For more than a century, Cooper Union has been a one-of-a-kind meritocracy: Open to any student qualified to walk through its doors. For free.
Its founder envisioned higher education open to all -- regardless of race, gender or class -- an ideal that has remained the prestigious school's most cherished principle since 1902.
But a lot can change in 100 years. Cooper's board of trustees is expected to vote later this month in favor of a proposal to charge its undergraduates something -- anything -- for their education. The current price tag would be $38,500 a year.
Angry alumni have penned letters. Students have protested, even occupying part of the East Village university building where Abraham Lincoln gave a famous anti-slavery speech. But they've all run up against a hard reality: Money woes caused by the economic collapse and rising costs mean Cooper can no longer afford the perk that has been held up as a sacrosanct part of the school's identity.
"It's a math problem for me: We need to raise money and stop expenses and I can't believe we can't raise money in New York City," said sophomore Diego Gonzalez, 19, a student council member and architecture student. "The full tuition scholarship is what distinguishes Cooper from other top colleges."
But the nearly 1,000-student university's financial problems are more serious than any one-time fundraising effort, the administration says. Last year, the school started charging tuition for graduate classes and has asked the college's three schools -- architecture, engineering and art -- to help tackle a $12 million annual deficit.
Although administrators don't yet know how much they'll have to charge, the proposal is intended to put the school on firmer financial ground after 45 years of stopgap measures like property sales and loans have been used to maintain the scholarship amid rising costs, said the school's president, Jamshed Bharucha.
And while opponents don't dispute the school is strapped for cash, they charge administrators are trying to expand the school out of its money woes rather than shrink it enough to stay true to founder Peter Cooper's vision.
"I think Peter Cooper wanted this school to be a model for a level playing field for higher education," said Joe Riley, 22, a senior in the arts school. "You can't buy your way into Cooper."