Much of Cheyney University's financial woes were due to nearly $7 million in unpaid student bills, an amount that has been cut nearly in half the last few months, officials said yesterday.

Irene Moszer, Cheyney's outgoing vice president of finance and administration, told the board of trustees yesterday that the school had stepped up efforts to help students fill out and file financial-aid forms so that their bills could be paid.

About $3.7 million in unpaid bills remain, she said.

President Michelle Howard-Vital said the 1,488-student historically black university will adopt a hard line this fall.

"We're saying if you don't pay, you can't come back. We're going to hold that line. . . . It's not fair to the students who do pay," she said.

Students who struggle can work out a payment plan with the university, she said. More than half of Cheyney students hail from Philadelphia, many from the underperforming city school district. The university is set on rolling farmland that straddles Chester and Delaware Counties.

The additional revenue has helped Cheyney lessen a projected deficit, now estimated at just under $1 million in the $37.8 million budget, Moszer said.

The deficit would have been smaller except that at midyear, the state, because of its budget problems, took back 4.25 percent of its subsidy from Cheyney and the other 13 universities in the state system, Moszer noted.

The budget discussion came at the regularly scheduled trustees meeting, where officials also announced a panel of nationally recognized leaders in historically black colleges to help Cheyney, which has struggled with a deficit, a drop in enrollment, and a low graduation rate in recent years.

The panel will be led by H. Patrick Swygert, former president of Howard University in Washington. Swygert, a Philadelphia native and former Temple University executive, said the committee likely would have an outline of a report available for review and discussion by the fall, with a final report before the end of the year. In an interview this week, he said he saw lack of funding as a problem at Cheyney.

The state, under negotiation with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, will pump in $58 million to build a residence hall, renovate the science building, and make other upgrades.

Howard-Vital yesterday called on Cheyney's 10,000 alumni to donate. The school plans to launch a fund-raising campaign next year.

"We have to get more than 500 alumni giving," she said.

Howard-Vital, who is near the end of her second year as president, said she welcomed the input from the new panel.

"We're probably talking 200 more years of experience if you add everybody's experiences," she said of the five-members. "They can help me with the best practices they've seen all over the United States."

The trustees got more good news yesterday: So far, 203 students have submitted deposits to be part of Cheyney's freshman class, up from 96 a year ago.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.