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Bye-bye free college ride

By Christina Couch ·
Monday, April 29, 2013
Posted: 1 pm ET

As if students didn't have enough financial worries to contend with, one of the last bastions of affordable higher education just ended its free tuition policy. The Cooper Union, an art, engineering and architecture school in New York City that has offered a full scholarship to 100 percent of the undergraduate student body for the last 100 years, announced this week that it will be ending that policy, starting with freshmen entering in fall 2014. Instead, the school will begin charging half-tuition -- a bill of approximately $20,000 per year -- to families with means while continuing to provide the full scholarship to financially needy students. Undergrads currently enrolled and those entering in 2013 will still qualify for four years of free college.

The move isn't surprising, but it's still a major blow to students. Historically, the school has subsidized tuition through rental income generated in part by land Cooper Union owns that sits under the Chrysler Building. The school also reduces expenditures by keeping student amenities minimal, offering only a few select programs of study and restricting the student body to about 1,000 enrollees. Last year, the school began charging graduate students tuition despite heavy protest from the Cooper Union community.

In a statement issued by CU's Board of Trustees, the decision to extend some tuition charges to undergrads came after 18 months of "intense analysis and vigorous debate" about how to deal with the school's $12 million deficit. Cooper Union says that its new financial aid system will be based on a sliding scale, but has not announced how exactly that will work or how they will determine financial need.

It's also unclear how this move will affect admissions data. Until the announcement, Cooper Union was one of a very small handful of elite schools nationwide that offer free tuition and one of an even smaller handful that did so without requiring part-time work or military service from the student. Institutions such as Macaulay Honors College in New York, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and Barclay College in Haviland, Kan., provide full tuition for all attendees, making them a godsend for high-performing students from low-income backgrounds. Some education writers (myself included) fear that losing longtime stalwarts of free tuition such as Cooper Union and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, an engineering school in Needham, Mass., that switched from a free to half-tuition model in 2010, could signal similar schools to follow suit.

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