Felix Salmon wrote a really worthwhile piece during the Free Cooper Union occupation discussing — among other things — exactly how Cooper Union’s academic reputation and since-forever no-tuition policy are intertwined:
Cooper has a lot of adjuncts and a very small tenured faculty, and if you ask anybody associated with the school how it keeps its quality high, they’ll tell you that it’s a function of the enormous pool of applicants. The idea is that Cooper is extremely good at identifying America’s most talented teenagers, and can basically get its pick of the crop thanks to its free-tuition policy.
It doesn’t really matter whether that’s empirically true or not; what’s certain is that Cooper’s exceptionalism is an article of faith among both students and faculty, and that it is deeply rooted in the school being free.
If Cooper Union’s reputation comes from its students, then, and its ability to draw students derives from its tuition policy, then there’s not much reason to expect that a tuition-charging Cooper Union would maintain the quality or the prestige it has today. And once you go down that road, you can’t turn back.
Salmon’s argument is specific to Cooper Union, of course — there is literally no other American college of its prominence that has a similar tuition policy. But it implies a more broadly applicable set of principles that receive too little attention.
Put simply, a college’s tuition policy affects its student body. This is true on the level of who applies, of course — if students know for sure that you’re affordable, they’ll be more interested — but it extends beyond that as well.
As we’ve seen over and over in recent years, the more dependent a college is on tuition revenue, the more its admissions decisions are shaped by that dependency. For public colleges that means enrolling ever-more out of state students, abandoning your mission to provide accessible education for the students of your state. For privates it often means need-conscious admissions — turning away the poor or middle-class applicant in favor of someone dumber but richer.
This process is already at work at Cooper Union, where a proposal has been mooted to shrink undergraduate enrollment by as much as thirty percent to make room for a new revenue-generating graduate program. And of course those grad students won’t be up to the college’s historical standards — they can’t be. They’re not supposed to be. That’s not why they’ll be invited, and it’s not how they’ll be chosen.
And this, ultimately, is yet another reason why Cooper Union matters, and yet another reason why the students’ struggle is so important. Because tuition policy gets at the heart of an institution’s character, and because, for well over a century, Cooper Union has been shining proof that tuition-free higher education works.