Enrollment in Pennsylvania's 14 state universities dropped this fall for the eighth consecutive year, but nowhere was the decline as precipitous as at Cheyney University.
The historically black college, which is attempting a comeback after gaining another probationary year from its accrediting body, has 469 students enrolled this fall, down 286 students — or nearly 38 percent — from 755 last fall, officials said Monday.
Overall enrollment in the state system fell below 100,000 for the first time since 2001 and every university but two — West Chester and Millersville — enrolled fewer students.
The system's enrollment this year stands at 98,094, down just over 4 percent from last year's 102,301 students. Enrollment has been falling for about the last decade, from a peak of nearly 120,000 in 2010. The decline comes as colleges compete for fewer high school graduates and state funding covers fewer system costs, leading to tuition hikes.
"Many of our universities continue to be challenged by the state's changing demographics, especially in Western Pennsylvania, which has seen a significant decline in the number of high school graduates in recent years," said system spokesman Kenn Marshall. "That trend is expected to continue."
Besides Cheyney, Edinboro, Lock Haven and Mansfield also saw double-digit percentage declines. The other schools in the system are Bloomsburg, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Slippery Rock, Shippensburg, Indiana, Clarion and California. Of them, Kutztown and Slippery Rock had a minimal drop, less than 1 percent.
The challenges at Cheyney have been more profound. Founded in 1837, Cheyney has a storied history as the nation's oldest historically black college but has lost more than half its enrollment over the last decade.
The school last year was in danger of losing its accreditation, almost a certain death knell, but got a year's reprieve from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the accrediting body. Cheyney was due to submit an updated report on its progress to the commission by Sept. 1 and is expected to learn in November whether it will have its accreditation renewed.
In July, Cheyney officials announced plans to partner with Thomas Jefferson University, Starbucks, and others in creating a new African American-focused institute that will promote the school's legacy.
At that time, Cheyney President Aaron A. Walton acknowledged challenges ahead — including fewer students — but said he expected enrollment to bottom out this year and then begin to climb as Cheyney rebuilds its image and launches new efforts. He said he hoped the announcement about the institute would attract students who may be on the fence about Cheyney.
"We have to shrink to grow," Walton said at that time. "This has been our year of refocusing and adjusting, and now we're going to forge ahead."
Walton was not available for comment on Monday, but reached on Tuesday, he said he was not surprised at the enrollment numbers, given that the university discouraged low academic performers from coming back and eliminated its football program.
"There's a natural fallout when you begin to raise standards," he said.
The school's new announced partnerships including paid internships for students has attracted attention, he said, and he expects enrollment to rebound next year. Cheyney has already received 566 applications for fall 2019, where last year at this time, it had none, he said. Of the applicants, 124 have been offered admission, he said.
He also noted a 26 percent decline in unsatisfactory grades for freshmen in the first eight weeks of classes, compared to last year.
"With the grades looking as good as they are, we are not going to be losing very many people," he said.
Cheyney has changed its enrollment strategy. In recent years, it has accepted just about everyone, operating like an open-enrollment university. The school now is seeking to attract higher-caliber students with more aggressive recruiting and scholarships, while still maintaining its mission as a school of opportunity for some students who may be denied a college experience elsewhere.
Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Texas nationally recognized for its turnaround, also saw a large drop in enrollment when a new leader came in and put a plan in place. The college had been experiencing enrollment decline for more than a decade before Michael Sorrell took over, and in Sorrell's first two years, enrollment dropped even further, from 550 to just 151, as students who couldn't pay their bills, meet academic standards, or feared the school would lose its accreditation left.
Sorrell raised admission standards, slashed tuition, and traveled the country building recruiting relationships with high schools and gathering donations. He also converted the school into a work college, where students work on- or off-campus jobs for 10 to 15 hours a week to help pay tuition. Since then, the school has reversed its fortune.