In a major move to help reverse the demise of historic Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the Board of Governors of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education has extended the institution an $8 million line of credit to help pay its bills through the rest of the current school year ending June 30.
The line of credit is the sixth for the state-controlled institution over the past four years and is the most compelling part of a major “top to bottom” review of the 14-university system announced recently. The review is to be completed by late spring, said a Board of Governors spokesperson.
The financial boost for Cheyney comes as the institution, one of the oldest historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) in America, is aggressively trying to regain a clean bill of health from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). The association, like the Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), sets broadly accepted criteria in higher education circles for determining an institution’s viability and value in a number of respects.
Cheyney, which has been cited repeatedly for shortcomings, especially in stability of leadership, is in the second year of a two-year probation from MSCHE, one step short of losing its accreditation. Losing accreditation from a major standards association makes it extremely tough for an institution to receive federal funds for students to help pay their tuition and stay in business without those funds.
Most Cheyney students rely on federal student aid funds.
The state higher education systems move was considered another signal to outsiders that it was serious about taking steps to help Cheyney rebound. The earlier step was its decision two years ago to recruit from retirement Dr. Frank Pogue Jr., known for his ability to help institutions move ahead. Pogue had served the state before as president at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, an institution located in a rural area between Pittsburgh and Erie.
During his 10-year stint at Edinboro, Pogue was credited with campaigning throughout the region to raise Edinboro’s standing in the area, boosting enrollment and raising millions of dollars in new money for the university endowment. Today, Edinboro has a scholarship fund named in Pogue’s honor and a main campus center named after him.
Cheyney’s challenges are much different from those Pogue faced when he left the State University of New York System to take the helm at Edinboro, a historically White institution. Still the system hopes his return to its network as interim head of Cheyney will make a difference.
Indeed, the challenge is great. Cheyney’s line of credit is tied to a new task force at the university assigned to develop a “new institutional model” the system says it hopes will “ensure” a “balanced budget” for the institution for future years. Cheyney has accumulated about $27 million in back debts, a figure state officials characterize as a conservative estimate based on which accumulated deficit numbers are included. The Cheyney task force is to report by late spring.
Cheyney’s decline is part of a larger fall in enrollment and income for state-controlled higher education in Pennsylvania, say higher education officials. The downturn started around 2008 when the nation was swept into an economic slide from which it is still recovering.
State funding for higher education is today approximately $445 million, according to state reports, down from its high of $505 million in the 2007-08 fiscal year. The statewide enrollment in the state’s system, meanwhile, has declined by more than 10 percent in the past two years to 105,000 students from 120,000.
While state funding has begun to rebound in small amounts in the past two years, there is still a broad gap between higher education and state aid. The state higher education system is seeking a $61 million boost in state aid for next fiscal year. The governor is recommending $9 million. Overall, the state says it could fall short of its needs next fiscal year by a billion dollars.
Cheyney, about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, has been among the hardest hit of the state’s 14 public universities. While its enrollment has shown signs of rebounding over the past two years, its enrollment has dropped precipitously since 2010. Today’s enrollment of approximately 740 students compares to the peak of nearly 2,000 students at the turn of the century.
In a brief telephone interview this week, Pogue said he was optimistic progress could be made in buying time for Cheyney to navigate the tough road ahead. At the same time, however, he left no doubt of the magnitude of the challenge.
“I’m hopeful we have the board of trustees of the university working with the system board of governors and the (state’s) governor, Tom Wolf, working closely with the university task force,” says Pogue, noting this is the first time in memory all key parties have sat together and discussed what needs to be done to save Cheyney.
“It’s a positive sign; Cheyney no longer appears to be standing by itself,” says Pogue, ticking down a list of meetings within the past two weeks involving the chair and members of the State Board of Governors, the local university trustees, state lawmakers and Gov. Wolf. Pogue said the discussions were detailed, candid and focused on the collective goal of helping Cheyney.
Before the state system announced its new loan to Cheyney, the challenges facing the entire state system were described in the annual state of the system message from the university system’s chief executive, Chancellor Frank T. Brogan.
“We will be taking a hard look at how we are organized today, and how we need to be organized in the future in order to continue to serve our students and the Commonwealth as its public university system,” said Brogan, noting this past year may be the best the system will see for some time to come.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to do it,” Brogan says of the forthcoming review of the system. “We are the people who have to have the courage to step up and sound the clarion call for change.”
An outside higher education consultant has been hired by the state system to check it over from universities to the system headquarters, the system spokesperson said.