Pennsylvania lawmakers are still wrestling with the notion of saving its crumbling public system of higher education while staying true to historically stingy spending on the industry. A group of 14 institutions struggles to keep up with more than $95 million in debt spent on-campus expansion over the years, while officials from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are saying that maintaining the status quo will require $150 million in additional funding.
This invites a question about the future of Cheyney University, which the system spared from undignified closure or repurposing, but now stands in a holding pattern on how to resolve its debts as the system at large struggles.
From the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
During last Thursday’s hearing, state Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said moves by Cheyney that included paring its budget by $9 million do not fully explain how the historically Black college, long the most beleaguered campus in the system, actually survived.
“I don’t think we’re being real,” he told the chancellor.
The representative pointed to assistance from Harrisburg, including a $45 million infusion of cash in a state not known for generous campus funding. He said it kept Cheyney afloat but is now being glossed over.
“We paint this rosy story of how Cheyney got there, and that story is not the actual story,” he said. “I was there. I was in the room. I had to vote on this stuff.”
Two years ago lawmakers commissioned a study on how PASSHE institutions could be most effectively consolidated. It proposed that Cheyney be a primary target for merger or consolidation, citing trends in enrollment and finance.
The state hasn’t followed through on the plan, yet. A year ago, there were signs of life that saving the school may have supported public awareness and boosting its appeal to prospective students. Cheyney posted the system’s highest marks in projected enrollment based upon student deposits, but a year later, there are no such announcements suggesting that Cheyney has built on a single-year student increase from 469 students in 2018-19 to 618 students in 2019-20.
Here’s what System Chancellor Daniel Greenstein said to lawmakers about sustaining the system.
Asked by Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh County, if an additional $150 million from the state would negate the need for mergers, the chancellor replied with a hint of sarcasm that it depends.
“What do you want to do?” he shot back.
“If you want to sustain the universities, not have any more job losses?” he asked. “Sure, $150 million.”
“You won’t see an iota of difference in community college transfers, student success,” Mr. Greenstein said. “Things that actually change students’ lives.”
To achieve those goals, and cut attendance costs, he said, that’s a whole different conversation. Reducing costs to each student by $1,000 a year would require an extra $85 million annually. Restoring the $6,500 price advantage that system students enjoyed in 2010 over other public and private institutions would require five times that, in addition to the current $477 million appropriation.
“You’re talking $900 million,” he said.
Cheyney hasn’t been, and will never be strong enough to receive less than $10 million in appropriations and expect for the nation’s oldest HBCU to compete with 13 system schools, all of which have loaned money to the embattled Black college to keep it afloat but marginal over the years.
The prospect of survival becomes even slimmer when considering that West Chester University, just four miles from Cheyney, is the fastest-growing campus in the system with more than 17,000 students enrolled in 2019-20.
Cheyney has to have more unique programs, more upgraded facilities, and more marketing than every other PASSHE institution to get working adults and recent high school graduates to attend. Considering that the state doesn’t want to make those investments in the system at large, the chances that Cheyney emerges as Pennsylvania’s best-funded, most exclusive academic and industrial training hub are as close to zero as you can get.
Kicking the can down the road on Cheyney’s extinction doesn’t reduce any peril for the institution, it just delays and draws out the pain of watching the school decline in a system willing to neglect all to choke the life out of its weakest member schools.