A Financial History of Cooper Union
Peter Cooper established the institution “to improve and elevate the working classes…. whose occupations… deprive them of proper recreation and instruction.”[i] He often referred to working class students as “industrial pupils”. They needed to work while they attended school, which is why the founder insisted that free courses be offered at night.
He kept accounts of the earnings of these students, proudly announcing how they increased steadily in the course of their study. He and his fellow inaugural trustees articulated a set of principles, the first of which was that “the details of the Institution in all the departments should be arranged with especial reference to the intellectual wants and improvement of the working classes.”[ii]
While Peter Cooper was President of Cooper Union, costs were defrayed in part by charging fees to students who were not working class, whom he referred to as “pay pupils” or “amateur pupils”.
By 1861, the educational programs were organized around three divisions: I) “Free Night Classes”, II) “Free Reading-Room and Picture Gallery” and III) “School of Design for Women”, which was a day school. According to the Rules and Regulations of the School of Design:
“Those intending to teach and to pursue art as a means of securing a livelihood, shall form a class, consisting of two hundred members, and known as the Teacher’s and Industrial Class. These shall be received without charge. The remaining one hundred pupils will constitute the Amateur Class, and shall consist of ladies who desire to study art as an accomplishment… [and] will be composed of paying pupils.” [iii]
The decision to charge those who were not working class was reported in The First Annual Report, on January 1, 1860. Referring to the School of Design, Peter Cooper and his fellow trustees stated that:
“The regulations may provide for the admission of amateur pupils for pay, so long as industrial pupils are not thereby excluded. All money received from such amateur pupils shall be applied to the support of the school. The industrial pupils will be required to aid in the instruction of the school, so far as the director thereof may require.”
“It will be perceived that in this school there is a departure of the invariable rule in the other department of the Union [the Department of Night Instruction], that the instruction shall in all cases be gratuitous.”
“The Trustees were at first opposed to this deviation, but it was represented… that it’s character and usefulness would be impaired, if the wealthy and refined were entirely excluded from it.”[iv]
Other than the free night classes and the free reading-room and picture gallery, there was never a debate about whether day students not from the working classes should pay. Once the decision was made to admit such students, a fee was set.
In the early years, the fees from non-working class students were counted on for revenue:
“Trustees are constrained to ask [the non-working class pupils] to remember that each paying pupil secures the admission of two free pupils, and that the usefulness of the School will be greatly extended if all who can and ought to contribute to its support perform their duty. Any pupil who can afford to pay and does not do so actually deprives three poor and deserving girls of admission to the School.”[v]
The $2 per week charged to paying pupils studying painting in 1860 has the following equivalency in 2016. For a 30-week academic year, the annual charge in today's dollars would be $6,036 at 3% inflation (historical estimate of the CPI), $27,249 at 4% inflation (roughly the rate for higher education), or $121,250 at 5% (the approximate historical increase in the Ivy League).
[i] Charter of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1859. As Ammended by Chapter 257 of the Laws of 1969 and by Resolution of the Regents of the State of New York, January 26, 1972.
[ii] Peter Cooper et al, The First Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1860.
[iii] Peter Cooper et al, The Second Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1861.
[iv] op. cit., Peter Cooper et al, 1860.
[v] Peter Cooper et al, The Fifth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1864.