Cooper Union, the New York college that had been free for more than 100 years, will now require that its students pay tuition. This development is unfortunate, for sure, but often commentary on the Cooper Union problem (including that appearing in the College Guide) has treated the tuition as if it were a the result of inevitable forces related to the rising cost of education.

That might be part of it, but Cooper Union has always been exceptional, and always operated very differently from other colleges in the past. What happened?

As Felix Salmon shows in a piece at Reuters, the reason Cooper Union is charging tuition has to do with some very specific, and very bad financial decisions the school made in recent years.

In 2000 Cooper Union hired George Campbell to run the school. And Campbell, according to Salmon, spent money:

You can see where a huge amount of the money went: into a gratuitously glamorous and expensive New Academic Building [below], built at vast expense, with the aid of a $175 million mortgage which Cooper Union has no ability to repay.

The bland name for the building is a symptom of the fact that Cooper’s capital campaign, designed to raise the money for its construction, was a massive flop: no one gave remotely enough money to justify putting their name on the building. It’s also a symptom of the fact that no one on the board had any appetite for naming it after George Campbell, the main architect of the scheme which involved going massively into debt in order to construct this white elephant.


This stuff isn’t shocking or even particularly noteworthy. This is, indeed, the story of the private university of our era: go into debt to build new buildings and the students will come. Let them take on some debt; it’s worth it.

Meanwhile, however, the school was starting to sell off the principal, since the 1970s it had been shedding (admittedly for huge cash payments) the real estate holdings that enabled it to be tuition free for so long.

And so its administrators and board members were eventually faced with what looked like pretty fundamental problem: charge tuition or just shut down. And so it charged tuition. According to a transcript of a September 2012 board meeting Salmon obtained, one of the trustees explained the need for more money like this:

Maintaining the highest standards of excellence means that we must constantly aim to improve through investment. We must engage in a continuous process of strengthening our academic programs, our faculty, and the clarity of our academic reputation. The institution will invest in our programs and our faculty to ensure that we always are, and are regarded as, equal to the best.

This sort of discussion of university quality also isn’t shocking or even particularly noteworthy as far as the blather of officialdom goes. But it has, Salmon nothing at all to do with Peter Cooper and his thoughts about the institution he was creating.

The United States is full of higher-education institutions trying to carve out “a global brand” for themselves, often through “investment”. They generally have multi-billion-dollar endowments, global name recognition, and undergraduate tuition costs somewhere north of $40,000 a year. You could name a dozen of them off the top of your head, and Cooper Union would never be one of them. On the other hand, what you can’t do is name a dozen — or even two — institutions like Cooper, based on a social mission and free tuition and low-key excellence, where the pedagogy is not reliant on the provision of climbing walls, and where the health of the institution is not reliant on jet-setting deans who address the World Economic Forum on the subject of Global Leadership.

Charging tuition might very well be the way that Cooper Union can keep operating in the manner to which it’s become accustomed. The institution will continue to enroll bright and motivated students and employ many brilliant and committed instructors.

But this is the story of how an institution of higher learning lost its soul. In an effort to “maintain the highest standards of excellence” and strengthen its “academic programs, faculty, and the clarity of academic reputation” it become an institution just like any other private college in America.

That’s not maintaining the highest standards of excellence; that’s promoting mediocrity.

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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