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A Free College Is Free No More (Sort of) -- What That Means to You

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For those of you who like to read tea leaves about applying to college, I'm here to tell you the Boston Tea Party happened about two weeks ago in Manhattan.

That was when Cooper Union announced its plans to start charging tuition for some of its graduate students, starting in September 2013. Highly regarded as a leader in the fields of art, architecture and engineering, Cooper Union has been tuition free since 1902, and plans to remain tuition free for undergraduates at least through the 2013-14 school year. But at least some of the graduate students -- total population of about 100 -- will be paying some tuition.

Is this really a big deal in the college world? No and yes. No, because the number of students impacted by the decision is small; because all Cooper students have always had to pay room and board (a cost that can be reduced or eliminated based on financial need) -- so some people don't see this as a truly free college; because this impacts graduate students, a group high school seniors and their parents rarely take pity on, since -- well, they aren't among them.

On the other hand, this is an issue to pay attention to for two reasons. First, Cooper Union's tuition-free model has been a remarkable way to inspire students, parents, and even school counselors. Counselors perk right up when they hear a college with an international reputation is tuition free -- and the same is true when parents and students hear about Cooper Union.

This leads to a bigger discussion about other colleges that have similar offers -- Curtis Institute of Music and Berea College (in Kentucky) -- and soon, it doesn't even matter if the student ever applies to any of these schools. The simple fact that a handful of colleges in the U.S. somehow figured out how to make college tuition free leads students to think about the entire application process in a new way:

"Are there other colleges that offer significant aid I don't know about?"

"Are there other colleges I could attend that I don't know about?"

"What else is there about college I don't know about?"

Unwittingly, the Cooper Union discussion has led to bigger college searches and more grounded college planning -- and while the undergraduate program is still free, many will now wonder if it's simply a matter of time until that changes. That can take the air out of the "think bigger" movement Cooper Union inspires, narrowing the college aspirations of students who are trying desperately to see the college selections process as something more than a set of data, a way to keep Mommy and Daddy happy, or worse, some kind of game played with them, not for them.

The second reason this announcement could be a game changer has to do with the tuition policies at other schools. Parents of college-bound students pay a great deal of attention to two things -- colleges and money. Whenever a story comes out about college tuition --especially free college tuition -- these parents' neurons are firing faster than Jeremy Lin being guarded by a 10-year-old, a process that, sooner or later, will produce this question:

"So, if Cooper Union has to change the way they think about money, won't other colleges have to do that, too -- and won't some start using a student's ability to pay as a consideration for admission?"

The answer to this question is no -- some colleges won't start using ability to pay as a factor in admissions decisions. Some colleges already do -- so more are on the way.

So tell us, dear tea readers -- is that one lump, or two?