On March 15, Cooper Union announced its intention to return to a tuition-free model for all undergraduates in the next ten years. The prestigious design and engineering school has been mired in controversy since 2012, when the discussion to introduce student fees began. In 2014, after two years of debate and student protests (including a lock-in of the school’s Foundation Building), the school’s board of trustees had announced it would begin charging tuition, with some students responsible for as much as 50 percent of the tuition, estimated at $38,500 a year at that time.
In a statement reported by the New York Times, Laura Sparks, Cooper Union’s president, stated that the return to tuition-free education could be accelerated if the institution exceeds its financial targets in any given year. Strengthening the school’s financial health relies on greater fundraising outreach and what are for now unspecified cuts in expenses. The precarious financial health of the educational institution primarily derives from a non-diversified endowment and an insufficiently developed donor network.
While the industrialist Peter Cooper founded the institution in 1858 to provide first-rate, higher education for the working class of New York City, the establishment of an endowment in 1902 by Cooper’s heirs insured that the school remained tuition-free for over a century. The reversal towards this former model will bring to a close a contentious and tumultuous period in Cooper Union’s history.