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Great Wealth Is A Public Trust
December 7, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Last year, The Cooper Union For The Advancement Of Science And Art publicly admitted it was in dire financial straits and raised the idea of charging tuition for the first time in 110 years. The students responded in an appropriate manner. But now as the specter of tuition becomes closer to reality the students took a more drastic option: Since Monday, eleven undergraduate students have expertly barricaded themselves inside the top floor of the New York college. They talk about what they want. They even get pizza.

From the HuffPo Article "Cooper Union has not charged tuition for any of its students since it was founded in 1902. But in April the administration announced it plans to start charging tuition for graduate students. The school may also start charging for certain undergraduate programs, according to a leaked document. According to the school, tuition is currently valued at $38,550, although every student is covered by full scholarships."
posted by The Whelk (68 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
So they feel the students "haven't been heard," but what is it that they are saying other than that they don't want to pay? Do they have any solutions? I'm generally in favor of students not having to pay for a good education, but outside of extraordinary circumstances, that doesn't happen at most schools.
posted by OmieWise at 9:35 AM on December 7, 2012


Thanks! I was wondering what was happening when my timeline started showing strange mentions of this.
posted by infini at 9:36 AM on December 7, 2012


I'm generally in favor of students not having to pay for a good education, but outside of extraordinary circumstances, that doesn't happen at most schools.

Right, but Cooper Union's ability to do it, to provide a high-quality education fairly painlessly on the back of its endowment rather than its students, has always been a good object lesson for other rich institutions. Schools with massive enough endowments don't really need tuition revenue the way defunded state universities do, and CU has been, until now, a useful if small-scale example of that. And honestly, the student protesters are probably doing a better job looking out for the institution's future than its administrators here — the lack of tuition has always been a huge selling point for CU, allowing them to attract better students and be thought more "prestigious" than they might otherwise.
posted by RogerB at 9:40 AM on December 7, 2012 [12 favorites]



So they feel the students "haven't been heard," but what is it that they are saying other than that they don't want to pay? Do they have any solutions? I'm generally in favor of students not having to pay for a good education, but outside of extraordinary circumstances, that doesn't happen at most schools.
posted by OmieWise at 9:35 AM on December 7 [+] [!]


It's really up to the administration to find solutions. Students aren't meaningfully engaged in the high level decision making or financial management of the institutions they participate in. It's the prerogative and responsibility of the student body to assert their perspective on the institution's direction, administration can propose solutions.

I've participated in bodies responsible for some of the highest level administrative and financial decision making at the institution of my employment. I can say, quite definitively, that students are not engaged at that level. Until they are it's bogus to expect them to not only point out problems but offer clear, definitive solutions. Students just need to put pressure on the bodies/people that do make those decisions, and leverage what ever authority they can towards shaping the outcome.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:43 AM on December 7, 2012 [10 favorites]


...but outside of extraordinary circumstances, that doesn't happen at most schools.

I believe Cooper Union mandates a rather high minimum GPA to retain the scholarship and matriculation (I believe you're ejected from the school if you can't maintain it, but I could be wrong.) Last Cooper student I spoke with (this was a while ago) cited as 3.5, and Cooper Union is a gauntlet of a university. They're incredibly selective, the coursework is rigorous, and withdrawal rates are rather high.
posted by griphus at 9:48 AM on December 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Message aside, I feel strongly that a pizza delivery system of strings, balloons, counterweights, and hooks should be implemented at all universities.
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 9:48 AM on December 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


*sigh*, I can't find a description of the barricade itself. You can't just throw out the word "expertly" without explaining yourself.

ENGINEER-PEDANT-CURIOUSGEORGE MUST KNOW!
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:48 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


So they feel the students "haven't been heard," but what is it that they are saying other than that they don't want to pay? Do they have any solutions?

Setting up a false dichotomy: Is there anything it can't solve?
posted by DU at 9:52 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, I am in total solidarity with the students. Cooper Union is, in many ways, the antithesis to everything that is wrong with the U.S. higher educational system, and the lack of tuition is one of the biggest factors. Most Cooper students I have known would not have been able to receive the education they deserved (or would be permanently mired in debt) if Cooper Union functioned like Columbia or NYU.
posted by griphus at 9:53 AM on December 7, 2012 [14 favorites]


Oh, and I did find this line a few links into the story but if this is where the "expert" part of the barricade comes into play then I am thoroughly underwhelmed. Unless they mean it in the legal-loophole sense of the word.

Maintenance workers tried to push and drill through the barricade, but desisted after the students informed them that they were pressed up against the barricade and risking bodily harm.

"Don't attempt to open the door or I will cut my wrists" is just as expert as what I'm seeing above.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:55 AM on December 7, 2012


(I understand it took place during an accreditation visit, which is a really good way of kicking the administration)
posted by The Whelk at 9:57 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Setting up a false dichotomy: Is there anything it can't solve?

There's no false dichotomy in my statement. I'm asking two related but independent questions.
posted by OmieWise at 9:59 AM on December 7, 2012


Huh, I've never even heard of this school. How neat.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:01 AM on December 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


the financial side of private colleges in the US is never very straightforward see: Hollywood. Increased operating revenue from a "grad" program is gravy, but the real meat is always high dollar private donations. A fresh grad program without historical commitments is prime territory for selling endowments, buildings, plaques, etc. And then there is what the grad programs are actually in... supposed you have a grad. program in "Decorative Arts" and supposed the wife of noted financier George Soros gets a degree in the "Decorative Arts." Then after years of small donations that build trust and working relationships, you land the big one:
Soros-Led Fund Gives $60-Million to Bard College for Global Work

May 17, 2011, 10:12 am

The Open Society Foundations is donating $60-million to New York State’s Bard College to advance the liberal-arts school’s burgeoning international projects, The New York Times writes.

I admire the idealism of the CU students, but private education is and was ever sold out from the beginning.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:05 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Huh, I've never even heard of this school. How neat.

Their design program is one of the best, partially due to the quality of the student body. The free tuition requirements raise teh bar, its kind of like self moderated communities anywhere.
posted by infini at 10:07 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Right, but Cooper Union's ability to do it, to provide a high-quality education fairly painlessly on the back of its endowment rather than its students, has always been a good object lesson for other rich institutions.

This is a great example of how destructive it is for the economy in general to have interest rates held so low. Cooper, like almost every other normal player in the economy, can barely make a return from consumption they forgo -- ie, hardly anyone gets any return on savings.

Saving is, essentially, lending money to the rest of the economy to use instead of yourself; you're giving up your turn to take stuff out of the economy with your dollars now, in exchange for taking more stuff out of the economy later. But you, and Cooper, are competing against unlimited supplies of the exact same stuff, created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve, flooded into the market in sufficient quantity as to hold the rate for borrowing very close to zero.

As a direct consequence, neither you nor Cooper can get much for your savings. As a further direct consequence, Cooper can no longer afford to educate students from its interest income, because it has so little.

The longer interest rates stay so low, the more fucked up the economy will get. It's not normal for money to be free. It's not normal for savings to have so little value.
posted by Malor at 10:07 AM on December 7, 2012 [9 favorites]


Bus the St. John's kids up from Annapolis and have them perform their slam poetry nights on the other side of the barricade. That'll clear'em out. (at least, it always worked at the Moon Cafe)
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:08 AM on December 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Some day, perhaps, the public will realise that it is in their interests to fund a free system of public education; and that the some of the money currently spent on overpriced military hardware and contractors, or inept "consultants", might be better spent on ensuring that the most intelligent and expert members of society are well paid, and given the freedom to pursue their own interests and ideas without having to oblige corporations or sell their services or con young people into going into debt. In the middle of the twentieth century, the United States realised this and used the power and reach of government to achieve it. For any number of reasons, this seems unlikely to happen again. But I refuse to stop hoping for a world in which a professor is esteemed more highly than a CEO, and in which talented young people of any social class can enjoy an advanced education and commence their working lives without the burden of a crushing debt. Bickering over whether or not these particular people are behaving as well or as cleverly as they ideally should just distracts from the larger social and moral issue.
posted by lucien_reeve at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh, wait, by tuition you mean fees? Ah, now I see. I was wondering how tertiary education could get by without any tuition, apart from any 1970s "free university" experiments like Rochdale.
posted by scruss at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2012


Such a change would be a cultural shift for an institution whose tuition-free education and esteemed programs in engineering, architecture and art have made it one of the nation’s most selective schools, admitting 5 percent to 10 percent of applicants annually, depending on the department.

That's funny. Harvard - with its huge endowment - charges $38,480.00 per year and they're rumoured to be one of the nation's most selective schools too.

It's not normal for money to be free.

But it is depressing how many people think that things that cost money should be free when of course what they mean is that someone else should pay for them.
posted by three blind mice at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just what is it that you want to do?
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2012


This is not quite Les Miserables.

Student leader, you're no Enjolras.
posted by inturnaround at 10:12 AM on December 7, 2012


As a direct consequence, they can no longer afford to educate students off their interest income.

This may be descriptively true (though I'm not at all sure it is in the case of the CU budget — do you have evidence?), but in any case, pointing to the larger economy as if it got the administration off the hook is still wrong. They should be able to ride out a few years of economic downturn by just spending down the endowment to cover the gap without the institution incurring any terribly bad consequences. Forcing the students to bear the costs of a bad economy in order to protect the institution's hundreds-of-millions in the bank is a terribly regressive move.
posted by RogerB at 10:13 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does Cooper, and do other institutions with long term investment horizons, really put their money in savings? With a long horizon, you would normally be more tolerant of risk, and be able to earn a higher average rate of return.

