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Tuition-free Cooper Union will begin charging students

NEW YORK — The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, which is one of the last remaining tuition-free colleges in the country but has been under severe financial strain, announced Tuesday that for the first time in more than a century it will charge undergraduates to attend. The decision brings to an end two years of roiling debate about instruction that was long revered as ‘‘free as air and water,’’ and which stood as the school’s most distinguishing feature.

Under the plan adopted by school trustees, the college, based in Greenwich Village, will retain need-blind admissions but beginning in fall 2014, will charge those deemed able to pay around $20,000, and others will pay a rate that the school described as a steeply sliding scale. Many students, including those ‘‘with the greatest needs,’’ would still pay nothing, as would any undergraduate enrolled as of this fall.

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‘‘After 18 months of intense analysis and vigorous debate about the future of Cooper Union, the time has come to set our institution on a path that will enable it to survive and thrive well into the future,’’ the chairman of the board of trustees, Mark Epstein, told students and faculty in Cooper Union’s Great Hall on Tuesday. ‘‘Under the new policy, the Cooper Union will continue to adhere to the vision of Peter Cooper, who founded the institution specifically to provide a quality education to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it.’’

Cooper Union opened in 1859 with an endowment from the industrialist Peter Cooper and a mission of educating working-class New Yorkers at no cost to them. Some students, school historians believe, did pay to attend at first, but no undergraduates have paid for more than 100 years.

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