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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. For more than a month now, students have been staging a sit-in at the Cooper Union in New York. They took over the president's office back in April to protest having to pay tuition. This small, highly selective college for artists, engineers and architects had been one of the last tuition-free schools in the country.

Now, most undergraduates will have to pay. And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, that decision raises big questions about the school's mission and its future.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: When the occupation began, Cooper students painted the lobby outside the president's office black and as art students will, they curated an exhibition. Junior Ryan Cullen (ph) is one of the occupiers.

RYAN CULLEN: The portrait was in the office. We moved it out here.

ROSE: The bearded man in the portrait is the school's founder, Peter Cooper. The students hung a piece of red fabric from the frame, as if Peter Cooper himself had joined in the protest against the tuition plan. Graduate student Mike D'Ambrose thinks that plan will destroy what's unique about Cooper, a school that offers an elite education at a price anyone can afford.

MIKE D'AMBROSE: I think it's kind of a one-way street, As soon as money is really in the equation, things will start to tweak. And soon enough, you know, maybe not in two years, but in 20 years, it'll just be like any other profit-based college or business, as every other college has become.

ROSE: The Cooper Union For The Advancement Of Science And Art opened in 1859. Founder, Peter Cooper, was an industrialist who wanted to give young people what he had lacked, access to a quality education that was "open and free to all." For the past 100 years or so, the school has offered full-tuition scholarships to all undergrad students, currently valued at about $38,000 a year.

But this spring, Cooper's board voted to begin charging tuition on a sliding scale, up to $19,000 a year. The administration declined interview requests for this story, but shortly after the occupation began in May, Cooper President Jamshed Bharucha did address the student protesters.

JAMSHED BHARUCHA: I hear your mournful tones. I hear your high-pitched agitation. I regret the need to bring about this kind of change that sparks these feelings. I wish we didn't have to.

ROSE: Much of the school's income comes from an unusual arrangement that provides rent and tax revenue from the land beneath the iconic Chrysler Building in Manhattan. But the school's costs have been growing faster than that income. That's what Cooper board Chairman Mark Epstein said during a recent interview with the show "Democracy Now."

MARK EPSTEIN: That's our problem: The school's been running a deficit, primarily because costs of education have gone up. We never had the luxury of raising tuition to meet our expenses. And this is a problem through higher education, not just at Cooper Union.

ROSE: But critics say some of the school's problems can be traced back to missteps by the board.

FELIX SALMON: They borrowed $175 million to build this enormous new building, which they didn't need.

ROSE: Felix Salmon is a finance blogger at Reuters. He says construction of the school's new engineering building, completed in 2009, has contributed to its growing deficits.

SALMON: Now that they need to pay $10 million a year in mortgage payments, it's very, very hard to make the math work. And now the mission at the heart of the institution, which is free tuition, has been completely abolished.

ROSE: The decision to charge tuition leaves an even shorter list of free colleges, about a dozen around the country, including the nation's military academies. But the students occupying the seventh floor at Cooper still believe that free education can work here. And they say they're not coming down until the administration agrees to start talking. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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