Three points toward a solution:
- Create a tuition-free associate degree for NYC residents by lottery.
- The undergraduate school must charge a full value tuition to support this new two year program.
- The graduate program is inappropriate for Cooper Union’s community mandate.
Peter Cooper was a man of great intuition on a mission to educate the people who made him rich. He believed that power came from the administering of money, not from hoarding it. The public schools were a dismal failure and he knew that an enlightened community is in everyone’s best interest so he built his school as a prototype for the country to follow, with the hope that it would not be the exception but the rule. A rule that would be as free as air and water.
The public schools balked at the idea but the free education model was copied by the robber barons. They wanted to redeem their reputation and leave behind a monument more lasting than sculptures of marble. To survive they turned to tuition. Cooper Union outlasted them all and now it too will be charging tuition. The one thing that made us unique is gone, but we pretend. A statue of Ayn Rand might replace Peter Cooper’s just as that mundane cube replaced his likeness on our masthead when no one was looking.
It’s not bad for colleges to be in the red for reasons of study and research but genteel college presidents have all been replaced by corporate CEOs who maximizing profits and know thar’s gold in them thar mills. Diploma Mills bring in huge amounts of money selling narrow specializations known as “domain expertise”. It promises the good life in a digital future and downplays the importance of the fine arts in enriching that life. The University of Phoenix took it to extremes but the Ivy League is not far behind.
Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees decided to follow fashion and spent our treasure on a razzle-dazzle ‘icon’ to attract the silicon set. But the problem with that strategy is that Cooper’s tuition free education was already the best value on the planet, accepting only 6% of applicants. Going mainstream is the death knell of the school but these status-quo die-hards appear to be “objectivists” opposed to the idea of anything free. Their slogan is, “You pay, you stay” and by getting us deeply in debt they have made sure we have no choice. The Trustees show no remorse or accountability and we have only ourselves to blame.
It is a significant irony that the New Academic White Elephant was erected on the spot where Sarah Hewitt’s White Elephant Column once stood. The trustees knew it was an unpopular idea but they did it anyway. We did not have to go broke to find an excuse to charge tuition for an excellent education in the center of New York City. Maybe the time has come for the undergraduate degree to support a new associate degree program that would be free to NYC residents (who take up the slack for our tax free status). Expanding into post-graduate programs aimed at foreign students won’t bring financial solvency and might even hasten our demise.
Furthermore, an attitude of entitlement among students has increased with each passing year and it’s getting hard to justify a free education for those who would otherwise go Ivy. We know that students of privilege can’t be expected to fight when the going gets tough and that, some believe, is why they closed down the working class evening school. As well, the large contingent of foreign students (most of which already have a degree) that take the gift and never look back is a burden we can no longer bear. Free education is standard in their countries and naturally they feel they owe us nothing.
Meetings called to discuss a way out of this dilemma are futile because they are dominated by those who created the problem in the first place. There are representatives on committees selected from outside the alumni to speak on our behalf. Our history is in spin, we are told to shut up, that Cooper was never meant to be free, ‘tuition free’ has been changed to ‘full scholarship’ and the alumni blamed for not donating enough money to the school.
Truth be told, the alumni are guilty of that charge but how can alumni be asked to give more to a leadership that failed us and refused to be totally transparent? Students are graded, faculty are evaluated, so why are policy makers immune from review? Where are the checks and balances that Peter Cooper mandated? He expected the alumni to keep the dream alive and when they see no need to do so, then his mission has been accomplished.