Cheyney University — the nation’s oldest historically black college — is failing.

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Cheyney University — the nation’s oldest historically black college — is failing.

By almost any measure, Cheyney University — the nation’s oldest historically black college — is failing.

Despite its rich and proud history, the financially troubled school has struggled for years to halt plummeting enrollment – now at 755 students, barely half what it was seven years ago.

Faced with that decline, the university has admitted less qualified students in a bid for tuition dollars. It now accepts nearly nine out of 10 who apply.

Today, only 44 percent of its freshmen make it to sophomore year, the lowest rate in the state university system. And fewer than 20 percent go on to graduate within six years.

Many who drop out leave with onerous debt. And former Cheyney students have by far the highest student-loan default rate among those at the 14 state-owned universities.

Those dismal statistics come after more than a decade of unstable and at times questionable leadership, leaving the school with soaring debt as well as shrinking enrollment. But in the last several years, Cheyney’s top administrators, along with its trustees and the state system’s board of governors, have deepened the crisis through lax oversight and startling mismanagement, an Inquirer and Daily News investigation has found.

Consider:

Cheyney administrators raided scholarship funds and research grants meant for students and faculty as well as other restricted funds totaling $3.4 million. They spent the money on day-to-day expenses, in possible violation of state and federal law.

Cheyney staffers failed to open or process the applications of as many as 3,000 prospective students between 2012 and 2015. Several hundred paper applications were never picked up from the post office.

The university at one point failed to invoice and collect $7 million in outstanding tuition bills, pushing its deficits even higher.

From 2011 through 2014, staff did not download SAT and ACT scores from the thousands of students who had applied. This prevented the school from being able to identify and recruit promising candidates.

More recently,  the Justice Department began investigating serious lapses in Cheyney’s handling of $29 million in federal grants, loans, and work-study funds — money that went to students who in some cases weren’t enrolled or didn’t have the grades or course load to qualify for the funds.

This account is based on a review of more than a thousand pages of court records, previously undisclosed audits and internal documents, more than 80 interviews, and the newspapers’ analysis of 10 years of Cheyney education data collected by the federal government.

These failings and other factors have contributed to Cheyney’s abysmal academic record. On graduation and retention rates,  the school performs far worse than the other 13 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and below many other historically black universities.

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Were it not for the school’s vaunted Keystone Honors program, which has more than 100 students, and which school officials say retains 95 percent of its freshmen and boasts a 72 percent graduation rate, Cheyney’s overall academic measures would be worse.

“How are they still open?” asked Lashay Akers, 23, of Pittsburgh, who in 2013 dropped out after a year at Cheyney and was left with $5,000 in debt.

Where does the fault lie?

“Perhaps what has been most damaging to Cheyney’s success is the lack of accountability that has persisted for years, and maybe decades,” said Frank T. Brogan, former chancellor of the state university system. “For too long, too many people, both internally and external to the university, have looked the other way and enabled the university to slide into an unstable position.”

Robert W. Bogle, the longtime chairman of the school’s council of trustees, is blunter in assigning blame.

“It’s all of us,” he said.

All of which raises the troubling question: Can Cheyney survive?

An answer may come Thursday. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is expected to decide whether to revoke the school’s accreditation as a result of its shortcomings. Without accreditation, the school is ineligible for federal and state financial aid — money that 90 percent of its students depend on.

Taking that step would almost certainly force the 180-year-old school to close.


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