Legendary Art School Cooper Union Has a Plan to Bring Back Free Tuition for All—But Will It Work?

The art school dean says the 10-year plan is a "miracle," but others argue that such a long wait will decimate the school's reputation.

Cooper Union.Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia.
A banner calling for free tuition hung at the Cooper Union during a 2011 protest.
Image: Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Free education may be coming back to the Cooper Union. This month, the New York arts and engineering school’s board will take a historic vote on a plan to restore the tuition-free model that was scrapped several years ago in the name of keeping the doors open.

On the table is a 10-year blueprint by a board committee that calls for a whopping $250 million in new resources in order to create $150 million in cash reserves. Those reserves would be used as part of an incremental plan aimed at reducing the number of students paying tuition each year until the institution is once again completely free in 2029. The full board is set to vote on adoption of the plan on March 15.

The legendary school—which boasts notable alumni like artists Lee Krasner and Wangechi Mutu and architects Elizabeth Diller and Daniel Libeskind—has a long history of offering free education. Industrialist Peter Cooper founded the college in 1859 on the philosophy that education should be “as free as air and water.” Indeed all students attended tuition-free for over a century and a half. That all changed in 2011 when then-incoming president Jamshed Bharucha revealed significant budget shortfalls and announced that the school might have to begin charging tuition.

While some alumni and faculty supported the policy change, students occupied the president’s office for nine weeks in protest, and a group of students, faculty, and graduates brought a lawsuit, calling the move a violation of the school’s charter. Critics pointed to the recent addition of a $150 million Thom Mayne building erected at Cooper Square as just one part of the profligate spending that had led to the crisis.

The Cooper Union. Photo Drew Dies, via Flickr.

The Cooper Union’s new Thom Mayne building at Cooper Square. Photo Drew Dies, via Flickr.

Cooper Union began to charge tuition of some incoming freshmen in 2014. The lawsuit, however, resulted in an agreement with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that saw the departure of several board members who had supported charging tuition and the formation of a Free Education Committee of the board that would investigate the possibility of a return to free tuition.

The school’s full scholarship policy always stood in blunt contrast to the trend of ever-increasing tuition levels. Yale’s art school charges $36,359, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago $48,390, and New York’s Pratt Institute $49,810. Even at present, Cooper Union is, on average, 76 percent tuition-free.

The FEC plan calls for increasing that figure by one percent a year for several years, climbing to three or four percent a year between 2024 and 2028. Then, it would leap by seven percent—to 100 percent free—between 2028 and 2029. An independent financial monitor, the risk-consulting firm Kroll, has assessed the plan and found it to be highly ambitious but also prudent.

A student in the printmaking studio at the Cooper Union. Photo by Mario Morgado, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

A student in the printmaking studio at the Cooper Union. Photo by Mario Morgado, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

The return to free admission would be achieved, in part, by cutting expenses for items like office rental and employee benefits plans, but it would also require an aggressive fundraising campaign. To reach its $250 million goal, the plan calls for a remarkable increase in fundraising of 25 percent a year over the next five years, and for the climb to remain at an average of 11 percent a year for five years thereafter. That means fundraising will have to increase from $3.2 million a year in 2018 to $9.4 million in 2023 and $17.8 million by 2029. If the school falls short of that goal, the plan says, it would retrench.

Recent fundraising successes have given the school some reason for optimism. A representative for Cooper Union told artnet News that 2017 fundraising was 56 percent higher than in 2016, to the tune of $8.4 million versus $5.4 million. The school’s institutional funders also increased in number from 17 to 24, with nine new grants totaling $329,000. And five current institutional funders increased their annual contributions, totaling $165,000 in additional revenue, the spokesperson said. All in all, the school has increased its cash contributions by $950,000 year over year.

President Sparks. Photo by Leo Sorel, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

Cooper Union President Laura Sparks. Photo by Leo Sorel, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

Cooper Union’s new president, Laura Sparks, supports the return to free admission. In an interview at her office, she spoke to artnet News about the plan and the principles behind free tuition, a large portrait of Peter Cooper hanging on the wall behind her. (Sparks was previously the executive director of Philadelphia’s William Penn Foundation; she took office in January as Cooper Union’s first female president.)

Sparks acknowledged that the FEC plan is ambitious but she believes it will ultimately improve the school by making admissions about talent, rather than financial resources. “The school was founded on the belief that the working class could have access to a top-notch education,” she said. “Free tuition means that everyone is here because of their talent, potential, and commitment to their practice. Free tuition has allowed people to take risks in their practice and in their careers.”

Also on board is Mike Essl, the dean of the school of art, a Cooper graduate, and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I am amazed at the plan,” he said in an interview in his office. “I think 10 years is a miracle. At the cabinet meeting where the timeline was revealed, I started weeping.” Essl literally wears his love for the school on his chest: He bears a tattoo of the Foundation Building, an eight-story brownstone edifice on Cooper Square.

The Cooper Union School of Art's Dean Mike Essl. Photo by Leo Sorel, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

The Cooper Union School of Art’s Dean Mike Essl. Photo by Leo Sorel, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

The Free Education Committee’s plan also has outspoken critics. Some believe its incremental 10-year trajectory is not aggressive enough and that continuing to charge tuition during that period will cause irreparable harm to the school’s reputation. The faculty of the school of art, which includes artists Dennis Adams, Leslie Hewitt, and Walid Raad, released a statement on February 19 calling on the board to delay its March 15 vote on the FEC’s plan in order to “initiate an in-depth analysis of the impact of tuition on maintaining the school’s reputation for academic quality.”

That negative impact of charging tuition is already evident according to Raad, who has taught at Cooper since 2002. He points out that the agreement with the Attorney General’s office called for researching a sustainable economic model that would support a return to free admission while maintaining the school’s reputation. In his view, the Free Education Committee has focused almost solely on the former, with insufficient analysis of the impact that continuing to charge tuition will have on Cooper Union’s stature.

Raad, who teaches a class on the history of the Cooper Union itself, says the conversation about the tuition policy suffers from relative thinking. “You have a freshwater well, and then some toxic sludge leaks in,” he explains. “And someone says it’s only 24 percent sludge, and everyone else’s well is 50 percent sludge. And the experts point out that no one has gotten killed so far. But when Cooper was free, it was an absolute. It was not relative to anything else.”

Interior of the all-college sculpture shop. Photo by Mario Morgado, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

Interior of the Cooper Union’s all-college sculpture shop. Photo by Mario Morgado, courtesy of The Cooper Union.

The school has held several community meetings, and the administration says that the concerns from those meetings have been taken into account in the plan. Speaking to artnet News anonymously, two members of the community who are close to the discussions voiced their support for Sparks and Essl but were sharply critical of the plan and the march to have it approved.

They say the March 15 vote is being taken far too soon to consider community input honestly. “Slow down now,” one told artnet News, “so that the school can get back to free faster. You don’t build a ship while you’re sailing.”

Not only do the two believe that the plan will fail, they agree with Raad that the school’s reputation has already taken a hit. Since Cooper Union began charging tuition, application rates have fallen and there has been a drop in the gender and ethnic diversity of the student body.

The FEC plan acknowledges that school diversity has suffered. It points out that since the school began charging tuition, there’s been an 18.5 percent drop in applications, with a corresponding rise in admissions rates—from 8 percent to 13.5 percent. But the plan maintains that the caliber of accepted students, according to metrics like SAT scores, has not dropped.

Beyond reputation, Raad also objects to the plan’s reliance on tuition income. “The FEC’s report says we need to build a reserve of $152 million in the next 10 years,” he says, “but students are paying $60 or $70 million of that—half of the reserve. Yes, we have a large debt burden, but we also have a guaranteed income. The board should be more imaginative. They have the revenue from the Chrysler building that amounts to $50 or $60 million a year.” (The school receives all the real estate taxes from tenants in the Chrysler Building, the Art Deco skyscraper that stands two miles north of the school.)

Despite disagreements, all the constituencies interviewed by artnet News were of one voice on the return to the free-education model. The questions now are how and when to get there—and the answers may be determined on March 15.

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