One of the most stunning reversals in higher education is happening right now in Pennsylvania. And it could be a blueprint for other struggling universities and colleges both here and across the nation.
Founded in 1837 as one of the nation’s first black colleges, Cheyney University was in serious trouble as recently as four years ago.
According to a story published by Inside Higher Ed in September of 2015, Cheyney was facing a deficit of $19 million. It reported that enrollment at the university had declined from 1,470 in 2008 to about 700 by 2015.
With many of Cheyney’s facilities reportedly outdated and in disrepair, its six-year graduation rate was 26 percent, far below the 55 percent average for historically black colleges as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse.
It was reported in the article, that Cheyney, which had no financial reserves and no endowment, may have to repay as much as $30 million in federal aid funds because it didn’t properly administer or track them. During one recent admissions cycle, scores of forgotten and unreviewed applications were reportedly lost and then rediscovered too late.
“There are lots and lots of factors at play that make Cheyney really messy,” Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, told Inside Higher Ed at the time. “It really does look like a shadow of itself.”
There was even talk of closing Cheyney, which has been owned by Pennsylvania since 1922. Located about 30 miles west of Philadelphia, it was a founding member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which was created in 1983.
“There is widespread concern about where we are headed and how we’re going to progress through this period,” Norma George, who chaired the university’s English, Languages and Communication Arts Department, told the website HBCUForever in 2014.
Furthermore, despite going more than four years with interim presidents, there was no search underway for a new president.
However, all that changed with the November of 2017 hiring of Aaron Walton, a retired corporate executive, as the university’s permanent president. The turnaround has been quick and stunning.
From that $19 million deficit back in 2015, Walton said the university had a surplus of $2.1 million this year, outperforming the planned surplus of $261,000, according to an Aug. 19 story by the Daily Local News, a Chester County newspaper.
“Beginning two years ago under the leadership of Walton ― a retired and highly experienced corporate executive ― Cheyney University undertook a broad range of efforts to ensure the long-term financial stability of the university and to ensure the university’s resources were prioritized and sufficient to provide robust academic programs and student support,” Cheyney University Council of Trustees Chairman, Robert Bogle, told the newspaper. “We are well on our way to restoring Cheyney to its rightful position among elite Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).”
The story reported that In addition to cutting $9 million in expenditures, Walton also started a successful fund-raising campaign led by university alumni. It raised over $4.4 million as of June 30, which exceeded its goal by $400,000. A second campaign hopes to raise another $5.6 million by June of 2020.
Best of all, after enrollment plummeted to 498 it rebounded to 722 this fall. The university anticipates retaining 72 percent of its fall 2018 freshman class ― Cheyney’s highest rate of retention for a freshman class in over 25 years.
Cheyney’s turnaround offers hope for other struggling schools, especially for those in the state system, which includes Bloomsburg, California, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester universities.
Many of them have experienced enrollment declines and financial problems over the past decade.
The system’s enrollment peaked at 112,000 in 2011 but has dropped by 18 percent since then.
The fact is that state system faces some daunting challenges in its bid to increase enrollment.
According to a study by the RAND Corp. released last year, most of the state-system universities serve students in surrounding counties. But it pointed out that 55 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties will experience declines in traditional college-age students over the next 10 years, ranging from 3 percent to 45 percent.
The report urged state system officials to consider closing some universities or merging them. They also recommended affiliations with state-related universities such Penn State, Pittsburgh or Temple.
State system officials are firmly against closing or merging any of the state-system universities, contending they would hurt students in poorer and rural communities.
They maintained that an increase in state funding was necessary for the universities to survive.
However, the turnaround at Cheyney disproves that theory. Instead of waiting around for a state bailout, Cheyney officials acted on their own to cut waste and start programs that can attract new students.
That’s the path that other state system schools should follow instead of waiting for the state to bail them out.
The fact of the matter is that if Cheyney can turn its fortunes around, so can other universities across the nation, including those in the state university system.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Herald-Standard of Uniontown, Pa. His work appears biweekly.