Manhattan’s Cooper Union is free. Cooper Union has always been free. High-quality education should be “free as air and water,” said founder Peter Cooper when he helped create the institution back in 1859. But now the college argues that the school is having some financial problems and might have to charge tuition.

According to an article by Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times:

“Altering our scholarship policy will be only as a last resort, but in order to create a sustainable model, it has to be one of the options on the table,” Jamshed Bharucha, who took over as president in July, said in an interview.

“Dr. Bharucha emphasized that lower-income students and many middle-income ones would continue to attend free, and that none of the 900 current undergraduates would be charged. He said that if the school decided to charge tuition, it was not clear whether it would set its price comparable to those at other private colleges, $40,000 or more, or adopt a different payment structure.

Well no, say students and alumni. It’s tuition-free. That’s sort of the point.

Students, sensibly, point out that free tuition is part of what Cooper Union is. If the university doesn’t think it can afford to offer free tuition, it must have made some big financial mistakes in recent years. The “need” to charge tuition implies some pretty severe financial mismanagement. Students are demanding to an inquiry into the school’s accounts.

According to another piece by Perez-Pena:

As Cooper Union officials try to quell the uproar over news that the college may start to charge tuition, some students, alumni, faculty members and college trustees are advocating an inquiry into how the school got into such serious financial trouble.

How, indeed. The previous president George Campbell Jr., said that the school’s financial problems “had always been well documented in public records like financial statements, reports on trustees’ meetings and his annual addresses on the state of the college.”

Well why didn’t he try to fix those problems? Under his tenure the school spent $166 million on a new building and borrowed $175 million to do so. Cooper union also invested $32 million of that loan, assuming that the school would earn more on the investments than it paid in interest. It didn’t.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer