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Cooper Union will offer undergrads free tuition again

NEW YORK — A prestigious private college where Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama spoke when they were presidential candidates plans to reverse course and again become tuition-free for all undergraduates.

Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City approved a plan Wednesday that aims to provide full tuition scholarships to all undergraduate students in 10 years. The cost of the plan will be offset by unspecified cuts and fundraising, The New York Times reported.

“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,” said Laura Sparks, Cooper Union’s president, who took office in January 2017.

Cooper Union was founded in 1859 by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper, who endowed the school to educate working-class New Yorkers without charge. Early in the school’s history, some students who could afford to pay did so, but no undergraduates paid tuition for a century.

Cooper was “not a man who engaged in empty rhetoric,” the school says on its website. “He made his school free for the working classes. He took the revolutionary step of opening the school to women as well as men. There was no color bar at Cooper Union. Cooper demanded only a willingness to learn and a commitment to excellence, and in this he manifestly succeeded.”

The school announced in 2013 that it would begin to charge tuition on a sliding scale, up to 50 percent of the annual bill, which was $43,250 this academic year.

The college, whose alumni include the noted architect Daniel Libeskind, has 853 undergraduate students and admits 13 percent of applicants.

Mike Essl, a 1996 graduate, was a leading opponent when the school raised the prospect of charging tuition.

Essl, who displays his devotion to the school with a tattoo of its historic Great Hall on his chest, told The Times he was so disheartened that he moved to San Francisco to become a web designer.

He became impressed by Sparks’s leadership and by plans to restore the college’s fiscal health through aggressive fundraising. So he returned to New York, and is now dean of the School of Art.

“I wouldn’t be this optimistic if I didn’t see progress,” Essl said.

“I’ve been quietly sobbing to myself all day,” he said. “Cooper Union isn’t Cooper Union unless it’s free.”