I would expect their portfolio to be mostly in stock and bonds, not CDs and savings.
posted by zippy at 10:14 AM on December 7, 2012


As a direct consequence, neither you nor Cooper can get much for your savings. As a direct consequence, they can no longer afford to educate students off their interest income.

Nope. What Cooper did was borrow money to pay for new buildings and also also to invest in it's own endowment:
Cooper Union spent $166 million on a new academic building at 41 Cooper Square, replacing two outmoded buildings. To help pay for that and other projects, and to retire old bonds, it borrowed $175 million in 2006.

The college also invested $32 million of that borrowing in its endowment, calculating that the endowment investments would earn a higher rate of return than the interest Cooper was paying on the loan. That turned out to be a bad bet when the recession hit.
I think what's going on is roughly equivalent to the what private equity does, the board leveraged the old assets of the company i.e. borrowed money against the endowment, declared crisis and is now prepared to sell the company to new money i.e. new programs to bring in new donations.

It's not a structural crisis in their endowment but creating a crisis to push CU in a new direction.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:14 AM on December 7, 2012 [18 favorites]


They took on debt and then invested it in stocks? That was ... risky.
posted by zippy at 10:17 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cooper Union is, in many ways, the antithesis to everything that is wrong with the U.S. higher educational system,

No, because it's also diametrically opposed to the way higher education should be run, which is government funded, not privately funded. It fits perfectly in with your libertarian fundie destroy-the-government, we'll feed them with charity worldview. Let it die and then point to it as a great object lesson that private donations should not be relied on to fund public goods.
posted by jacalata at 10:19 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The college also invested $32 million of that borrowing in its endowment, calculating that the endowment investments would earn a higher rate of return than the interest Cooper was paying on the loan.

The fact that this type of thing is ever on the table is what makes me long so much for that log cabin out in the woods. Hell, my CPA (who is also family and is honestly vested in my success in life) told me to do as much with loans that I could have taken out.

I was all like "Really?" and she was like "Yea, totally." and I was like "That's not going to happen." and she was all like "You're missing out on free money." and that was about the point that I realized I needed to just go add some more bourbon to my eggnog.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:19 AM on December 7, 2012 [8 favorites]


But it is depressing how many people think that things that cost money should be free when of course what they mean is that someone else should pay for them.

It is my belief that tertiary education should be free, which means, obviously, that tertiary education should be free to the students.

It is not my belief that the entire operation of a university should somehow not cost anyone any money; I challenge you to find anyone whose belief that is.

OF COURSE what someone means when they say "such and such should be free" is that it should not cost the consumer of such and such money, not that it should materialize without any expenditure of money on anyone's part. There's nothing depressing about that, and claiming otherwise is absurd.
posted by kenko at 10:22 AM on December 7, 2012 [8 favorites]




But it is depressing how many people think that things that cost money should be free when of course what they mean is that someone else should pay for them.
posted by three blind mice at 10:10 AM on December 7 [+] [!]


That's an ungracious way to put it.

The question is how should universities be funded, and how should their funding be spent. Over the last twenty years there has been a massive shift in how both of those things are handled. Hell, the way universities are administrated has changed enormously itself. There's been a massive shift in how power and finances are distributed, and the results have shaken the entire education system. This is about what we want our education system to be, and how we want it to work.

Those changing priorities are to a large extent the object of discussion here. You're not doing anyone any service by trying to frame it as greedy kids asking for other people's money.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:23 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's funny. Harvard - with its huge endowment - charges $38,480.00 per year and they're rumoured to be one of the nation's most selective schools too.

Harvard is sui generis. They are prestigious enough that they'd be selective at half or double that tuition rate.

Also, only suckers the well-off pay retail. Harvard says they will cover whatever you cannot afford, and gives a free ride to many.

But again, comparing tiny century old Cooper Union in Manhattan to centuries-old biggest endowment on the planet, ultimate prestige and politically connected Harvard in Cambridge is always going to be a challenge. The two schools are very different beasts.
posted by zippy at 10:24 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Think of Cooper Union as being like a really awesome Division I Team. Now imagine that, due to a bad economy and financial mismanagement, they have to get rid of all the sports scholarships. Now imagine that, unlike the Division I Team, what Cooper Union does is actually that institution's very raison d'etre, and not merely an interesting, profitable side project.

A huge part of what keeps Cooper Union at the top of the heap is the fact that students have to fight so hard to get in, and to stay in, while keeping their scholarship. Take away the free tuition, and it'll become just another private engineering school. Its reputation will degrade - not instantaneously, and it won't become the Cooley Law of its fields, but it will degrade.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:26 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's funny. Harvard - with its huge endowment - charges $38,480.00 per year and they're rumoured to be one of the nation's most selective schools too.

Harvard is extremely generous with scholarships. They provide a handy net price calculator on-line, if you'd like to see details. For example, a student whose parents make $100k/yr would receive approximately $45,650 in scholarships.

