just apparent in lectures or theory-based courses but also in project-based courses. It’s harder for students to deal with open ended problems or take the initiative,” Fontaine said.

However, to Fontaine, Cooper students are still ambitious, as evidenced by the number of electrical engineering students who also have jobs during the school year. Job fields related to electrical engineering have become increasingly popular in recent years, and that may draw some students away from their studies. 

On the one hand, Fontaine sees student employment as a positive. “It speaks to our program, that our students do so well that they are sought after so highly,” said Fontaine, “but on the other hand, it’s yet another distraction.”

Fontaine also happens to be chair of the engineering admissions committee. The same year tuition was charged was also when faculty became more involved in the admissions process. Currently, Fontaine is working with Toni Torres, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Institutional Effectiveness, to improve the admissions process in a holistic sense. 

“One thing that hasn’t happened yet, is a feedback process,” explained Fontaine, “where we look at how students do once they’re here, how they do after they graduate and ask: What in the admissions process would be an indicator of success here?” 

Fontaine expressed optimism about the future of Cooper, but it is also too early to say how things will turn out. “It’s still a work in progress by the new members of the board of trustees and by President Sparks,” said Fontaine regarding the state of Cooper Union. It seems that Cooper’s trajectory is changing, but ultimately, time will tell. 

“It takes a while to turn a ship,” said Fontaine, “you can’t just make instantaneous changes.” ◊

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