Students and staff at Cheyney University can exhale. A regional body on Monday reaffirmed its accreditation, ending years of uncertainty about whether the financially beleaguered school would be forced to close.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education announced its decision following a closed-door hearing in Philadelphia last week where Cheyney officials made their case.

Key in the decision was Gov. Tom Wolf’s pledge to make sure Cheyney’s $40 million debt to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and its chancellor’s office is eliminated.

While citing Cheyney’s “significant progress” in reaching compliance, James Sunser, vice chair of the commission, also said Wolf’s pledge “greatly improved the institution’s financial outlook.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how Wolf would ensure elimination of the debt, but Cheyney president Aaron A. Walton said the governor has pledged to find a way to provide that money to the state system, which oversees Cheyney and 13 other universities.

“Cheyney University is the nation’s first historically black university and remains an important educational resource for many Pennsylvania students,” Wolf said in a statement. The new accreditation will help ensure that "students from all backgrounds will have access to an equitable education that will prepare them for a successful future.”

If Cheyney had lost accreditation, it would have meant the 618-student school, whose campus straddles parts of Delaware and Chester Counties, was no longer eligible to receive federal and state financial aid, on which the vast majority of its students depend.

Walton said he was “thrilled” by the decision, and that while Wolf’s support was key, the school’s ability to balance its budget and increase enrollment were among other important factors. He said the decision means Cheyney will "continue to play a critical role in diversifying and strengthening our workforce, promoting equity in education, and providing a space for young students to be educated by faculty who represent them and the communities from which they come.”

The commission required Cheyney to show long-term financial stability, continued budget reductions as agreed upon with the state system, written confirmation from the system that it had done so, and steps the school has taken to resolve what had been a $29 million debt to the federal Education Department.

Walton said Monday that the Education Department debt is actually $14.3 million and that Cheyney is close to finalizing an agreement to repay over several years.

Asked how the governor planned to eliminate the debt, spokesperson J.J. Abbott said the governor is committed to working with the system and others “to address any impacts that the elimination of … [the] debt to PASSHE may have, and is exploring a variety of options to do this in a financially sustainable and responsible way.”

As a condition of its accreditation, Cheyney will be required to submit two reports, the first in March, providing evidence of both the repayment plan to the federal Education Department and the resolution of its debt to the state system, and the second in September, showing “sustainability” of its finances. Cheyney will come up for another review in 2022-23, said Brian Kirschner, a commission spokesperson.

The commission’s decision follows an aggressive campaign led by Walton to improve the school’s finances, reverse plummeting enrollment and restore faith in Cheyney.

The effort had the backing of Wolf, who authorized $2.4 million in additional funding for the school this year in the form of a one-time “unrestricted grant” from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Walton said students and staff have been informed. Students are not on campus this week, as they are on fall break.

“With the cloud of uncertainty about accreditation off our shoulders, we can begin tackling the challenges before us,” he said. “This action is the beginning of the work, not the ending of the work.”

Founded in 1837, Cheyney has a long tradition of offering opportunity to underprivileged students, many from the cash-strapped Philadelphia school system and among the first in their families to attend college. The school’s alumni include Philadelphia civil rights activist Octavius V. Catto; Bayard Rustin, a chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington; and Ed Bradley, the 60 Minutes broadcast journalist.

But Cheyney for years has been in deep crisis. It has been borrowing money from the state system, and in 2015, the school was found to have mishandled millions in federal financial aid, resulting in the debt to the Education Department.

Enrollment had plunged exponentially over the last decade. Last fall, 469 students were enrolled, down 286 — or nearly 38% — from 2017. Cheyney’s problems were compounded by years of poor management, lax oversight, and unstable leadership, a 2017 Inquirer investigation found. Academic performance also lagged.

Aaron A. Walton, Cheyney's president, announced fundraising campaign and continued partnerships to ensure the school's financial future, during a news conference at the school Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in Philadelphia.
( AP PHOTO / JOSE F. MORENO / The Philadelphia Inquirer ) / AP
Aaron A. Walton, Cheyney's president, announced fundraising campaign and continued partnerships to ensure the school's financial future, during a news conference at the school Tuesday, March 5, 2019 in Philadelphia.

Two and a half years ago, the state system appointed Walton, a retired executive from health insurer Highmark, as president, charging him with turning around the institution. Walton initiated partnerships, overhauled admissions and cut expenses and programs, as well as the football team, to balance the budget.

But questions persisted inside and outside Cheyney. Last winter, Daniel Greenstein, state system chancellor, told state senators it was “highly likely” Cheyney would lose accreditation and recommended that it begin planning for that likelihood and chart a new path. He suggested the possibility of Cheyney affiliating with another university as a department or school, or providing career training programs that don’t require accreditation.

But Wolf backed Walton’s continued efforts to save Cheyney and kept his plan in place.

(Greenstein issued a statement Monday crediting both Wolf and Walton, as well as Cheyney’s staff.)

Meanwhile, two former Cheyney administrators, including provost Tara Kent, filed lawsuits earlier this year, alleging misspending under Walton. They both contend they were wrongfully terminated.

In May, the university announced that for the first time in eight years, it had ended the fiscal year with a balanced budget and had money left over. The school had mounted a fund-raising campaign that Walton said had brought in $4.4 million, about half of it from the state Education Department.

The university has launched the second phase of fund-raising, aiming to bring in $10 million by June 2020.

Cheyney was one of two schools in the system to see an increase in enrollment this fall. The official count of 618 students is up 149 or nearly 32% over last year.

The university projects it will enroll more than 800 students next year and over 1,000 the following year, and anticipates finishing each of the next two years with surpluses, Walton said.

Cheyney also touted its improved retention rate, noting that 70% of freshmen returned for sophomore year.

“We are in the midst of a major transformation," Walton said. "Corporate partnerships, intensive alumni engagement, ambitious and successful fund-raising targets, and strong enrollment growth have allowed us to overcome difficult challenges over the last several years.”