Cheyney University President Aaron Walton is planning a media blitz to tell supporters what has happened since he took the helm of the nation’s oldest Black college in June 2017.
“It was this first year that was most challenging because now you’re establishing the ground rules, after that it’s kind of business as usual,” Walton said during a meeting with The Philadelphia Tribune’s editorial board. “We’re doing a lot of other things that will be supportive of our financial position moving forward and other forms of revenue. This first year we didn’t have those - the second and third year, we will.”
The university in Delaware County has three important dates in the coming months:
- By June 30, it needs to come up with approximately $4 million to balance its budget. If it does that and has balanced budgets for the next three years, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education , which oversees the 14 state-operated colleges, will forgive $30 million of the $43 million the university owes oversight agency.
- By Aug. 15, the university needs to report where it stands regarding $29.5 million in financial aid it self-reported administered during the 2011 through 2013 school years.
- On Nov. 20, Walton will meet with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to revisit the university’s accreditation status.
“I’m not worrying about balancing the budget for the next two years because we already have in place what we’ve submitted that will conclude in a balanced budget for the next two years,” Walton said.
“Cheyney is going to stay open, the issue is accreditation. If you don’t get accredited, you’re no longer eligible for Title IV funds, nor are you eligible for Pell Grants, etc., and we would default on one of the conditions of staying accredited,” he said about federal grants, student loans and other funding .
Walton said the college plans extensive outreach to alumni, identify potential corporate partners and solicit help from high net-worth individuals. It also will organize a one-day national giving campaign, having recruited Rosalyn McPherson of the ROZ Group to help with fundraising goals.
“We’ve put together an aggressive hit list,” McPherson said. “We’re getting people on board with the fact that there is a real concrete plan in place as well as dynamic leadership, so we’re dealing with perception issues as well as financial goals.”
Walton said the university is not asking people to give money without a cause, adding that institutions cannot survive on student tuition and state appropriates alone.
“We’re saying we want to earn the contributions that you want to give us,” he added. “It’s the same thing we did with the state. We didn’t ask them to forgive us the $30 million without earning that by performance. We were willing to perform ourselves into the future and not beg ourselves into the future.”
Walton said Cheyney is not going out of business rather it’s transforming.
“You are investing in the future model that will set the pace for education,” Walton said. “We happen to be an HBCU, but this will be a model for HBCUs throughout the country.”
The university, which was established in 1837, has cut the number of majors it has from 19 to 15, and administrators are considering cutting more.
Cheyney had the steepest fall in enrollment among the 14 state-run colleges, according to data from the PASSHE. The number of students had plummeted by nearly 38 percent, going from 755 students being enrolled in the spring of 2018 to only 469 enrollees that fall.
To help bolster sagging enrollment, the school has developed the Institute for the Contemporary African American Experience, which includes partnerships with Thomas Jefferson University, Starbucks and Epcot Crenshaw, a company that delivers solutions to environmental problems. The programs will provide students with experience in allied health, research labs and social justice.
Cheyney also offers a bachelor’s degree in Hotel, Restaurant, and Tourism Management, a program that is accredited.
“We’re trying to tie gainful employment into the majors that we will have,” Walton said. “These are the emerging fields, these are the fields that the greatest economic viability will occur from and that is what will proliferate the institute.”
Cheyney also touts its Keystone Honors Program, which is intended to enhance the scholarly environment at the 275-acre campus about 30 miles west of Philadelphia.
The university has raised its standards for enrollment. As of Friday, it had received 2,665 applications for fall admission. Of that figure, 1,535 students were offered admission, and 76 have paid $250 in deposits to secure a spot. Only three students had paid deposits about this time last year.
“You look at the fall of 2018, we had not one student that we had denied admission to Cheyney,” Walton said. “We had open enrollment; anyone who applied they got in. Now we’re becoming to be a lot more selective.”
Clifton Anderson, senior adviser and chief strategist at Cheyney, said the amount of progress made at the university has been “nothing short of remarkable.”
“If you look at the number of challenges the president inherited when he stepped into the role about 20 months ago,” Anderson said, “what you saw publicly paled in comparison to what was the reality. It was the most challenging of circumstances.”
Tyah Fuller, a 22 year-old junior from Chester, says although the student population is not what it used to be, things at her HBCU "are getting better."
"I like the new president, I think he's helping a lot," said Fuller, who is majoring in education. "By the time we see the change, I'll probably have graduated by then."
Freshman Anthony Martin, from Bowie, Maryland, says Cheyney will be back on track in due time.
"I think we're making a change, we're being very progressive in pushing toward a better future," the 19 year-old biology major said.
Darby native Alphonso Samukai says despite Cheyney not being his first choice and the declining enrollment, he is glad with his choice.
"Everybody sees the ups and downs of Cheyney and some see the bad in Cheyney," Samukai said. "I plan to graduate from Cheyney University. It's really not a bad school. The staff and the professors - everybody is real supportive."
All three students say they like Walton and what he's doing for Cheyney.
"He's really down to earth," Martin said.