An HBCU Fights to Survive

Kellie Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, September 15, 2015

One of the oldest historically black colleges in the United States is fighting to survive.

Cheyney University, a small, rural public institution in Pennsylvania, faces challenges on nearly every front. The institution’s students have been leaving in droves, and enrollment is down by about half since 2008. With its state funding slashed by 20 percent during that time, the university has a deficit of nearly $19 million.

The university has mismanaged many of its administrative functions, which are deeply disorganized–a widely held view, including by supporters of the institution. During one recent admissions cycle, scores of forgotten and unreviewed applications were lost and then rediscovered too late, sources say.

A recent review found that Cheyney, which has 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.

Many of its facilities are outdated and in disrepair. It hasn’t had a permanent president in more than a year, and no search is underway for one. Its six-year graduation rate is 26 percent, low even among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Cheyney, which serve many disadvantaged students and historically have rates below 55 percent, the average national rate reported by the National Student Clearinghouse.

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Cheyney holds a unique place among HBCUs. Founded in 1837–a quarter century before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation–as a school for teacher education, it’s the oldest existing postsecondary institution for black students, though not the first historically black degree-granting institution.

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Cheyney’s enrollment dropped from about 1,470 full-time students in 2008 to just over 1,000 last year. This fall it is expected to dip another 300-some students, coming in just under 700.

Many HBCUs across the country are facing enrollment challenges, which in part stem from the growing number of options available to black students as more and more predominantly white colleges focus on recruiting black students. Enrollment at Lincoln University, the only other HBCU in Pennsylvania, was 1,820 students last fall–roughly a one-fourth drop in seven years.

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The result is that some students don’t stick around long. Fully 45 percent leave Cheyney after their first year.

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Deferred maintenance for Cheyney’s 634,000 square feet of infrastructure is estimated at nearly $26 million. Four of Cheyney’s buildings are in such poor condition they’re now closed and are slated to be demolished, along with another academic building. And many of the open buildings are in various states of disrepair: broken floor tiles, scuffed and rusted hallways and doorways, and broken air-conditioning are not uncommon. {snip}

Did Budgets Reflect Bias?

Many people interviewed for this article, from faculty members to Council of Trustees Chairman Robert W. Bogle to scholars who study HBCUs, placed much of the blame for Cheyney’s challenges with the state of Pennsylvania.

They pointed to historic underfunding and unequal treatment of Cheyney. They described how, decades ago, contractors would use subpar materials when constructing new buildings. They noted that, in 1969, Pennsylvania’s government was found by the federal government to be among 10 state governments operating an openly discriminatory higher education system, and how, in 1999, the PASSHE system signed an agreement with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights that aimed to provide more funding and new programs for Cheyney in an effort to compensate for decades of discrimination. Yet that agreement was never fully executed.

A new coalition of alumni and advocates, dubbed Heeding Cheyney’s Call, has sued PASSHE and seeks “parity through equity,” or support that would make up for historic underfunding due to past discriminatory practices. Michael Coard, a member of that group, says Cheyney is treated like the “stepchild” of the PASSHE system. Bogle says that “at no time” has the university been treated as an “equal partner” in the system.

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Cheyney receives the most per-student funding of any state-owned institution in Pennsylvania by a wide margin: per-student state funding at Cheyney was $14,000 last year, triple the state average of $4,500. Yet the per-student figure can be misleading, as Cheyney has experienced a steep decline in students in spite of efforts to increase enrollment. In addition, the system’s formula gives Cheyney extra money because it is a historically black college.

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Cheyney has received more capital funding–state funds separate from annual appropriations that are earmarked for campus construction projects–than its peer universities in recent years, receiving $97 million since 2008, compared to the $43.5 million average for all system universities during that time. Those funds provided the bulk of support for Cheyney’s two newest buildings: a $50 million student dorm and a $23 million science center, which were the first residence hall and academic building to be built on campus in more than 30 years.

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Questionable Leadership Practice

Several people interviewed for this article–including Cheyney’s interim president–said the university’s admissions and financial services offices have been mismanaged for years. Some students receive personal recommendations from faculty members, yet don’t hear back from Cheyney’s admissions or financial aid office.

Mash calls the stories stemming from such mismanagement “legendary.” Gasman, the HBCU scholar, says the university has had “some really questionable leadership practices” in recent history.

Inefficiencies in the admissions office often pile on to the large systemic issues Cheyney is fighting against as it tries to maintain enrollment, like demographic shifts in the Northeast and the declining competitiveness of HBCUs. After a recent admissions cycle, for example, a trove of misplaced applications was discovered, apparently set aside and then forgotten about. The result was hundreds of students who applied to Cheyney but never heard back from the admissions office.

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Meanwhile, the financial aid office has been working to fix years of mismanagement. A PASSHE review that concluded in August found Cheyney made numerous mistakes when awarding and tracking federal grants and loans between 2011 and 2013. Nearly $30 million in aid–distributed as Pell Grants, federal work study, direct student loans and other awards–is in question and may have to be repaid.

The consultant now operating Cheyney’s financial aid office reviewed 3,900 of 4,400 student records during the three-year period, and found that 85 percent had at least one error. Of the 4,400 records, nearly half–47 percent–were determined to be ineligible for aid, meaning they lacked elements like high school transcripts or proof of a student’s academic standing or progress. In many cases, the students likely would have qualified had they completed their applications and provided necessary documentation.

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