For the first time in eight years, Cheyney University has ended a fiscal year with a balanced budget, as well as a surplus, which could help the long-embattled state school retain its accreditation, officials announced Friday.
The university brought in $4.4 million in its alumni-led “Resurgence” campaign and other fund-raising efforts that helped Cheyney to a $2.1 million surplus, the university said. Cheyney’s annual budget is $26 million.
Cheyney president Aaron A. Walton said the money came from sources including alumni, faculty, staff, and businesses.
But the biggest chunk, $2.5 million, came in an “unrestricted grant” from the state, specifically the Pennsylvania Department of Education, that was targeted to support the campaign and turnaround efforts, he said. The university noted the state grant in a monitoring report it had to turn in to its accrediting agency this week, he said.
The state also earlier this year boosted funding for scholarships to the honors program at Cheyney, the nation’s oldest historically black college.
“Gov. [Tom] Wolf has been extremely supportive,” Walton said. “We couldn’t have asked for a greater level of support and encouragement.”
Cheyney requested the $2.5 million in an April letter to the Education Department, noting that it needed the money to meet payroll through the remainder of the fiscal year. The department “was able to use available funds from prior years” to grant the request, said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolf.
“Gov. Wolf has long supported ensuring a strong future for Cheyney,” Abbott said.
Cheyney’s budget still needs to be reviewed by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, of which the school is a part, before “any definitive declaration can be made" about Cheyney’s fiscal status, said system spokesperson David Pidgeon.
"While we are encouraged by the progress Cheyney University has made, we acknowledge there are steep challenges ahead,” he said.
The budget news comes at a particularly important time for Cheyney, which this month had to submit a progress report to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which will decide in November whether Cheyney can keep its accreditation. The school has received two one-year extensions from the commission to fix its finances, and there is no mechanism to provide a third.
Walton said he remained “cautiously optimistic" that the university will meet Middle States’ requirements.
“We are trying to dig ourselves out of years of negative performance, and you don’t do that overnight,” said Walton, a retired executive who took over more than two years ago. “We are certainly pleased with the progress that has been made in the last two years. But we have much to do to make sure the university is on a firm financial academic footing for years to come.”
In February, Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the state system, said the university was experiencing a $10 million cash-flow problem and should begin planning to lose its accreditation in November.
But after a meeting with Wolf, system officials said they would continue to support Cheyney’s turnaround efforts under Walton. The university last summer announced plans to partner with Thomas Jefferson University, Starbucks, and others in creating an African American-focused institute that would promote the school’s legacy.
Walton said those plans and more are in the works. This summer, the university held a “Summer Bridge” program for incoming freshmen who had a 3.0 GPA or better but whose college board scores were lower than the university wanted. The 29 students took two classes and were required to get a B average for admission this fall, he said. All met the mark.
The university also is getting help from Presidential Partners Inc., a New York firm that includes former college presidents who provide guidance on curriculum and academics, Walton said.
Cheyney expects to welcome 215 freshmen to campus next week, more than double the number it had last year, Walton said. Overall enrollment should exceed 600, he said.
Another encouraging sign, Walton said: The university expects 72% of its freshmen from 2018 to return, which would be the highest rate in 25 years.
The university plans to continue its fund-raising campaign with the goal of bringing in $5.6 million more by next summer, he said. Though the university has a surplus on the books, it still struggles with cash flow because the U.S. Department of Education placed it on “heightened cash monitoring” after it found in 2015 that the school mismanaged millions in financial aid. That means it takes longer for the university to receive reimbursement for students who get federal financial aid.
Cheyney also owes the state system money, but the system has agreed to forgive that debt if the university balances its budget for three years.