HARRISBURG - Saddled with escalating debt and declining enrollment, Cheyney University - the nation's first college for black people - is in dire straits that will worsen unless the state takes "drastic action" to rescue the school, the state auditor general said Wednesday.

The school's expenses exceeded its revenue in four of the last five years, and its deficit, already $12 million, will grow by an additional $5 million this academic year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said in a report.

"We cannot sit idly by as this historic and prestigious university fights for survival," he said in a statement.

Cheyney is suffering from financial difficulties tied to reduced state funding, declining enrollment, and higher costs - woes plaguing several of the 13 other state system universities, DePasquale said.

DePasquale said the school is caught in a "vicious cycle": With fewer students, it has less to invest in facilities and programs that would attract more students.

He said he held the news conference in the Capitol rather than near Cheyney, situated on the border of Chester and Delaware Counties, to draw attention to a critical situation that demands state action - even as the state confronts a $2.2 billion deficit of its own.

When asked whether some might suggest it was time for the venerable institution - founded in 1837 - to close, DePasquale said, "Hopefully, we don't have to go down that path."

A representative for Cheyney did not return a call seeking comment.

Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), in whose district Cheyney is located, said he did not think "throwing money" at the problem will fix the school's fiscal woes, dating back more than a decade.

Kenn Marshall, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, acknowledged the university's problems and said the agency was working with Cheyney.

"The university has been working to reduce its expenses and already has made progress in this area," Marshall said. "The university recently announced a number of changes related to its academic offerings that are intended to better align its programs with student and employer demand. Those efforts must continue as the university seeks to regrow its enrollment."

Frank Pogue took over as Cheyney's president in October, three months after the abrupt retirement of Michelle R. Howard-Vital, during whose tenure the deficit doubled and enrollment declined by 36 percent to 1,000 students.

In 1977, 3,000 students were enrolled at Cheyney.

Pileggi, a former member of the board of trustees at nearby Lincoln University, another historically black university, said Cheyney is facing a situation common to similar institutions formed before desegregation - in Cheyney's case, while African Americans were still enslaved.

"It's a conversation going on among historically black colleges and universities," he said. "What is the future? How do you maintain the historic mission and still be viable?"

In October, a group of alumni revived a civil-rights lawsuit claiming a lack of fair funding was starving one of the nation's oldest black schools.

The audit also found that Cheyney failed to perform background checks as its policy stated on staff members who had contact with students at university-sponsored events and summer camps.

DePasquale said that while no students were harmed as a result, it was "staggering" that any school in Pennsylvania would not follow such policies in light of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

Cheyney acknowledged the shortcoming in its response to the audit, and said a new background screening policy would be presented to the university cabinet this month for implementation in January.