University President Considers Charging Tuition for the First Time in School’s HistoryFor those students burdening themselves with student loans or working three jobs to pay their tuition, Cooper Union, founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, has long been regarded as a different kind of college. At Cooper Union admission comes with a full scholarship, meaning that the student body make-up is completely merit based. The school is regarded as a kind of think-tank by students and faculty alike, where students and teachers are better defined as colleagues than master and pupil. However, the state of Cooper Union is in jeopardy as the college continues to run a large deficit during tough financial times. To pull the school out of the red the new president, Jamshed Bharucha, is considering charging tuition for the first time in the college’s 152-year history.
The administration and the student body sit on opposite sides of the fence. Students claim that by charging tuition the entire culture of the Cooper Union will change. Bharucha, while concerned about this cultural shift, says that drastic steps must be taken for the school to continue to fulfill Peter Cooper’s mission. In a live interview with NPR Bharucha said “the most important thing is to create a sustainable financial model that enables Cooper Union to commit even more strongly to provide access to those with the least access today.”
Peter Cooper, born in New York City in 1791, was a businessman and inventor who made the bulk of his fortune through real estate investments and a profitable iron works company. Initially interested in helping the working classes succeed in business, he founded the university as a place of equal opportunity, where anyone could study, regardless of status or gender. This founding principle has remained Cooper Union’s mission to this day, and students fear this belief system will disappear if the administration starts charging tuition. “If The Cooper Union is going to be perpetuated as an institution for free-thinking students, then tuition can never be an option” commented one student on an online anti-tuition petition. If attendance is based on financial means then the college runs the risk of losing the diversity that is distinctly Cooper Union.
Although Bharucha agrees that the implementation of a tuition fee could possibly and irrevocably change the school, he says that his hands are tied. He arrived at Cooper Union this past July, and inherited a dismal financial situation left to him by the previous administration. According to a message from Bharucha on the Cooper Union website, “As of this year, [Cooper Union] has an annual structural deficit of close to $16.5 million. With expenditures of $59.7 million, this represents a deficit of approximately 28%.”
In his open letter Bharucha outlined his plan for creating a sustainable Cooper Union. His four point plan mirrors the philosophy of Peter Cooper and relies heavily on intellect and innovation, while carefully avoiding any mention of tuition fees. In fact, the point plan he laid out in the letter was vague at best, citing things like intellectual curiosity and global perspective as solutions to the issue. “There is enormous unrealized potential at Cooper Union,” wrote Bharucha, “Peter Cooper wanted this institution to be ‘equal to the best,’ and his writings offer a wealth of possibilities as we consider our options.” Despite the vagueness of his alternative solutions, Bharucha stated in a New York Times article that “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.”
To assess the possibility of a tuition fee and the ramifications of such a charge Bharucha has put together a task force to investigate the situation and come back with solutions in the spring. The task force has been internally selected by the board which leaves many wondering whether the findings will adequately represent the students’ concerns. One concerned Cooper Union parent took to the web to propose a different kind of task force. “To be totally transparent the task force should be populated with concerned and committed students, alumni, faculty and parents that have Peter Cooper blood running through their veins,” he commented on an NPR piece.
At this point it has become a waiting game for both the administration and the students. The proposed tuition charges would not go into effect until 2014 if they were enforced at all. No decisions will be made before the spring of 2012, but one thing is for certain, something must be done if Cooper Union plans stick around for another 150 years.
By McCamey Lynn
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