Peter Cooper, the founder of the school, wanted the institution to be "free as air and water." No tuition was part of the art, architecture, and engineering school's identity since 1859. The school had drawn on fundraising and investments to keep the institution tuition free for the thousand or so students enrolled.
Cooper Union's budget deficit, which reached $16.5 million this year, has been increasing for years, and took a particular hit in 2008. In 2011, spokesperson Jolene Travis said, "The possibility of adjusting the full tuition scholarship policy is not a foregone conclusion, but it is a last resort and will be on the table."