Opinion | 4:43 pm | April 26, 2013 | By Scott Stern

Forum: Cooper Union

Cooper Union has announced that it plans to raise tuition fees.
Cooper Union has announced that it plans to raise tuition fees. Photo by Elisa Rolle / Creative Commons.

In this edition of the Forum, opinion blogger Scott Stern ’15 weighs in on Cooper Union’s decision to charge students tuition next academic year.

On Tuesday, the trustees of Cooper Union, a small college in New York famed for being completely free, released a statement that “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.” In other words, they are going to start charging students for tuition. Next year.

When the policy was announced in an assembly, many students broke down and wept. Others stormed out in fury. Others shouted, “Do you really think it’s going to work?”

It definitely won’t work. Perhaps Cooper Union can stave off financial oblivion for a few years, but its application numbers and yield will inevitably plummet. Cooper Union has sacrificed its most distinctive characteristic, its grandest selling point.

And for what? Apparently, a really cool building. Even as the financial health of colleges nationwide worsened, Cooper Union saw fit to build a New Academic Building for $160 million. A New York Times critic called the gesture “self-indulgent,” an exemplar of an “Age of Excess.”

Cooper Union’s decision to build such an edifice represents a broader trend across American colleges. As student protesters wrote in a petition from 2011, the school should simply “tackle spending and live within [its] means.” I’m not sure it’s that simple, but spending at top schools has ballooned nearly as fast as tuition.

It’s easy to assume that Yale is immune from the monetary woes of Cooper Union (and, honestly, most other universities). We have a massive endowment and no shortage of eager applicants. But economic problems can extend even to us. Whether the two new colleges, for instance, will be an economic boom or bust has yet to be seen. They will cost $500 million, most of which has not yet been raised.

As recently as 2009, just as Cooper Union was embarking on its $160 million lark, the Wall Street Journal reported that the school was “quietly skirting the crunch in higher education.”

We’re in good shape for now. But we need to be careful.

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