The subject of this 10th installment of my series of articles about great universities in the United States is Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Located in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, Cooper Union is unique in part because every undergrad student there receives a full-tuition scholarship.
Inventor-industrialist Peter Cooper founded the school in 1859 because of his conviction that an education “equal to the best” should be available to all qualified students, regardless of origin or financial means. What he created was highly selective, academically rigorous, and among the first colleges to admit women and minorities.
With approximately 1,000 undergraduate students and 100 graduate students, Cooper Union is defined in many respects by its intimate size and strong sense of community. While many universities in America have expanded to accommodate growing demand, Cooper Union has maintained a concentrated footprint focused on architecture, fine arts, and engineering. The 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio is one of the lowest in the U.S., and the average class size is quite small.
Despite its modest size, Cooper Union is widely acknowledged for academic strength, on par with America’s more well-known elite universities. Newsweek magazine recently named Cooper Union the “#1 Most Desirable Small School” in the U.S. (as well as the #7 most desirable overall). U.S. News & World Report ranked it as the best college in the northern United States. Business Week praised it as one of the best design schools for creative talent, and Princeton Review named it one of the best colleges in America, as well as one of the “best value” colleges based on academic quality and cost.
The full-tuition scholarships provided to all admitted undergraduate students are valued at more than US$ 160,000, given tuition at schools of comparable quality. The same full-tuition scholarships are provided to international students, who make up more than 15% of the student population.
Due to financial pressures, Cooper Union has been considering proposals to charge tuition for graduate programs. Those proposals are controversial among alumni, students, and faculty, and the debate continues. In typically engaged Union fashion, a group of students recently occupied a suite of the main campus building for several days as a protest against charging tuition in any part of the school.
Cooper Union’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences staffs three distinct academic units — the School of Architecture, the School of Art, and the School of Engineering. All students take a core curriculum of required courses in the humanities and social sciences in their first two years, with great flexibility to explore additional interests through elective courses.
The largest of the three schools, the Albert Nerken School of Engineering, is consistently ranked as one of the top undergraduate engineering programs in the United States, with internationally well-regarded degrees in chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical. The school’s graduate program has an interdisciplinary focus, including concentrations in environmental engineering, robotics, computer systems, and biomedical engineering.
One of the unique features of the engineering curriculum is its “No Nonsense Engineering Communication Training,” a series of lectures and seminars which teach engineering students valuable communication skills across a broad range of fields including journalism, business writing, and even theater.
The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, regularly ranked in the top tier of American architecture schools, offers a 5-year program terminating in a Bachelor of Architecture degree. Only about 16% of Cooper Union students are enrolled in the Chanin School. The small student population allows for ample individual studio/work space and facilitates extensive one-on-one interaction with professors on design projects and research.
The School of Art enrolls 1/3 of Cooper Union’s students and offers a diverse visual arts curriculum — including painting, film and video, photography, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking — leading to a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Students can personalize their studies by drawing from a broad visual arts catalog as suits their interests. The curriculum, faculty, and resulting student opportunities are greatly enriched and extended because of the world-leading New York City arts and design environment in which the school sits.
Distinguished graduates of Cooper Union include the iconic Thomas Edison, Batman creator Bob Kane, famed architect Daniel Libeskind, paper-architecture pioneer Shigeru Ban (who designed Christchurch’s proposed cardboard cathedral), post-minimalist sculptor Eva Hesse, illustrator John Alcorn, Skeleton Key lead rocker Erik Sanko, Special Olympics president Bruce Pasternack, and DC Comics artist and designer Neal Pozner.
The relatively small alumni corps lays claim, by my partial count, to at least 12 Rome Prizes, 21 Guggenheim Fellowships, 3 MacArthur Fellowships, 9 Chrysler Design Awards, a Nobel Prize in physics, and a disproprionately high number of Fulbright Scholarships and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.
In terms of life before graduation, founder Peter Cooper believed that students should be directly involved in the governance of the school. Thus, there are extensive opportunities for students to participate on Student Councils, policy subcommittees, and administrative boards, as well as across a range of other student organizations and extracurricular activities. Although athletics is not a priority, the school fields teams in eight varsity sports, including tennis, basketball, and volleyball.
Cooper Union and its students have long been known for political engagement and social activism, starting with an appearance by Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln just months after the school’s founding. In what is known as the Cooper Union Address, Lincoln passionately articulated his opposition to slavery. The dramatic speech was widely reported and reprinted, and helped propel Lincoln to his party’s nomination. Some historians believe that the speech at Cooper Union is to be credited for making Lincoln President.
In the years since then, the Great Hall has received numerous Presidential candidates including Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, and Barack Obama, as well as sitting Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton. The Great Hall has also hosted the births of the NAACP, the women’s suffrage movement, and the American Red Cross, and has served throughout the school’s history as a rallying ground for other social, political, and economic causes.
That’s a heady legacy for one room at one college. And there is quite a bit more to talk about, but that’s probably enough information for a Friday afternoon. I’ll conclude by noting, of course, that no discussion of Cooper Union’s strengths, advantages, and pleasures can be considered complete without at least a brief mention its location …
There isn’t the space, or indeed any real need, to catalog the benefits and joys of living in New York City. I’ll simply note that Cooper Union sits adjacent to a major subway station, and you can get from your desk to Times Square, Central Park, Broadway, more than 90 museums, hundreds of live performances, more than 25,000 restaurants, and millions of potential job opportunities in a few short minutes. You can’t beat that.
Cooper Union’s immediate neighborhood, Manhattan’s iconic East Village, is a vibrant mix of culture and counterculture ideally suited for student life … with artist studios, dynamic streetlife, pop-up galleries, experimental theater, independent cinema, live music clubs (specializing in a diverse array of genres), poetry performance clubs (including the Nuyorican Poets Café and Bowery Poetry Club), trendy boutiques, and far too many coffee houses, bars, and cafés to count. And New York University (NYU), with its extensive facilities and offerings, sits just a couple blocks away.
The birthplace of both punk rock and American post-modernism (per my East Village friends), the neighborhood nestles amidst the similarly interesting and dynamic Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, Gramercy Park (filled with historic architectural gems), Soho, and the East River, all with their own particular charms. Chelsea and Tribeca are close by. There are a number of parks, playing fields, and other green spaces readily at hand.
For more information about the character, history, and offerings of Manhattan’s various neighborhoods, as well as about visiting or living in any of the great city’s five boroughs, visit the official New York City website.
For more details about Cooper Union, specific fields of study, and how to apply, visit the school’s main website. And of course, feel free to email our Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov if you would like more information or have specific questions.
Next up in this series will be Princeton University. Please let me know if you have any suggestions regarding schools I should feature after that. I’m almost to the end of my initial target list, and I’d like the next tranche to reflect your interests.