Harvard has tuition, but it only gets charged to those whose parents can afford to pay it.
posted by grudgebgon at 10:32 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


The fact that Harvard is very "selective" is not very meaningful, given the size of Harvard's applicant pool.

Deep Springs is probably not as selective as Harvard. But if, one year, as many people applied to Deep Springs (which accepts on the order of ten people a year) as applied to Harvard, Deep Springs would magically rocket to the top of the selectivity list—without changing their acceptance criteria a whit!

Cooper Union doesn't have Harvard's name recognition to win it the applicant numbers that allow it to pick and choose and be selective. It has something else going for it: it's free.
posted by kenko at 10:42 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but the cynic in me can't help but see the generosity being discussed here with regards to education, like the for-need scholarships of the type being attributed to Harvard schools, as strongly, if not primarily, motivated by the fact that if they didn't then their population would look a lot like that of a certain subset of another old establishment here in the US. I just feel like it's mighty white* of them.

I'm not saying they shouldn't have the scholarships because at worst it's them doing some small fragment of the right thing, namely educating some of those who qualify but can't pay, for the wrong reason, to avoid having a student body whiter than a polar bear holding a paper plate in a snowstorm, but it seems like just another failure of our society to deal with the fact that education just shouldn't be that hard to obtain.

It sounds like Cooper has some of the same failings but as much as I complain about the system overall it sounds like they were actually started up under some pretty awesome tenets. Yay for the students and alumni that are standing up for them insofar as they still exists.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:53 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


My dad, son of immigrants, was the first person in his extended family to go to college and, in fact, stayed the one for a generation. He went to Cooper Union, and I suspect that without CU, he wouldn't have been able to go to college at all. I don't know anything about the current CU, but wouldn't be surprised if people like my dad were still a significant portion of the student population.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 11:14 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's neat that Cooper Union could afford to not charge tuition.

It's a bummer that Cooper Union can no longer do that.

The fact that previous students got to take advantage of a neat thing gives no future student grounds to demand the same. Doing so rubs me the wrong way.

I may be able to donate enough for a scholarship of a local kid to attend summer camp for many years. If I suddenly can't make that annual donation, I would hope local kids would not come occupy barricade themselves in my house demanding I make my donation or that camp should be free.
posted by dios at 11:18 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a bummer that Cooper Union can no longer do that.

Did you read the comment above that outlined why they can no longer do that? If you haven't I'd highly recommend it.

I may be able to donate enough for a scholarship of a local kid to attend summer camp for many years. If I suddenly can't make that annual donation, I would hope local kids would not come occupy barricade themselves in my house demanding I make my donation or that camp should be free.

Let's get a bit more relevant: It may be your job to act as a trustee of an endowment for a school that holds at it's core the belief that students shouldn't have to pay for their tuition. If you suddenly decide to borrow money in the short term to build some buildings and make some investments and those investments don't work out that great and you don't like the way the books look and threaten to break from that core belief to cover your ass, I would hope that the students and alumni that were associated with the school in question would not shut up and fall in line for fear they may be labeled incorrigible and spoiled.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:30 AM on December 7, 2012 [13 favorites]


Felix Salmon has been covering this story for quite a while. In addition to the suspected mismanagement, the administration and board has been completely unforthcoming about the financial state of affairs, and the other stakeholders have a right to be pissed. The professors and students weren't even consulted about the plan to build new buildings that they allegedly needed. If the decision is that Cooper Union needs to gut its heritage and values and collect tuition in order to survive, that's one thing, but the case hasn't been sufficiently made.

This is just another example of administrations being driven to keep building and getting bigger, for their own egos and paychecks (see Big 10 expansion for another example).
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


Let's get a bit more relevant: It may be your job to act as a trustee of an endowment for a school that holds at it's core the belief that students shouldn't have to pay for their tuition. If you suddenly decide to borrow money in the short term to build some buildings and make some investments and those investments don't work out that great and you don't like the way the books look and threaten to break from that core belief to cover your ass, I would hope that the students and alumni that were associated with the school in question would not shut up and fall in line for fear they may be labeled incorrigible and spoiled.

The solution to me would be "fire the people who did not manage this correctly; get us out of this financial hole so we can get back to the great tradition of not needing to charge tuition." If the steps necessary to "get out of this financial hole so we can get back to the great tradition" meant that there would be a temporary need to charge for some things not previously charged for, I suppose my options would be (1) accept it and realize I lose out on a benefit for the sake of the future of the institution; (2) don't accept it and go somewhere else. I don't think it is reasonable to propose an option 3 where the school continues down a path towards financial insolvency where it will eventually have to go away.

