Cheyney Averts Accreditation Ax

Middle States agency reinstates the Pennsylvania university, citing governor's vow to wipe out tens of millions it borrowed from state university system.

November 26, 2019
(Cheyney University of Pennsylvania)

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education last week reaffirmed Cheyney University of Pennsylvania's accreditation, largely citing the state government's decision in August to wipe out millions in debt the struggling regional public institution owed to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

Cheyney, a historically black institution to the west of Philadelphia, saw its enrollment tumble by more than half over the last decade before rebounding modestly this fall. State officials have loaned the university tens of millions of dollars in debt to help keep it afloat, and those debts (among concerns about lack of administrative continuity and other issues) got Cheyney crosswise with Middle States, which placed it on probation in 2015 and followed in 2017 with a "show-cause" order, requiring it to provide evidence why its accreditation should not be stripped.

The debt and the risk of the loss of accreditation -- which means the end for most institutions that depend on federal student aid to operate -- threatened the future of the country's oldest historically black institution. Cheyney has been at the center of discussions in recent years about whether the Pennsylvania system's 14 institutions should remain separately accredited or should be merged or otherwise reorganized. The prospect of any restructuring that closed or threatened the state's oldest black institution has seemed increasingly unlikely. (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct that Cheyney is the oldest HBCU in Pennsylvania, not the only one. Apologies to Lincoln University.)

Last summer, Cheyney raised funds from alumni and donors to close a $4.4 million budget gap and elicited a vow from Governor Tom Wolf that the state would alleviate the university's debt to the state system.

Cheyney's president, Aaron Walton, said at the time that he was "cautiously optimistic" that Middle States would restore its accreditation.

University officials made their case at a closed-door hearing before the accreditation commission last week. In a news release Monday, agency officials said Cheyney was back in compliance with the accreditor's standards regarding planning, resources and institutional improvement, citing Wolf's "written assurance of the elimination of Cheyney University’s debt to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) and the Office of the Chancellor."

The agency said it would require Cheyney to submit reports by next spring showing that the university had resolved its debt obligations to the state university system and by next fall showing that the university had a plan to "assure long-term financial stability."

In a statement signed Monday by Wolf, Walton and the head of the Pennsylvania system, Daniel Greenstein, the officials said the university was undergoing a "major transformation" that was "breathing life back into a university that has overcome many difficult challenges over the last several years."

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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