Cheyney University has lost more than half of its enrollment in the last five years, figures released Wednesday show.
The historically black university has been struggling with finances and declining enrollment for years, and just this summer was rapped for mismanaging student financial aid, which could cost the school millions.
But the latest enrollment drop of more than 300 students leaves the rural Chester County institution with just 711 enrolled. This has placed the school at a crossroads.
Interim president Frank Pogue said this week that the university - which serves many first-generation college students from low-income families - has had to sever ties with students who have not paid on time.
Cheyney, one of 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, is not ready to call it quits.
The school is making an all-out effort to increase its student body, including a new arrangement where nearby West Chester University will direct to Cheyney qualified students who are not accepted to West Chester, Pogue said. With more than 16,600 students, West Chester is the largest university in the state system and has seen enrollment grow by nearly 15 percent in the last five years.
"We have an agreement when students are turned away, they are reminded that Cheyney is right down the street, just a few miles away," Pogue said. "Our admissions people will be alerted . . . and will try to interest them in coming to Cheyney."
Cheyney's history is rich. Among its storied alumni are CBS reporter and longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley; civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who was a key confidant to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and educator-agitator Octavius Catto, who helped lead the school in the late 19th century, when it was known as the Institute for Colored Youth and was revered as a training ground for African American teachers.
The university, which in 2010 enrolled 1,586 students, is considering launching an inaugural capital campaign, Pogue said, and hiring a marketing expert to better tout the school. Recruiting more Hispanic students also has become a focus, he said. And Cheyney is working on agreements with area high schools to allow the university to admit students in their junior or senior year and take classes toward their degree, he said.
"Our focus now, in a very aggressive way, is to increase our enrollment," said Pogue, who has been on the job for 11 months.
Though Cheyney has seen the largest enrollment decline by far, it certainly is not the only state school struggling.
The 107,126-student system recorded another drop in enrollment this year and is down about 10 percent from five years ago. Only three of the schools - West Chester, Slippery Rock, and East Stroudsburg - saw an increase in the last year.
But none of the universities has seen as large of a decline as Cheyney, which is preparing to celebrate its homecoming this weekend. Nearby Lincoln University, also a historically black school but not part of the state system, saw a 4 percent increase in enrollment this year.
Students at Cheyney - where blue banners on light posts proclaim the school as "A National Treasure for Over 175 Years" - notice the lower enrollment.
"I miss Cheyney for what it was," said Bryant McCorey, 23, a senior biology major from Upper Darby, who sees a big difference from freshman year.
McCorey, who notes that he loves his school, said students used to fill the campus and hang out there during summers. His classmates used to be excited about coming back after summer and spring breaks. But as the number of students dropped, campus life and the excitement fell, too. He knows some students who left for other schools.
"It just gets worse and worse every semester," said Jade Cook, 20, a junior education major from Philadelphia. "Now it feels like there's no one on campus and it's less fun."
For Cheyney, state funding remains a sore point. An alumni and student group a year ago revived a decades-old civil rights lawsuit against the state and federal governments, claiming unfair funding was starving the university.
Pogue said Cheyney clearly lags in athletics, technology, updated buildings, and support services compared with many other college campuses.
"I do think we need more state support for higher education in Pennsylvania," Pogue said.
But he asserted that the state system had been very supportive to Cheyney in the last year.
He also emphasized Cheyney's strengths, including its 150-student Keystone Honors Academy, which boasts a 100 percent retention rate and an 82 percent on-time graduation rate. The university had to cut enrollment in the academy because of lack of funding but wants to return it to 200, he said.
Cheyney, he said, is trying to boost international enrollment. Pogue recently returned from a trip to Cuba with other state university presidents and hopes it will translate to more students from there.
The school is seeking approval from the system to launch new majors in criminal justice, sports management, and accounting and a master's in game modeling and development, he said.
Classes lagging in enrollment may face elimination. The university has given notice to the faculty union that layoffs could be coming in the next year and is looking at reducing spending, given its smaller student body, he said.
Though still an interim leader, Pogue - whose higher-education career spans more than 50 years and a handful of college presidencies - says he will remain at Cheyney as long as he is needed.
He came to stabilize the school, he said: "I think we made a serious dent."
He and his wife have started the Frank and Dorothy Pogue endowed scholarship and have invited others to contribute. A similar scholarship that they started at Edinboro University, a state system school in Western Pennsylvania that he previously headed, has grown to $1 million, he said.
"If you expect other people to give, you have to do it yourself," he said.