On Amateurs and Access

In speeches, radio interviews and meetings with alumni and stakeholders, Jamshed Bharucha, President of Cooper Union,has often brought up a lesser-known aspect of the school’s history: Cooper Union didn’t always provide a free tuition to all. In a speech last fall, he stated. “It is important to note that in the early years, approximately the first forty years, tuition was charged at Cooper Union. It wasn’t until 1902, when Andrew Carnegie made a large gift to the institution, that a tuition -free education was granted to students.”

In my meeting with the president and other alumni in December 2011, he reiterated this version of its history: “It was free for the working classes… It was never free for all until long after Peter Cooper was gone.” What Bharucha is referring to is a fraction of students in the female school of design, called “amateur” students who paid for their courses. He told us that “his [Cooper’s] actual policy when he was president was that those who could pay were charged.” But if you study the early documents, the extent, cost, context, and duration of the paying students in the early years are perhaps misrepresented in Bharucha’s narrative.

The first annual report discusses the amateurs in the School of Design for Women, the precursor to the school of art, (which later accepted male students in 1879):

“The instruction afforded in this school shall be given without charge, but 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…It will be perceived that in this school there is a departure from the invariable rule in the other department of the Union, that the instruction shall in all cases be entirely gratuitous. The Trustees were at first opposed to this deviation, but it was represented by the benevolent and enlightened ladies, who had established and maintained the school up to the time of its incorporation with the Union, that its character and usefulness would be impaired, if the wealthy and refined were entirely excluded from it; that the presence of ladies of leisure and refined tastes tended to raise the standard of art, and to give to the friendless associations of value in reference to their future careers. The Trustees, yielding to this argument, have limited the number of amateur pupils to one tenth of the total number instructed.”

The reason the fee structure existed in this school of design for women, was that it preceded Cooper Union. The New York School of Design was absorbed by Cooper Union in 1859, and the Institute made accommodations to include the previous patrons. In that first year, Cooper Union had 120 students in the Female School of Design, of which 12 were paying amateurs. In the second annual report, the number of students in the school of art was limited to three hundred students, two-thirds of which were received without charge, and one-third of the pupils constituted the amateur class, which “shall consist of ladies who desire to study art as an accomplishment.” These amateurs paid one dollar per week for instruction in drawing, and one dollar and fifty cents per week for instruction pastel, water color or oil painting. In my meeting with Bharucha, he told us that those students were charged two dollars a week. He went on to calculate what that might be equivalent to today. Based on five-percent annual inflation of Ivy League tuition during those years, he figured it could translate up to $100,000 a year. Using the three-percent Consumer Pricing Index, he calculated it to be closer to $5,200 a year.

From this second report, it appears, this amateur class was not in the same standing or held to the same expectations of the students who received free instruction. “The attendance of this [amateur] class will not be subject to strict rule, but instruction will be given only in the forenoon, from 9 to 12. The pupils receiving free instruction, however, “must attend from 9 to 3 daily.”

The Free Night School of Science, at this time, was open to both men and women, and there was no equivalent of an amateur paying class in this school. In a 1993 report on the early women enrolled in the Free Night School of Science from 1859-1884, then Cooper Union student, Athena Caramichael, presented some biographical information of these “forgotten women.” Caramichael notes, “Their ages varied from Ada L. Greely who was only eleven years old and lived in the Everett House to Mary F. Dampier who was forty years old and lived on Bond street… Their families and locations varied from the wealthy to the lower classes…Some wished to improve their status and obtain better employment with the hope of supporting themselves or helping their families, while others were there for their own enrichment.”

There was no distinction among classes or intentions in among the women enrolled in the school of science as there was in School of Design for Women. Paying students did not last for the four decades, as Bharucha has repeatedly said. The 1869 Annual Report stated this about the Female School of Design: “The instruction is absolutely gratuitous, and no paying pupils have been or will hereafter be received.” The 1870 report refers to the school as the “Free Art School for Women.” However, there was a resurgence of the Amateurs in the 1870s. From the 1877 report:

“In the amateur class, which was organized four years ago for the benefit of such persons as wished to study Drawing as an accomplishment, and who were excluded from the Morning School by the great excess of professional scholars, 90 persons have studied drawing, the first part of the season under Mr. Wyatt Eaton and later under Mr. J. Alden Weir. The terms of this class are $15 for thirty lessons, to be given in ten weeks…Half of the money earned in the Afternoon Class always goes to the teacher, and the remainder is used in the Morning School.”

From the 1879 annual report:

“It is proper to remark that all the classes of this institution with one exception, and all its privileges are absolutely free; and no personal interest or favor is shown in the admission of pupils, except some special need for purposes of self-support, and precedence in the application. But in consequence of the great pressure for admission to the instruction of the Institution, and the earnest offer of many to pay for their instruction, which they were abundantly able to do, the Trustees have allowed an amateur class to be formed which meets in the afternoon, out of the regular class hours, and of which each pupil pays a small fee, that is sufficient to pay the teachers for the extra time of instruction, and contributes something for the support of the free schools. The fees, for the present year, amount to $2326.

“The Cooper Union sets an example and illustrates a principle very important in any system of education that is applicable to the mass of the people, if it is to be made practicable and acceptable for the majority, viz: —that the system of instruction must be entirely or approximately free. But considering the limitations of Cooper Union, the fact that the applications in every department are uniformly more than the accommodations, it might be well for the Trustees to consider the question whether a small fee for some of the more advanced classes, both in and out of the regular hours, might not enlarge the usefulness of the institution and increase its means, without impairing its real freedom and great acceptance with the public.”

The last mention of the paying students/amateur students, that I could trace was in the 1887 annual report. A modern day equivalent of an amateur class would not be a tuition-based model for undergraduate education with some students funding the education of others, as Bharucha’s narrative suggests. The amateur class, perhaps most resembles Cooper Union’s current fee-based continuing education programs.

Bharucha looks to the history of the amateur students as precedent for tuition and a means to create “access.” He defines access as “enabling students of merit to benefit from a fine education that would otherwise be out of reach.” There seems to be a suggestion in the administrative discourse that charging some students to fund other students would be a means of creating a level field, creating access. Others argue that Cooper’s meritocracy is what has created equal ground. The fear is that if tuition is implemented, and the school is reliant on a certain amount of revenue from tuition, Cooper Union then becomes dependent on a certain percentage of its students being able to pay. It appears that the original amateur classes were less about creating access for the poor than they were about allowing access for the wealthy, who were not held to the same rigorous standards as the students who attended for free.

For more information about the current situation facing Cooper Union: visit the Friends of Cooper Union website. For additional posts on Cooper Union click here.

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  1. This is excellent research. It lifts the fog from what has been but should not be a controversial subject.
    Cherry picking history to serve a specious hidden agenda is not in the spirit of Peter Cooper’s vision and does not serve the charter of Cooper Union.
    Peter Cooper’s vision was far ahead of its time. The simple fact of the matter is that it was, on its merits, correct, a fact that is all too evident today.
    Higher education must be as free as air and water. The past performance of Cooper Union and its alumni(ae) is evidence enough of the absolute value of its academic meritocracy.
    The vision must be preserved. There is and should not be an argument about that.

  2. Good news – Wikipedia considers you a reliable source. Interesting news – they found a New York Times article claiming the ratio of “abundantly wealthy” students to not was 1 to 2. Considering that “early history” covers 40 years, they’re allowed some leeway, but check 1) any evidence of “abundantly wealthy” getting certificates and diplomas, 2) their “continuing education” stuff – are they confused (again, covering 40 years). It’s not about how many, it’s about whether it’s simply a mistake (with citation!) or true enough.

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