Heads should roll. People should be bummed because a nice thing was ruined for now but hopefully fixable. I just find it off-putting in framing this as "a right being denied" instead of "a great and wonderful benefit that some people were privileged to enjoy that no longer can be enjoyed".
posted by dios at 11:44 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just find it off-putting in framing this as "a right being denied" instead of "a great and wonderful benefit that some people were privileged to enjoy that no longer can be enjoyed".

This is complicated by the fact that covered tuition is an inherent part of Cooper Union. It's not simply a "nice thing" but the foundation of existence the school itself.
posted by griphus at 11:54 AM on December 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


(Well, foundation as of 1902, at least.)
posted by griphus at 11:56 AM on December 7, 2012


Yea, to tag along with what griphus said, it's not a "great and wonderful benefit" as you put it.

It is great and wonderful but that's an aside. It is what the school was built upon and what has set it apart for these many years. It is, as shown by the actions of the students, something worth fighting for.

Sure, some of the options available to those associated with the school are to 1) shut up and take it while putting faith in the fact that the administration will self correct itself or 2) GTFO. I don't at all agree that it's unreasonable to attempt to draw attention to the problem in question by standing and being true to your beliefs.

I feel like you could apply the same argument you're making to pretty much all the people who have, quite literally, went out on a limb in the past to protect something they believed was in dire danger of being destroyed and I just don't see that as a good thing.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:08 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, dios, I happen to think willful misrepresentation of a situation by way of obtuse analogies counts as noise.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:08 PM on December 7, 2012


Bus the St. John's kids up from Annapolis and have them perform their slam poetry nights on the other side of the barricade. That'll clear'em out. (at least, it always worked at the Moon Cafe)

I lol'd. St. Johns is sort of the opposite, if you can afford to go there you get to have the best education ever. They use their endowment mostly to build new dorms for the growing demand for their specialized program among idealistic upper middle class kids too conservative for most undergraduate experiences and while they haven't gone broke yet they don't fund too many free rides either.

And some of that slam poetry got us into grad school thank you very much.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:48 PM on December 7, 2012


Oh, wait, by tuition you mean fees? Ah, now I see. I was wondering how tertiary education could get by without any tuition, apart from any 1970s "free university" experiments like Rochdale.

I realise this was a dialect joke, but funnily enough, historically the University of California did not have 'tuition', but 'fees', which just so happened to amount to what one might expect to pay in 'tuition'. I believe they've thrown in the towel and started calling it 'tuition', though I don't know what the point of that change was. Also amusing is the fact that UC giving up on this ruse coincided with my current university realising they could invent 'fees' for things like, oh, being enrolled as a way to avoid raising tuition.
posted by hoyland at 1:13 PM on December 7, 2012


realising they could invent 'fees' for things like, oh, being enrolled as a way to avoid raising tuition.

I like to think there's a special, very warm, place for the people that do this. And no, I don't mean Tuscon.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:16 PM on December 7, 2012


I believe Cooper Union mandates a rather high minimum GPA to retain the scholarship and matriculation (I believe you're ejected from the school if you can't maintain it, but I could be wrong.) Last Cooper student I spoke with (this was a while ago) cited as 3.5, and Cooper Union is a gauntlet of a university. They're incredibly selective, the coursework is rigorous, and withdrawal rates are rather high.

I'm very much in favor of selective, tuition-free college, but Cooper Union sounds like an utterly execrable place to get an education because that kind of program will most likely kill a capable student's natural desire to learn, understand, and create, and replace it with fear of failure and crushing anxiety about one's performance and abilities.

Which means that Cooper Union is essentially a mechanism for finding some of our most promising young people and systematically extinguishing their interest in the world around them, and rendering them so fearful of making mistakes that they can't take the risk of doing anything new.
posted by jamjam at 1:46 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I only know a few Cooper alumni, but they are all happy with their education experience and current station. Much more consistentlu than the NYU and Columbia grads I know (albeit I know more of those.)
posted by griphus at 2:20 PM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]


I attended Olin College of Engineering, as part of the inaugural class entering in 2002. The school was founded on the basis that an excellent engineering education should be available at little to no cost to excellent students, and thus provided a full-tuition scholarship to all accepted students. (my class, by virtue of having to live in trailers for at least a year while additional dorms were under construction, also had our room and board covered). And it was amazing, let me tell you. My "safety" wasn't about the school I was sure I could get into, it was about what school I knew I could pay for -- and my "safety" was to go to MIT on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. Fortunately, however, I got into Olin, and in addition to not having to join the military upon graduation, thanks to a part time job in the IT department to pay for books and entertainment expenses, I graduated with no more debt than the few hundred bucks on a credit card I was carrying.

What did this mean? It meant when I looked at jobs, I didn't have to give a crap which one was going to help me pay off my loans the fastest. It meant that even as a young 22 year old alumna, I was able to donate money that was more than $20 I remembered to send in before a deadline. It wasn't a million dollars, but it was something -- probably more than most 22 year old college alumni donate. We have one of the highest alumni participation rates in the country for annual development drives, because instead of paying a few hundred bucks a month to the banks we can give it back to Olin and we want to. That was the gamble, you see, from the founders of the college -- if we let these kids go to school for free, will they be grateful enough to pay it back somehow and let us keep doing this?

