EAST VILLAGE — Cooper Union students walked out of their classes Tuesday afternoon, following an announcement that for the first time in more than a century the school would not offer full tuition scholarships to its incoming class.
Cooper Union said Tuesday it could no longer afford to foot the tuition bills for its entire student body, closing a wrenching year-and-a-half-long debate about how to balance economic woes against the school’s core mission to provide a top-notch higher education to talented students, no matter the cost.
The entering class of 2014 will be offered half scholarships to enroll in its prestigious program, putting the price of attendance at just under $20,000 a year.
“After eighteen months of intense analysis and vigorous debate about the future of Cooper Union, the time has come for us to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future,” said Mark Epstein, chairman of the Board of Trustees, in a statement presented to the study body on Tuesday at the Cooper Union Great Hall.
Students at Cooper Union congregated outside the school on Tuesday afternoon, after walking out of their classes about 2 p.m. The student body had been notified only that morning by email that the school was following through on its plan to charge tuition, against which students had been protesting for the past 18 months.
“They had told us they weren’t going to do it. We thought this was over,” said Paul Lahana, 24, an exchange student from Paris, France in the Art program, referring to a statement the board made in April that the Cooper Union would not charge tuition. “I’m really sad for the students who won’t be able to enroll here now.”
After walking out, students joined hands in a ring around the Foundation Building, which is original to the school, and later filed into the courtyard out front, where students and faculty made statements affirming unity against the measure, students said. At about 4 p.m., students milled around a coffee cart that the school’s Coffee Club had wheeled out and kicked around a ball in front of a large red sign that had been strung up, reading “Free Education to all.”
“The students and faculty feel that the board of trustees don’t understand what really makes this school special,” said Jaime Babon, 21, an architecture student who said that he could not have afforded to come to Cooper Union had the school charged tuition when he enrolled. "This was a place where your financial status didn't matter."
“The kinds of people that this place draws are truly inspiring,” added Alex Goss, 21, an art student. “I don’t know if that will be the same in 2014.”
“It feels like we’re being turned into a school like every other school in the world,” he said.
Cooper Union — named after founder and industrialist Peter Cooper — was established in 1859 as a school for low-income students, offering access to the higher education necessary to participate in shaping public life. Since then, the promise of free education has been as central to the school’s identity as its rigorous programs in architecture, engineering, and the arts, as well as its motley collection of academic buildings — architectural marvels suggestive of the talent of the students inside.
But, like colleges and universities across the country, the college has hit hard financial times in recent years. While the school has relied largely on rent income from land beneath the Chrysler Building to fund its scholarships, that source has not kept pace with inflation rates, Epstein said in his statement.
The new payment scheme will not affect current undergraduates and will also not apply to new students enrolling in the fall of 2013. The college will also remain need-blind and will continue to offer additional scholarships to applicants with financial need, including full tuition grants to all Pell Grant-eligible students, Epstein said.
The college had previously considered budget cuts as an alternative to charging undergraduate tuition. But those cuts would have meant closing at least one of the college’s colleges, and other, less drastic measures, like lowering enrollment, would not have been substantial enough to close a projected $12 million annual deficit, Epstein said.
“Under the new policy, The Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might otherwise not be able to afford it,” said Epstein. “Our priorities have been and will continue to be quality and access, so that we will remain a true meritocracy of outstanding students from all socio-economic backgrounds.”