A free college education is a rare thing in the United States. With collective student debt surpassing $1 trillion and average annual college tuitions topping $22,000, students across the nation increasingly must turn to costly loans to afford a decent education.
Cooper Union, a college in New York City, is one of the few colleges left in the U.S. offering a free education to all of its 918 students. With prestigious art, architecture and engineering programs, a free education has made the school all the more competitive in recent years with acceptance rates hovering around 8 percent.
A 154-year tradition of free college could be soon eradicated as Cooper Union President Jamshed Bharucha threatens to institute tuition fees. In response, students, faculty and staff began an occupation of the president’s office Wednesday demanding he reverse the decision.
“[Bharucha] is no longer welcome in this office space. It is one that has been reclaimed by the students, for the students, for this school,” said Victoria Sobel, a Cooper Union student. Roughly 50 students spent the night in the president’s office in sleeping bags, threatening to maintain the occupation until the decision is reversed.
The action is widely supported by the student body, with student leaders reporting that more than half of those enrolled in the school of art have signed a petition of no confidence in the president, demanding he step down from his position.
“As the students we are … steadfastly committed to fulfilling the historic mission of Cooper Union as an institution committed to providing students with an exceptional educational experience without the burden of tuition regardless of need,” another student said, reading from a statement addressed to the president.
The U.S. remains one of the few advanced industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t provide free college education to its citizenry. Dozens of countries, including Argentina, Denmark, Finland, France and Germany provide free post-secondary education to all qualified citizens.
In the U.S., millions instead take out college loans in order to obtain a degree. According to American Student Assistance, a nonprofit helping students navigate the loan process, 12 million students — roughly 60 percent of the 20 million attending colleges and universities across the U.S. — have taken out loans of varying sizes to pay for education.
In response to the loan crisis, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced legislation this week that would significantly drop the interest on student loans for one year while the federal government works on a longer term overhaul, which she promised to lead.
Federal loan rates are scheduled under federal law to double on July 1, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Warren’s bill would let students borrow instead at the rate big banks pay to the federal reserve, which she said is currently about .75 percent, between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014. The rates would go up again after that unless Congress acts again.