When students at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York took over the president's office one month ago to protest the school's decision to charge tuition, they painted the lobby black.
They also took a painting of the school's founder, and hung a piece of red fabric from the frame, as if Peter Cooper himself had joined in the protest.
This small, highly selective college for artists, engineers and architects had been one of the last remaining tuition-free schools in the country. But in April, Cooper's board decided to begin charging tuition for most undergraduates, beginning with students who enter in 2014. On May 8, a rotating cast of students took up residence in the president's office.
Protester and graduate student Mike D'Ambrose says the tuition plan will destroy what's unique about Cooper: It offers an elite education at a price anyone can afford.
"I think it's kind of a one-way street," D'Ambrose says. "As soon as money is really in the equation, things will start to tweak. And soon enough — maybe not in two years, but in 20 years — it'll just be like any other profit-based college or business, as every other college has become."
Opened in 1859, Cooper Union's founder, Peter Cooper, was an industrialist who wanted to give young people what he had lacked: access to a quality education that was "open and free to all," in his words.
For the past 100 years, the school has offered full-tuition scholarships to all undergrad students, currently valued at about $38,000 a year. But this spring, Cooper's board voted to begin charging tuition on a sliding scale, up to $19,000 a year.
The administration declined interview requests for this story, but shortly after the occupation began in May, Cooper President Jamshed Bharucha did address the student protesters.
"I hear your mournful tones. I hear your high-pitched agitation," Bharucha said. "I regret the need to bring about this kind of change that sparks these feelings. I wish we didn't have to."
Much of the school's income comes from an unusual arrangement that provides rent and tax revenue from the land beneath the iconic Chrysler Building in Manhattan. But the school's costs have been growing faster than that income, according to Cooper board Chairman Mark Epstein.
"That's our problem: The school's been running a deficit, primarily because costs of education have gone up," Epstein said during a recent interview with the show Democracy Now! "We never had the luxury of raising tuition to meet expenses. And this is a problem through higher education, not just at Cooper Union."
But critics say some of the school's problems can be traced back to missteps by the board.
Felix Salmon, a finance blogger at Reuters, says construction of the school's new engineering building, completed in 2009, has contributed to its growing deficits.
"They borrowed $175 million to build this enormous new building, which they didn't need," Salmon says. "Now that they need to pay $10 million a year in mortgage payments, it's very, very hard to make the math work. And now the mission at the heart of the institution — free tuition — has been completely abolished."
The decision to charge tuition leaves an even shorter list of free colleges — about a dozen around the country, including the nation's military academies. But the students occupying the seventh floor at Cooper still believe that free education can work here. And they say they're not coming down until the administration agrees to start talking.
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