Unfortunately, even though Olin had a very healthy endowment for a young, small (350 undergrads only) school, we still have a very small crop of alumni who are still not able to donate millions of dollars (yet!) and then the recession happened. So after the financial collapse the Board of Trustees had to start charging half tuition. This means that an incoming student now pays somewhere around $20k in tuition (like CU, Olin's tuition is valued at something close to $40k) and $20k in room, board, and fees. Let me tell you, if it were me now, I'd be at my safety school.

There's been all sorts of debate about whether or not Olin now gets a "different" kind of student willing to attend, for better or for worse, and it's nearly impossible to quantify any real change in the student body as a result of the change in this policy. Maybe we'll see something as these students start to graduate, if their average donations stay much lower than the earlier alumni who didn't have to pay off the loans that these kids now will. All I know is, as a group, we alumni want to see those full tuition-scholarships back. We all see from our peers how different things can be when you're not held hostage to loans for decades after you graduate, and we want that for as many people as possible. That's what we're donating toward now, is doing our best to build up enough of a pot to send one, then two, then more kids to Olin for free like we did. At some point one or more of us will make it big and donate tens of millions and solve the problem forever, but until then, the same way we donate our no-longer-necessary copays for birth control to Planned Parenthood to help the people who need it, we're happy to send what might otherwise be loan money off to Olin to try to revitalize the endowment and bring back those full scholarships.

We're engineers. We're geeks. Instead of locking ourselves in a building in protest we just sent lots of (in our opinion) well-thought-out, logical, rational arguments to the Board of Trustees to try to convince them not to reduce the scholarships, held town hall meetings, called board members, etc. That didn't work, so now we're frantically donating and organizing. But regardless of the methods through which we or CU are fighting, a system providing an incredible education without life-altering debt is absolutely worth fighting for.
posted by olinerd at 3:24 PM on December 7, 2012 [6 favorites]


Rather than protest, their alumni should do what alumni from other institutions do, participate in annual giving. Give more, protest less.
posted by caddis at 4:36 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which means that Cooper Union is essentially a mechanism for finding some of our most promising young people and systematically extinguishing their interest in the world around them, and rendering them so fearful of making mistakes that they can't take the risk of doing anything new.

This has not been borne out by the CU alums I've met.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:46 PM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am glad the students are protesting. The administration that screwed up should have their feet put to as many fires as possible, so that the instutional memory is most certain that this was a dumb maneuver, and that the founding principles of the school should be maintained continuously, rather than risked for the folly of a few who have little to lose.
posted by zippy at 4:48 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the board members that secretly gutted the endowment for self-aggrandizement and the financial benefit of themselves (via suspiciously non-disclosed hedge fund investments) and their family members should be indicted. Let's call this what it is: a massive criminal enterprise that has taken assets directly out of the hands of those to whom they rightly belonged. Board members and officers of a non-profit have a fiduciary obligation not to gamble like drunken sailors. It's disgusting that anyone thinks this is about students wanting something cute and fluffy that isn't really practical in the modern world. This is about greedy incompetents stealing and not being held accountable.

If Peter Cooper was here, he'd be up in the tower with the students--or scaring the hell out of the evil doers by shaking around that awesome beard of his.
posted by Scram at 6:21 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


RogerB : Right, but Cooper Union's ability to do it, to provide a high-quality education fairly painlessly on the back of its endowment rather than its students, has always been a good object lesson for other rich institutions.

And now, it has become a good object lesson on why TANSTAAFL, at least not in the long run.

You can apply that to the "cliff" as you deem appropriate.
posted by pla at 7:08 PM on December 7, 2012


olinerd: Please tell me that isn't $20K/year. I only paid about $40K for my whole degree in Canada, not counting room and board, and I'm always stunned by how much Americans wind up paying for school.
posted by Canageek at 8:55 PM on December 7, 2012


hoyland: Some collages in Ontario realized this a few years back, due to goverment tuition controls. As I recall the goverment was less then amused by this.
posted by Canageek at 8:56 PM on December 7, 2012


olinerd: Please tell me that isn't $20K/year. I only paid about $40K for my whole degree in Canada, not counting room and board, and I'm always stunned by how much Americans wind up paying for school.

Oh yes it is. That's fairly standard. All the top tier schools, regardless of whether you're going for liberal arts at Harvard or engineering at MIT, will run you somewhere between $35 and $50,000 per year for tuition. Then there's the room, board, books, computer, etc. Even at a state school, in-state tuition is over $10,000/year, and if you come from out of state that doubles. Yeah, a lot of this can be offset with "financial aid", but the whole problem has been that colleges and universities are all too happy to provide that aid not in the form of scholarships that you don't have to pay back, but instead in loan packages. And god forbid you get a master's degree in a field that doesn't pay for it -- by that point you might as well have bought a nice house somewhere instead of spend 6-9 years being educated.
posted by olinerd at 12:31 AM on December 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


And now, it has become a good object lesson on why TANSTAAFL, at least not in the long run.

I'm not terrifically familiar with the history of Cooper Union specifically, but in general it seems to me that this attitude is exactly why we are so fucked. Would dismantling the primary public education system generally also be a good object lesson? I mean, you know, if you really want to learn things or have any capacity to participate in the economy and have a measure of security, you and/or your parents should totally be willing to go into crippling debt, right? Or just be wealthy. That works too.

Sooner or later our society is going to have to come to terms with the fact that the lunch it ain't getting for free is an educated citizenry and a functioning democracy.
posted by brennen at 4:22 AM on December 8, 2012


New Cooper Union website
posted by neroli at 5:16 AM on December 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


That's brilliant. I lost it when I moused over the ADMISSIONS link and all it did was bring up a layer with ENTER CREDIT CARD NUMBER HERE and an ENROLL button with flashing colors.
posted by Justinian at 12:39 PM on December 8, 2012


Very happy to see this here. I graduated Cooper long ago and taught there recently, and know some of these occupying students pretty well. Apologies this is lengthy -- it's something I know a lot about.

From an insider's perspective, I see that it would be easy -- from the outside -- to simply say "well, these are hard times, and what do these kids expect, something for nothing?" I would feel the same. But the reality is different.

It's been said above, but just to reaffirm it: Peter Cooper set up the school to always be able to provide for a carefully selected and quite small number of Art, Engineering and Architecture students. It wasn't designed to expand or scale. It may not be replicable. OK.

But it was perfectly sustainable: an agreement with the city meant that real estate taxes on Cooper property (e.g., the Chrysler bldg) go to Cooper Union instead of the city. That meant that as long as real estate held value, Cooper Union would always have revenue, no mater what happened to the endowment. So long as real estate keeps pace with inflation (not ambitious in Manhattan) the number of students can remain relatively constant.

And this was, more or less, what happened for about 110 years. Through the Great Depression and all the many financial crises since then. So it's not about a crash.

It's simply a function of mismanagement, bad faith, and possibly something darker. The trustee who appointed the construction of that $166MM building (Sandra Priest Rose) happens to have a son Jonathan Rose in the construction business. So about $2MM passed from Cooper Union from a trustee to her son. For perspective, she also donated $5MM for an auditorium. But it's all just to say: the construction of a $166MM building was not to the obvious benefit of the students inside it. And the $175MM loan to do it wasn't either. A lot got invested into a (loser) hedge fund run by another one of the trustees. The usual, you know?

I attended many of the crisis meetings that sprang up over this. At one meeting, Mark Epstein, head of the Board of Trustees, told alumni that they were the problem, "a failed investment." This with $10MM debt on loan interest alone. With that, we could all see how far away they were from reality, and it became clear that this distance accounted for the current state of affairs.

This has been an exercise in the hubris of financial instruments, opacity, and a total lack of accountability. Nothing new in Manhattan, but new to the great ambitions of Cooper Union. Peter Cooper originally prohibited debt for the school -- he knew from financial crises. He originally specified that the trustees were forbidden to mortgage the property or go deeper than $5,000 into debt. And that to do so would be to take personal liability for the risk.

I don't know what happened to that. I don't know what happened to a lot of it, because I've never seen a more opaque institution than this one, designed to serve the public trust. And it's not clear what will happen, but for here I think it's just important to keep in mind: this happened by the actions of a few people, working in isolation, answering to no-one. It's not natural, it wasn't inevitable, and I hope truly that it can somehow be mitigated. Cooper students go there for free, but not for nothing.
posted by cloudscratcher at 12:34 PM on December 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


olinerd: I'm still trying to get what the difference between a $5k/year school like mine is, one that costs twice or more like University of Toronto, or one that costs as must as MIT is.

Ok, I've heard that classes are harder, so if you actually gradate you know your degree is worth more. Do they just add more tests, make the questions harder, etc? I've already had to fight tooth and nail to gradate with honours (I write my final exam on Monday!) from my program, I'm not sure if I could take one that is twice as hard. Yet, I've got multiple jobs and work terms under my belt, and have gotten great references from them.

Do they hire better professors to teach? Put more emphasis into teaching? Smaller class sizes? Where does all that money GO?
posted by Canageek at 4:20 PM on December 9, 2012


So, it's not the case that the quality of a university is directly proportional to the cost. It happens that almost all of the best universities in the US are private and thus incredibly expensive. The public universities cost more than Canadian universities because they aren't adequately funded. Your university didn't spend $5k x the number of students this year. They spent that plus some nontrivial sum they got from the government.
posted by hoyland at 5:54 PM on December 9, 2012


hoyland: My understanding is that from most universities in Canada's tuition is a very small fraction of their total operating costs.

