Cooper Protests for Free Tuition and a ‘Better Future’

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by Dr. Ibram H. Rogers

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University at Albany — SUNY.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana studies at the University at Albany — SUNY.

“We live in a world where massive student debt and the rising cost of higher education remain unchecked, where students are treated as customers and faculty as contractors. Cooper Union’s mission of free education affords quality and excellence and offers an alternative for a better future of higher education.”

Kristi Cavatora uttered this troubling truth. She read this statement minutes before noon on Monday after she and ten other students ended their week-long occupation of the Peter Cooper Suite on the eighth floor of the institution’s Foundation Building. The eleven students barricaded themselves in the office to protest the probability of undergraduates having to pay tuition for the first time in at least 110 years.

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, known as Cooper Union, was founded in 1859 in the East Village in Manhattan, New York. Founder Peter Cooper’s son-in-law, Abraham Hewitt, believed education should be “free as air and water.” So since around 1902, the small private institution has granted full scholarships to students in its nationally ranked degree programs in architecture, fine arts and engineering.

In April, Cooper Union decided to start asking some of its graduate students to pay tuition.  Students and faculty fear undergraduates are next.

It is one of the last higher education institutions in the U.S. to not charge students tuition, and students are standing their ground. Student groups and professors in the United States and around the world have expressed support and rallied for these student activists for standing their ground against the privatization of their education. I stand with them too.

To be fair, Cooper Union is facing financial trouble, as are many colleges who have been forced to raise tuition. In the midst of our federal and state debts, is free education even possible? Or are the free tuition advocates dreaming?

The U.S. has the money. It just has different priorities. I remember in one of the presidential debates when President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were “competing about who could spend more on the military,” as Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project noted. “It was disheartening.”

It was disheartening for me too. All I could do was imagine the America we would have if they were competing over who could spend more on higher education.

Since then, every time I hear about financial troubles in higher education, I think back to President Obama’s statement in that debate that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. Actually, one researcher found that the U.S. spends more than the next 13 countries combined. When you add in national security spending, the country will spend a staggering $931 billion in the fiscal year 2013. This is in the midst of an economic downturn when our colleges and universities are bleeding from deep cuts.

Cooper Union student activists are part of an intensifying wave of concerned Americans who desire a better higher educational future. Free tuition must be in that better future. Education should be “free as air and water.” The future of higher education should be free education for all, not expensive education for a privileged few.

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