College Game Plan

Cooper Union college plans to bring back free tuition 

Key Points
  • Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science, in the heart of New York City, is returning to full-tuition scholarships for all undergraduate students.
  • The plan will take 10 years to implement and require raising $250 million.
Image source: Mario Morgado

When it comes to college, rising costs are more reliable than a degree.

However, some schools are bucking the trend, slashing tuition in hopes of attracting more students and families struggling with the weight of a college tab.

Most recently, Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science, in the heart of New York City, announced a return to full-tuition scholarships for all undergraduate students.

Cooper Union, founded in 1859, had long been tuition-free but dialed back its commitment that education be "as free as air and water" and began offering students only half-tuition scholarships in 2014.

"The model wasn't sustainable at the time," Cooper Union President Laura Sparks said. "The board made a decision that it felt was necessary to the future viability of the school."

Since then, students received scholarships to cover, on average, about 76 percent of the tuition cost; according to the school. (For the coming year, tuition is near $44,000 before the scholarships are applied.)

The move, however, was met with outcry from students, teachers, alumni and community members. It was also followed by an initial drop in applicants.

Under a new plan, which was adopted by the board this spring, Cooper Union must come up with $250 million (either by cost-cutting or fundraising, or both) over the next decade to afford full-tuition scholarships for every undergraduate student.

"We have ambitious financial targets to meet in each of the next 10 years to realize our goal of returning to free," Sparks said. "If we exceed the financial targets in any given year, we may be able to accelerate the plan; if we don't meet the targets for any number of reasons, such as an economic downturn, we have built-in guardrails that allow us to slow the plan if necessary."

It was so important to the board to retain a scholarship model that would apply to all students.
Laura Sparks
Cooper Union's president

Cooper Union is making a bet that returning to tuition-free status will entice more students to apply. Currently, the college admits 13 percent of applicants.

As college costs soar, families are paying less out of pocket than in the past and relying on loans, scholarships and grants more than ever. For them, affordability is now one of the primary factors when it comes to choosing a school.

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"By going back to the mission from the beginning, I think that will influence applications in a positive direction," said Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review and author of "Colleges That Pay You Back." "It can't not become more competitive."

"It's really clear that families are making this decision with economics as a driving factor," Sparks said. "That's in part why it was so important to the board to retain a scholarship model that would apply to all students."

"I do think it could result in more students looking at Cooper," she added.

Meanwhile, New York state has initiated its own free tuition program for students at public colleges.

The Excelsior Scholarship applies to all schools at City University of New York and State University of New York . New York says more than 940,000 middle-class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year will qualify when the program completes its three-year phase-in in 2020.

It is the first in the nation to cover four years of tuition without being tethered to academic performance.

"Today, college is what high school was — it should always be an option even if you can't afford it," Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

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