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  • Free Education
  • Natasha Lewis

U.S. universities thought their students understood the deal. They would raise tuition fees, and customers (students) would gamely take out ever-increasing loans to pay for them. Protest about the price of education was reserved for those countries still clinging to a naïve social democratic tradition. Mass student movements and 100-day education strikes might even be expected in Quebec or Chile, but not here.

Perhaps it was the 50 percent leaving college to become unemployed or underemployed, perhaps it was the 25 percent of debtors in loan repayment delinquency, perhaps it was the 99 percent at Occupy. Either way, beginning in the fall, students from California to Ohio to Colorado to New York started shouting.

On 1T Day this past spring—a day of action organized by the Occupy Student Debt Campaign to mark the moment when national student debt surpassed one trillion dollars— students from Cooper Union, New York City’s highly competitive art, architecture, and engineering college, congregated in front of their iconic brownstone Foundation Building, where Abraham Lincoln once spoke.

None of those gathered had any student debt from Cooper Union, because, like every other person admitted to the prestigious design college for the past 110 years, they had all received full scholarships. But the day before 1T Day, the New York Times reported this was set to change: Cooper Union would begin charging tuition to graduate students. Students and faculty found out about the decision in the newspaper.

The private college was founded by Peter Cooper, a self-made millionaire and philanthropist, in 1859, to further his belief that education should be as “free as air and water.” Working-class students, paid no tuition fees. Warren Buffett, eat your heart out.

Since the first rumors of tuition started in the fall, students have campaigned to keep education at Cooper free, even though this value has never existed, even as a memory, for most students in the United States. On 1T Day, a huge likeness of the head and shoulders of CU’s board of trustees chair, Mark Epstein, bobbed above the gathered group. Using the artistic talents that got them into the college, students had created an outsized papier-mâché bust that bore an uncanny resemblance to the chair, complete with stern downturned mouth and green dollars seeping out of his nose.

Chalk scrawls on the sidewalk slabs urged “KEEP COOPER UNION FREE” and advertised the fighting groups’ websites (friendsofcooperunion. org and In December 2010, I’d seen similar chalkings on the outside walls of a University College London building occupied by students protesting the proposed trebling of fees to £9,000 a year (just under $15,000). Twelve hours after I visited the occupation, the increase was passed in Parliament. Outside, fires burning in Parliament Square lit the faces of angry students.

Unlike U.S. students, the British ones didn’t need to look in history books to feel the sting of the decision; they were alive in 1998 when the first fees were introduced and knew of each hike. The politicians making the decisions had been educated for free at the cost of the state they now ran. Although some universities and colleges in the United States once offered free education, they preceded their British counterparts in jettisoning it. A handful exist. The tradition of free education at Cooper Union came from the generosity of a wealthy benefactor who is long dead, and debates about fees are limited to disagreements about where to invest or where to make savings.

Cooper Union held on as an anomaly in the United States, a reminder that free higher education, a concept often presented in this country as a foreign ideal, is desirable here, too. [End Page 104]



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