Understanding Cheyney's Accreditation Reprieve

Cheyney University will live for at least another year, after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education yesterday announced its extension of ‘show cause’ status for the embattled institution.

Here’s what it means in the short and long term.

Cheyney Survives But Isn’t Safe

The accreditation decision says that the university demonstrated compliance with standards of executive leadership and institutional planning. In short, officials were able to present an outline of an organizational structure and a plan for how it will conduct business as usual. It remains out of compliance in its ability to show financial resources and institutional capacity to keep the campus functioning under regular compliance standards.
This is tricky because Cheyney still remains on the hook to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education for a $30 million loan until it can demonstrate financial planning and stability, beginning with how it can cut more than $7 million from an already sparse budget to serve just over 700 students. It also faces the prospect of having to repay some or all of a $29 million balance to the US Department of Education, for student financial aid improperly awarded to students between 2011 and 2014.
And the school must show how it plans to secure more funding in order to maintain standards of accreditation – both notions keenly observed by Cheyney alumnus and Philadelphia based attorney Michael Coard. 

Even though Cheyney remains wounded, we also remain accredited. But it’s not a complete accreditation. Instead, it’s a one-year continued probationary accreditation That means it has until the end of 2018 to resolve severe problems regarding financial and institutional resources. And that means PASSHE must provide the resources it owes and also must end its lax oversight and poor management of Cheyney.

Enrollment is the Key

The latest and greatest example of how to save a campus community is Sweet Briar College, the liberal arts women’s college that in 2015 almost shuttered under conditions virtually identical to those at Cheyney, minus scandals in leadership and financial management.
But the key detail of why Cheyney won’t have a comeback story similar to Sweet Briar’s can be found in a few lines of a Washington Post feature on the school’s resurrection:

Enrollment had dropped, the school was discounting tuition nearly 60 percent to attract students, maintenance costs were piling up and administrators had begun to draw down the endowment at an alarming rate. In other words, there was no longer enough demand to keep a private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia afloat.
Alumnae, shocked, immediately began organizing and raising money.
In 110 days they raised $28.5 million.
Lawsuits were filed, and countered. Finally, a settlement was brokered that promised $12 million from the alumnae of Saving Sweet Briar for this academic year, and the Virginia attorney general granted permission for $16 million of restricted money in the endowment to be released for operating funds.

This means Sweet Briar alumnae raised more than $250,000 per day for more than three months. The biggest gift made to Cheyney in 2017 so far has been a $30,000 gift from PECO, the state’s energy utility company.
This isn’t to blame alumni or Cheyney stakeholders for not committing to the university, but it suggests that Cheyney supporters assume that alumni aren’t a reliable resource for fundraising. This means that Cheyney’s best chance for a financial windfall is tuition revenue – something which will prove challenging for a school that has cut seven graduate programs, eight undergraduate programs, and has outsourced most of the administrative infrastructure for student services like financial aid, human resources and facilities management to West Chester University.
Which leads to the final point.

Watch Out For West Chester

While the Cheyney community may be celebrating its survival, the accreditation decision may only be one more year for PASSHE to figure out a way to consolidate Cheyney with West Chester, which has long been the desire of state lawmakers and higher ed governing officials.
West Chester already knows about and controls Cheyney’s key operational functions. Sources close to Cheyney’s board say that part of the university’s show cause package included plans for all Cheyney students to transfer to West Chester in the event that the school lost its accreditation. In 2015, the two schools began publicly discussing opportunities for academic collaboration, while at the same time WCU was debuting the second phase of its facilities development plan, designed to accommodate projected enrollment expansion which would exceed open space for parking and buildings for residential and academic use.

In 2015, WCU officials expected enrollment growth to reach 16,622 in fall 2016. Its actual enrollment that semester was 17,010. West Chester’s rate of expansion suggests that new space won’t be solved by a few buildings, but a few acres – something in abundance on the Cheyney campus.
It’s a reality not lost on WCU officials.

Asked how the new partnership might benefit West Chester, (West Chester Spokeswoman Pam) Sheridan said the university is rather landlocked and Cheyney has 275 acres of rolling farmland in Delaware and Chester Counties.

Cheyney is alive for the next year. But without attention and resources, it may only be building to its eventual and untimely demise.