Cooper Union: The Original MOOC?

Do you enjoy free television? And free museums? And free rides on the subway?

Well, okay, we confess … subway trips are not – and have never been – free. The price of a New York City token was first established at $0.05 during the system’s inaugural year of 1904; one ride now costs $2.25.

But despite the prevalence of cable and satellite providers, television signals are still available for free over public transmission frequencies. And most fine art museums offer free admission to patrons of various ages and on certain days and evenings.

Indeed, all of these organizations deliver public services that provide immense social benefit to Americans at all income levels. They thus open their doors (at least in part, and at certain times) to all customers without charge.

Until two weeks ago, one of the most illustrious colleges in the United States likewise considered higher education to be a social benefit, and adhered to the same principle. But then what happened? And why?

Right Makes Might

The college is Cooper Union, a school of architecture, art, and engineering in Greenwich Village, New York City. Although greatly overshadowed in size by its gigantic neighbor New York University (NYU), Cooper Union arguably boasts the more illustrious history.

Founded as a Free Academy by industrialist Peter Cooper, an eclectic business tycoon whose inventions ranged from the first steam locomotive to the first Jello style digestible gelatin, Cooper Union hosted numerous famous American speakers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In fact, it was in the Great Hall of Cooper Union where little known candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered the historic “Right Makes Might” speech that propelled him to the Presidency. Numerous famous Americans, from Mark Twain to Barack Obama, also delivered speeches there.

Even more noteworthy, though, was the institution’s adherence to Peter Cooper’s original vision of free education for all. From its founding in 1859 through the spring semester of 2013, undergraduate students paid no tuition for the privilege of studying there.

Bubble Economy

So what has happened to Cooper Union’s policy of free tuition? Two weeks ago, its Trustees announced that it will soon eliminate its 154 year old policy of zero tuition for its core undergraduate programs. It came as no surprise to the academic community; after all, the Trustees had already begun to impose tuition on its graduate students.

The school attributed its decision to the soaring costs of operating in New York City. Nevertheless, many commentators noted that the school was staggering under the fiscal weight of an extremely ill-timed 2006 decision to borrow $175 million for the development of its state-of-the-art New Academic Building.

The facility has been called a “white elephant” because the school was unable to find donors to pay for its construction, and it initially had no tuition revenue to fund the payments on its thirty year mortgage. The Building itself opened in 2009, at the very nadir of the global economic collapse.

Egalitarian Perspectives

Thus, Cooper Union’s free tuition policy now joins other egalitarian beliefs and practices of Peter Cooper in the dustbin of history. For instance, at one time, the institution offered “open admission” night classes that refused to screen out applicants on the basis of prior academic performance.

The school also hosted a famed Reading Room that remained open “from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., free to all persons, male and female, of good moral character” in order to guarantee access to working adults. Its determination to treat female and male students equally represented a rarity in nineteenth century society.

These practices reflected Peter Cooper’s personal commitment to human equality. He founded the United States Indian Commission to protect the rights of Native Americans, and even provided office space to suffragists like Susan B. Anthony.

And at age 85, he ran for President on the ticket of the Greenback Party, an anti-monopoly group that was committed to labor rights and democratic socialism. It was succeeded by the populist People’s Party, which gave birth to the political career of William Jennings Bryan.

Past Is Prologue

So is Peter Cooper’s vision of free education for all, provided on an open admission “round the clock” basis, an anachronism of history? Hardly! The tradition is now thriving throughout the world, and is (perhaps ironically) being nurtured by the very universities that would have been perceived by Cooper as defenders of an elitist education system.

Today, these principles are served by the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), web based classes that are open to all via computers and internet connections. Harvard was a founding member of edX; likewise, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania joined others in founding Coursera.

Furthermore, these universities are constantly inventing new technologies to make the internet based learning experience more efficient and effective. Peter Cooper himself, an industrialist inventor, would have undoubtedly been far more excited by these contemporary Ivy League programs than by the recent initiatives of his own Cooper Union.