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Cheyney University will erase unpaid student bills since the start of the pandemic

The university announced it would use federal stimulus funds to pay off all outstanding student balances from 2020 and the spring 2021 semester.

Students walk around campus at Cheyney University in August 2020
Students walk around campus at Cheyney University in August 2020Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

Cheyney University has joined other colleges across the region in announcing plans to forgive outstanding balances for students facing financial struggles stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

The nation’s oldest historically Black college said it would use federal stimulus money to pay off the outstanding debts students owe the school for 2020 and the spring 2021 semester. Cheyney president Aaron A. Walton said that he expected roughly $400,000 to be spent for the benefit of about 180 students, who would see an average debt of more than $2,200 forgiven.

“Our students have gone through a lot over the past 18 months, and we want to do whatever we can to lighten the burden,” Walton said. “With this financial weight lifted from our students, we look forward to seeing them on campus in the upcoming semester with their minds focused on their studies, not their debt.”

But in pledging to pay the debts, Cheyney — a campus of about 550 students straddling Chester and Delaware Counties — joined a growing list of peer institutions devoting the millions in stimulus funds they received to assisting students whose educations may have been disrupted over the last year and a half.

Since the pandemic began, the federal government has funneled more than $76 billion in stimulus funds into colleges nationwide but required them to spend roughly half of it directly on assisting students in need.

» READ MORE: More than $2 billion in stimulus relief for Pa. and N.J. colleges will mean more student aid

Some schools have compensated students for lost wages or helped them avoid borrowing for upcoming semesters. But many, like Cheyney, have directly addressed outstanding student bills incurred over the last year.

Last month, the Community College of Philadelphia pledged to use $2.75 million to pay off outstanding balances for as many as 3,500 students. Temple University has also been contacting students and asking if the university can use some of a $39 million pot of money to wipe out their debts to the school.

La Salle University, the private Catholic college in the city, cleared $522,000 for 111 students, forgiving an average debt of $4,706 per student.

At Cheyney, which continued in-person classes throughout the pandemic, the need is acute, school officials said. More than 75% of its students receive need-based federal financial aid.

More than half of students said they had been impacted by pandemic-related job loss, with 134 reporting a parent experiencing unemployment and 141 saying they had lost their own jobs, in a survey the school conducted last year.

Some students reported having to withdraw from classes either due to concerns over the coronavirus or because of changed financial circumstances, Walton said in an interview Sunday.

“The majority of our students come from economically deprived families, and there’s no question that the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on people of color,” he said. “A lot of those individuals are on the front lines or in jobs immediately affected by the pandemic. ... Doing what we’re doing is in the best interests of the students and the best interest of the university.”