Cheyney University graduation

Students graduate from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania near Philadelphia.

Cheyney University, a Pennsylvania college with a premier place in America’s civil rights history, has been on and off life support for more than a decade.

The question facing the State System of Higher Education’s board of governors is whether the demise of Cheyney as it exists now is inevitable.

The system’s chancellor recently said he believes it is “highly likely” that Cheyney will lose its accreditation in November, cutting off access to federal funding and dealing a devastating blow to an institution designed to serve low- and middle-income students.

Financial troubles are the root of the southeastern Pennsylvania school’s problems. It needs a $10 million loan to cover its bills this year. That would add to the $43 million Cheyney already owes the system, most of which the system never expects to get back.

“Of that $43 million, $39 (million) of it will have to be repaid by other campuses” — including Millersville University in Lancaster County —  system chancellor Dan Greenstein told the Senate Appropriations committee last week.

The board of governors could vote on the $10 million loan as early as Thursday.

There’s the potential for Cheyney’s debt load to rise even more if the federal government claws back $29.6 million in misdocumented aid payments. The school failed to keep records of student eligibility for grants and loans over several years.

This could happen at a school whose per-student spending of $32,204 is already twice the state system’s average, according to the system’s most recent budget request.

Cheyney’s crisis extends beyond its finances. Its graduation rate languishes below 16 percent, and its graduates earn an average annual salary of $29,400 a decade after they entered Cheyney, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Both figures are among the worst in the state. The graduation rate is closer to that of for-profit online schools than the other 13 campuses of the State System of Higher Education.

But Cheyney’s place in history, and the passions of this historical moment, fuel fierce opposition to the idea that it won’t continue to exist in its current form.

‘Safe haven’

At 182 years old, Cheyney is the oldest of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Many of them, including Cheyney, were created to be safe havens in an era when education was a de facto capital crime for blacks in many parts of the country.

In recent years, Cheyney and other historically black colleges have seen a surge in applications, which has occurred alongside a rise in hate crimes and the spread of racist remarks from internet trolls to the halls of Congress.

Applications to Cheyney are up 33 percent for the fall of 2019 over the previous year, said Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, who is minority chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a Cheyney trustee. Offers to those students are up more than 300 percent from 2018, he said. Deposits from students seeking to secure their place at Cheyney are up more than 3,000 percent, he said.

“There is a role and a place for this institution, and there’s failure to go around on everybody — everybody, Democrat and Republican, governors and senators alike — that has put this university in its” predicament, Williams said the committee hearing.

The interest in attending Cheyney exists. The question is whether Cheyney will be there for students.

Accreditation at risk

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education gave Cheyney until November to prove, among other things, that the school is on sound, sustainable financial footing, according to a letter the commission sent to the school’s president, Aaron Walton.

And future bailouts of Cheyney seem all but assured if something doesn’t change.

“It only has 450 viable, available beds” in its dorms, Greenstein told the Senate. That’s “well below” the number of students it would need to enroll to break even.

“I think we have to acknowledge the fact that we are highly likely to lose our accreditation,” Greenstein told senators.

Something similar happened in North Carolina on Feb. 22, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges revoked accreditation for Bennett College, another historically black college, after determining its finances weren’t stable. The school sued, and a court allowed it to maintain accreditation while the suit proceeds.

If Middle States revokes Cheyney’s accreditation in November, it would expire at the end of that school year, in June 2020. That would give administrators and professors about six months to “teach out” Cheyney’s students, who would then have to decide where or whether they could continue their education, Greenstein said.

Withholding student aid payment

The road to this point winds back more than a decade. State auditors general have released three reports warning of problems with the school’s finances dating to 2004.

Middle States put the school on probation in 2015 because of its financial troubles. That probation would have led to loss of accreditation in November 2018, but the commission extended its deadline by a year after finding the school “is making a good faith effort to remedy existing deficiencies, and a reasonable expectation exists that such deficiencies will be remedied within the period of the extension.”

That optimism is due to Walton’s two-year-old tenure, Hughes said.

“There’s been two years of hard decisions that no one else wanted to make before,” Hughes said. “What I don’t want us to do is to snatch the rug out from under that.”

Cheyney is teetering as it is.

Because of the misdocumented $29.6 million, the U.S. Department of Education restricted Cheyney’s access to federal funds by placing the school into a program called Heightened Cash Management 2. The only other school in Pennsylvania with that designation is Champ’s Barber School, in Lancaster, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Under the program, the government won’t give Cheyney student aid payments in advance; the school has to pay them first, and then seek federal reimbursement.

If the federal government comes after the misdocumented aid payments, the amount Cheyney owes the federal and state government could balloon to $82.6 million — not counting interest.

That’s almost $200,000 worth of debt per student.

Walton is “probably one of the most creative leaders in higher education today,” Greenstein said.

“At the same time,” he said, “it is my opinion that Aaron has arrived several years too late.”