That said, I think I phrases my question wrong; As a student, what are the advent ages to going to a more expensive school. I asked this last time there was a mefi thread on this, and I got a lot of answers about community involvement and such, as well as summer job opportunities, but I've got to imagine classes at MIT are huge, and is the quality of instruction much better? Will I know more chemistry when I gradate, or am I just paying for a fancier piece of paper?

Related: I'm currently waiting on official word about my acceptance to grad school, to a smaller Canadian university out on the west coast. I've heard good things about the professors research from a couple of other people in the field, but one prof warned me that I might want to look somewhere more prestigious for my postdoc when I thanked him for the reference letter. Then I asked some chemists I know online, and their response was that they'd not heard of much discrimination based on school, that publications and quality of the group was more important, and one mentioned the former grad chair at their "R1 university" (whatever that is) did his or her PhD at this uni.

So...does it matter? Is it just a prestige thing for business people and engineers and future politicians and such?
posted by Canageek at 6:20 PM on December 9, 2012


You're conflating price with prestige and quality of the university/college, which doesn't hold in the US, in the sense that there are plenty of incredibly expensive places that are not any better academically than the less expensive options. (Certainly I went to school with people who went to private colleges who couldn't get in to our good, but not amazing, state university.)

But if we're actually talking about MIT and places of a similar calibre, then, yes I think they're 'worth it'. You probably will finish knowing more chemistry or whatever. Why? You'll have had more advanced coursework available to you. This makes you more competitive for summer programs and internships. The standard coursework will be more rigorous. When you applied to grad school, you probably got asked to provide a list of courses you'd taken with textbooks. I certainly was (I'm not a chemist). The point there is to ascertain the universities where the standard coursework is at a higher level--MIT is bound to be in this category, but some small college the admissions committee doesn't know anything about could also have rigorous standard coursework. (For example, I know the text MIT uses for its compulsory calculus class is the textbook for the honors course elsewhere. In another example (not MIT), my abstract algebra book's introduction said the authors anticipated covering the first six chapters in a year long course (and sometimes didn't make it that far). We did eight of the nine chapters in one semester.) I don't think quality of instruction is particularly measurable.

Small liberal arts colleges (which are almost universally very expensive) will tell you they are targeting faculty who can teach and that large universities don't care about such things. I don't doubt that small liberal arts college faculties are full of excellent teachers, but I honestly can't recall a dreadful instructor. Maybe I got lucky, I don't know. I took very few introductory courses, which means I took more classes viewed as desirable teaching assignments.

My anecdote in this area has to do with going to the admitted students day at a small liberal arts college. I was basically choosing between there, a large public university in a state I wasn't from and a private university (this was a wash financially, at least at the time--I was offered a scholarship later that covered 'full financial need', so I have no student loans, which probably skews my perspective). The visit day was full of people (students and parents) going on and on about how dreadful the public university I was considering was (many of them were from that state), mostly about how large and 'impersonal' the classes were. I knew what I wanted to study and the faculty in that department basically said "Look, you got in to X and Y. You'd be crazy to turn them down for here. We think we're a good department, but we can't offer you that sort of opportunity."

I went to the public university the liberal arts college students were slagging off. Naturally my bias is that class size is not big deal. I had 400+ person classes (two, for the record) and less than eight person classes (three, I think). Most were somewhere around the 30 student mark. But, basically, if you're sitting in a lecture, it doesn't much matter how many people are in the room. Students generally don't go to office hours, so it's not particularly difficult to speak to the instructor multiple times, even if there are 400 people in the class. One of my grad school references was written by a guy whose I had for two classes, both around the 100 student mark.

Starting grad school, I pretty clearly had a stronger background than people who'd gone to small colleges, simply because I had taken more classes because more were available. They were probably better prepared for the non-academic aspects of grad school. They were better at advocating for themselves in the sense of asking for things. I had been trained to exist within a system that basically didn't grant requests--my mind was blown when I was told it was acceptable to ask the department to change the time a class was scheduled, when some of my fellow students would have asked without second thought.
posted by hoyland at 8:33 PM on December 9, 2012


This story is a Quintuple of Loathing for conservatives. It combines five of their fondest hatreds: civil disobedience, social entitlement, New York, book learnin', and young people.
You should read the comments on conservative websites. They want to put these kids in the the special showers.
posted by clarknova at 11:05 PM on December 9, 2012


hoyland: Interesting. Thank you for the details. My university seems to fall somewhere between that range, at least once I started my Chemistry degree.

I'm now curious how one of those schools would process my degree though, as we didn't use textbooks in most of my high level classes, as the professors didn't want us to have to pay $300 for a book, so they wouldn't list one.
posted by Canageek at 1:21 PM on December 10, 2012


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