Cooper Union announced Tuesday that for the first time in more than a century, the school will charge tuition for undergraduate students.
The college, famous for its policy of full-tuition scholarships, made its announcement after more than 18 months of debate on how to deal with its financial troubles.
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"The time has come for us to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future," the announcement reads. "Consequently, the Board of Trustees voted last week to reduce the full-tuition scholarship to 50 percent for all undergraduates admitted to the Cooper Union, beginning with the class entering in the fall of 2014."
Current undergraduate students, including those entering this fall, will still receive the full-tuition scholarship. Tuition will cost approximately $20,000, but scholarships will still be granted to those who need it.
Burcu Oz, a graduate of the art school, watched the speech on a live feed online.
"It felt like witnessing a life sentence being read at the end of a trial," Oz said.
Many students are comparing this decision to the administration's decision several years ago to tear down the old Hewitt building.
Kenny Komer, a New York based artist and Cooper Union graduate who did a project in response to the decision, putting up posters in the window of the building reading "I miss the old NY" noted that the new building cost "something like $200 million."
"What a slap in the face," Komer said.
Oz also noted the incremental changes the school has undergone.
"Like politics, things are changed progressively, eased in step-by-step," she explained. The idea is, without "one major outcry, but a number of smaller ones that are easier to manage... they—almost always—get to where it was they wanted to go."
Cooper Union opened in 1859 and has been privately funded to maintain the school's mission to provide quality education that is accessible to everyone.
The school has produced many notable artists, including Milton Glaser, who created the "I love NY" logo.
The announcement was made in the Great Hall at noon on Tuesday, after a campus-wide e-mail notice was sent out around 6 a.m. from Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Epstein. The e-mail noted that a current Cooper ID was needed to gain entry, and requested "no signs or banners please."
The school administration reportedly told maintenance to drill fourth floor windows locked, where political action banners have been hung in the past.
Students orchestrated a schoolwide walk-out at 2 p.m. later that day.
According to a testimonial on the "Free Cooper Union" Facebook page, there were seven NYPD motorycles, two vans, unmarked cars, and several NYPD cars, all "in response to our absolutely peaceful gathering after the announcement."
Young alumni reactions range from furious to heartbroken.
Komer hailed his alma mater as a place "where individuals from every walk of life can sit in a room together and talk about how they perceive the world and how the world shapes them."
Komer worries that charging tuition will change or even eliminate that experience.
Another Cooper-educated artist had a different opinion, however.
"My alums would kill me if they heard me say this, but I'm not really against the sliding scale tuition model, as long as it's coupled with a truly blind admissions process," said alumnus Boris Rasin, another New York based artist. "The truth is, we already had a form of tuition in the form of dues, which were also on a sliding scale, but totaled about $2,000 a year if I remember correctly."
Komer acknowledged the sliding scale, but was skeptical of the feasibility of a need-blind application system, and still felt the possibility of any tuition at all could shape the applicant pool.
"To be honest, I doubt I would have gone to art school at all if I had to pay $20,000 to $40,000 a year," Komer said, and added:"Maybe I'd be a doctor by now if Cooper wasn't free."
Laura Shin contributed reporting to this article.
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat