Cheyney University

Students walk on the campus of Cheyney University. — Emily Cohen for WHYY, file

With less than a month remaining before Cheyney University must balance its budget, President Aaron Walton expressed optimism that the beleaguered school will make its deadline.

“We are making significant progress with our Resurgence Fundraising Campaign, and the effort is in line with our expectations. I remain confident that the university will successfully balance its budget by June 30,” Walton said on Monday. “But in order to do so, we continue to count on the support of generous donors. The University will be making a public statement about the Resurgence Campaign in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we are preparing and very excited to welcome our incoming freshman class.”

If Cheyney does not balance its budget by June 30, the nation’s oldest historically Black college could lose its accreditation. If Cheyney balances its budget, the school, which is part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, must then present a report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting body, detailing its progress. Then, in November, the Middle States Commission will again evaluate its accreditation.

And if Cheyney balances its budget for the next three years, the state will forgive $30 million of the $43 million it owes to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Walton, who took the helm of the struggling university in 2017, said in March that Cheyney was facing an approximately $4 million deficit.

Cheyney has already received a two-year extension from the commission to correct its finances and the university has been on probation since 2015.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Chancellor Dan Greenstein said the university faced a $10 million deficit and would most likely lose its accreditation this year because it was not in a position to balance its budget.

During a meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune’s editorial board, Walton said Aug. 15 was the next deadline, when the university must detail what became of the $29.5 million in financial aid it administered between 2011 and 2013.

Representatives of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and state Department of Education did not return calls seeking comment.

Robert Bogle, the president of The Philadelphia Tribune, is the chairman of the university’s council of trustees.

State leaders rallied around Cheyney this year and the university planned to conduct an extensive outreach to alumni and other partners.

But some see a lack of urgency on the university’s part.

“There’s definitely a disconnect” between the school and alumni, said Jermaine Colon, a 2007 Cheyney graduate.

Colon, a 39-year-old West Philadelphia resident, said alumni are aware that Cheyney is facing some problems, but know little of the details. Cheyney lacks a robust and transparent campaign, particularly on social media, to explain what the university is facing, Colon said.

“There’s an old saying that goes, faith without works goes dead,” said Colon, a member of a regional alumni chapter. “So they want this school to have this miraculous financial turnaround, but they have to still put in the work and get their hands dirty.”

Colon said the regional alumni chapter is expected to launch a fundraising campaign for the school in coming months.

The Cheyney Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the university, is running a campaign called The Resurgence.

The only mention of Cheyney’s fundraising efforts on its website are a handful of links at the bottom of its homepage calling for donations.

Cheyney’s issues, however, are not indicative of the state of HBCUs across the country, said Ivory Toldson, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities under then-President Barack Obama.

HBCUs nationally have maintained a steady enrollment, with many thriving, Toldson said. Those schools attract students through robust educational, graduate and professional programs and maintain endowments.

Toldson suggested that issues at the state, which oversees Cheyney among other institutions, were the source of some of Cheyney’s issues.

“If I was investigating, that’s where I would investigate first,” Toldson said, referring to the state.

Years of financial struggles and declining enrollment have impacted nearly every area of the campus, which straddles Chester and Delaware counties.

Enrollment this school year sank 38% compared to the previous year, dropping from 755 students to 469 enrollees — the steepest fall in enrollment among the 14 state-run colleges. In May, 168 students received diplomas from the university.

In recent years, the university has cut the number of majors from 19 to 15. Administrators were considering cutting more.

Last year was the first since 1914 that Cheyney did not have a football team. The school dropped out of the NCAA Division II for the 2018-19 school year and lost its membership in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, which the school had held since 1951.

But enrollment is rising, said Jeff Jones, executive director of enrollment management at the school.

In fall 2018, Cheyney had 103 new freshman and 40 transfer students. As of Friday, 235 students have paid deposits to enroll in the school’s fall semester and 55 students received Keystone Scholarships, which are fully paid four-year scholarships given to high-achieving students.

The university has bumped up admission standards, focused on high-performing students and recruited at more high schools, which Jones credited with a renewed interested in the school heading into the fall semester.

“Before, folks didn’t believe you could attract those types of students to the school, but you can,” he said. “Cheyney University didn’t focus as a whole on trying to attract high-ability students.”

As one of two HBCUs in Pennsylvania with a long history, Cheyney occupies a unique space in the history of Black community, Toldson said. Its loss, he added, would be a huge disappointment.

“Cheyney is part of that rich Black legacy of Pennsylvania,” he said, “that meant so much to the entire nation.”

Tribune staff writer John N. Mitchell contributed to this report.

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