Once cash-strapped, Cheyney University is saved and accreditation reaffirmed

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Cheyney University will keep its Middle States accreditation. The news means the historically black college, once besieged by financial struggle, now has a bright future.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education reaffirmed Cheyney University's accreditation, marking the first time in years that the school can move forward without the threat that it could lose its ability to receive federal student funding.

"All hands on deck had to be a part of getting us from point A to point B," said Aaron Walton, president of Cheyney, "and I am very pleased with the partnership of everyone that has been involved."

For the past eight years, the nation's oldest historically black college sat beneath a cloud of uncertainty because of more than $30 million in debt and crumbling buildings. The financial stress meant Cheyney was unable to comply with Middle States standards, forcing the commission to constantly monitor the institution, with its accreditation under continued threat.  

Alumni and supporters doubled down, lobbying to save the beloved school.

"Cheyney could not afford to lose that accreditation and the financial support," said State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a big Cheyney advocate. "To close its shop to fail would have had national, even international implications."

Walton was a big part of the turn around. 

Under his leadership, Cheyney cut spending and pared down programs. Enrollment plummeted as the school got hold of its finances, sparking major concern. Then, this August, Cheyney announced not just a balanced budget but also a $2 million surplus, its first in eight years.

"We have begun a great journey." said Walton, "The transformation is occurring, but we can't stop now."

More on the #Breaking News that @CheyneyUniv will keep its accreditation- here's the letter that went out to faculty and students. More to come on @KYWNewsradio once we get official word from #Cheyney Pres Aaron Walton and @GovernorTomWolf STORY: https://t.co/QUqg1zez0P pic.twitter.com/qU30TFCQWC

— Cherri Gregg (@cherrigregg) November 25, 2019

The university also reported a 32% increase in enrollment as nearly 150 students once deemed academically ineligible return after getting remedial studies at area community colleges, according to Walton.

"This news is the greatest news in HBCU history," said Michael Coard, a Cheyney alum who is an attorney and the leader of Heeding Cheyney's Call.

Several years ago, the group sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and the governor, alleging that Cheyney's financial woes were the result of decades of discrimination in state education funding. 

The group suspended its suit after Gov. Tom Wolf pledged to save the school. The state promised to take care of Cheyney's debt as long as the 182-year-old institution balanced its budget.

"Cheyney now has an awesome opportunity to take this and write the next chapter for the university," said State Rep. Jordan Harris. "Cheyney is the conscious of the of the African American community and we need Cheyney around."

Since 1989, at least five historically black colleges and universities have closed their doors. Several others remain open in name only.

Many believed Cheyney would follow suit, because loss of accreditation almost ensures the death of an HBCU since students of color rely heavily on federal student aid. 

Without accreditation, a Cheyney degree would be worth very little and students who receive aid would have no choice but to enroll elsewhere. Getting its accreditation reaffirmed means no more probation for Cheyney, and the school can now focus on the future instead of just trying to stay alive.

"We are not going to rest on our laurels," said Walton, who notes that they have until 2022 for the next review. "We'll celebrate today, but then we are going to get back to work."

The Middle States Commission for Higher Education wrote on its website that "the institution is now in compliance."

The Pennsylvania System of Higher Education issued a statement, which reads in, in part, "Today’s announcement by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to affirm Cheyney University’s accreditation means students will continue having opportunities to succeed at this historic institution."

"Today represents the first day of Cheyney’s future, and the State System looks forward to joining Cheney’s leaders in the task of ensuring a future for students that is full of possibility," the agency added.