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Cooper Union Could Charge Tuition for First Time in 150 Years

By Patrick Hedlund | November 2, 2011 12:52pm
New Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha at his inauguration on Tues., Oct. 18, 2011.
New Cooper Union president Jamshed Bharucha at his inauguration on Tues., Oct. 18, 2011.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Hedlund

EAST VILLAGE — Facing a multimillion-dollar budget gap, the Cooper Union is considering charging students tuition to attend the free university for the first time in its 150-year history, school officials announced.

New president Jamshed Bharucha, in an open letter posted on the Cooper Union’s website, addressed the college’s challenges in “difficult financial times,” noting that the East Village-based institution has a budget deficit of nearly $16.5 million this year.

“This is a structurally unsustainable financial model, and we must act immediately to put our institution on the path to a sustainable future,” Bharucha wrote.

A spokeswoman for the school confirmed that charging for tuition at the 900-student, scholarship-based college is being considered, but maintained “it is not a foregone conclusion.”

The Cooper Union's new academic building in the East Village.
The Cooper Union's new academic building in the East Village.
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“It’s one of the options we're exploring,” Claire McCarthy, the Cooper Union’s director of public affairs, said Wednesday, adding that any possible tuition charges would not affect current students.

“We’re exploring all options to get back on a sustainable financial path.”

The college — which built an architecturally ambitious new academic building on Cooper Square in 2009 — is one of the few in the country to pay students’ full tuition, which the school values at $35,000 per year.

In his letter, Bharucha said the school “must be prepared to undergo a bold plan of reinvention” in order to meet the shortfall, without selling assets or taking from the college’s endowment beyond its spending policies.

McCarthy said the president intends to convene a task force made up of students, faculty and alumni to discuss the situation moving forward.

Reaction to the news was largely against the idea on the Cooper Union’s official alumni association page on Facebook, with many decrying the idea of implementing tuition at school founded on the model that students shouldn’t have to pay.

“Bottom line, without free tuition the school loses its brand, will lose top notch applicants, and also risk losing large donors,” wrote a 2006 graduate. “I would rather see the school unload more of its assets, reduce the number of students, or consolidate some of its academic programs before charging tuition.”

The president of the Cooper Union Alumni Association also weighed in with a letter posted on the alumni website, noting that the school has been operating with a deficit for a long time that has only been compounded by the ailing economy.

“Historically, the real estate and stock portfolios in the endowment were reasonably expected to balance each other and to cover for an operational deficit, but now, when both real estate and stock markets are depressed, the school has a very real and immediate money problem,” wrote Peter G. Cafiero, a 1983 graduate, who did not take a position on the tuition plan.

Others, however, made their sentiments clear.

“This is a complete abomination,” one former student wrote in the comments section of the alumni Facebook page. “By doing this you strip the school of its character. Is this to pay for that glass castle they built that they couldn't afford? By charging tuition you diminish the prestige and difficulty it takes to get into Cooper Union.”

The college has also come under fire recently for refusing to lower the rent of retail tenant St. Mark’s Bookshop, which requested a $5,000 monthly rent reduction to stay afloat.

School spokeswoman McCarthy said Wednesday that discussions regarding the store’s fate are continuing, despite the university stating that it would have a final answer by the end of October.