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Rethinking Free Tuition, College May Risk Reputation

Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.
Library of Congress
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.

Our show on Friday told the cautionary tale of the Red Cross, and how it earned the lasting suspicion of World War II veterans when it temporarily charged for once-free doughnuts.

Uri Simonsohn, a University of Pennsylvania business professor, chalked it up to "categorical change" — and the sense of betrayal veterans felt when they saw a fundamental shift in the very nature of their relationship with the Red Cross.

Listener Barry Drogin left a comment observing that a storied New York college risks doing itself similar harm as it considers charging some students after offering free tuition for more than a century.

Founded by industrialist Peter Cooper 153 years ago, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art focuses on art, architecture and engineering, and has a small student body: about a thousand undergraduates and maybe a hundred graduate students in any given year.

Each has gotten a full scholarship since 1902. Now, however, the school is struggling with budget deficits. In April, its president, Jamshed Bharucha, announced a plan that included charging new graduate students next year, and leaves open the possibility of charging new undergraduates beginning after 2013. The very idea sparked debate last fall, and again this spring, as the New York Times has reported.

In his comment, Drogan said he worries the move will hurt the loyalty of Cooper Union's existing students and alumni. For them, he writes,

"the idea that only those with financial need deserve the scholarship is a category change that will destroy the relationship of many former alumni to the college - Cooper would be changed into just another 'honors college' that is hard to get into. Many faculty alumni will leave."

The school — which also was a pioneer in admitting women and minorities, and boasts wide range of illustrious alumni — and its alumni, faculty and students continue to look for other ways to tackle its financial challenges.

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Theo Francis

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