West Chester University has experienced growing enrollment numbers over the past four years, with a total enrollment headcount of 17,010 for the fall 2016 semester.
With over 17,000 students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate programs, that makes it the largest university in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
Roughly six miles southeast of West Chester lies the nation’s oldest Historically Black College and University: Cheyney University. Founded in 1837, it is also the oldest out of the 14 PASSHE schools.
In 2007, Cheyney’s headcount was 1,436. Now, according to the fall 2016 headcount, Cheyney is at only 746 students.
A declining enrollment, debt and lack of permanent leadership are among the top issues Cheyney faces. In 1980, Cheyney students, faculty and staff successfully sued the state of Pennsylvania, alleging severe violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and equal protection clauses in the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement in 1999 for $36.5 million for building and academic upgrades.
Here at West Chester, there are many facilities that Cheyney does not have. A four-year-old student recreation center with an indoor track and rock climbing wall and a library that stays open until 2 a.m. are two examples. In comparison, Cheyney’s library is open until 5 p.m.
While WCU recently enjoyed the grand opening of a state-of-the-art College of Business and Public Affairs building, only two new buildings have been constructed at Cheyney during the past 30 years.
The PASSHE Board of Governors recently called for a system-wide study, looking into the financial and enrollment challenges of the entire state system.
“Enrollment has declined by almost 12 percent in the last six years,” said Kenn Marshall, spokesperson for PASSHE. “We’re going to visit every campus and meet with business and community leaders to come up with things to do long term.”
“It’s important to remember what the system was meant to do,” said Kenneth Mash, the president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF). “It was meant to help working-class families to have an opportunity to achieve the American dream.”
Students from low-income backgrounds depend on the 14 PASSHE universities to obtain a college education. According to a study from The New York Times, 25 percent of Cheyney students come from families who make $20,000 or less per year. Cheyney attracts many low-income students from the greater Philadelphia area and cities like New York and Baltimore.
“The universities in the most difficult shape are the ones that serve the poorest students in the Commonwealth,” said Mash.
The Board of Governors also called for a task force to lead the development and change for Cheyney. The task force is made up of administrators and government officials from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The task force is expected to deliver preliminary recommendations to the PASSHE board and university trustees by May.
“It’s a hard argument to make that Cheyney cannot be serving more students,” said Mash.
Mash believes that the responsibility for what has happened at Cheyney is spread widely.
“Policy makers allowed things to go on there that they never would have allowed elsewhere.”
Cheyney has had an interim president for almost two years. WCU had an interim president for nine months before the Board of Governors appointed a new one after a nationwide search.
“It will be difficult to recruit a strong pool of candidates until the task force is done with their work and decisions are made about Cheyney’s future and a new model is proposed,” said Marshall.
Mash believes a search for a president at Cheyney would bring in a pool of young people with new ideas on how to move the school forward.
In PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan’s State of the System speech, Brogan mentioned the need for the review and reorganization of the 14 schools, which may include “the merger or even closure of institutions.”
“It’s unthinkable that that would ever happen,” Mash remarked on the possible closing of Cheyney. “It can’t be an answer for them to close. The answer is, how do we make it work?”
When posed with the same question on the looming future of Cheyney and possible closures, Marshall did not see it as much of an option either.
“We’re certainly committed to Cheyney’s long-time future,” said Marshall.
Sunny Morgan is a second-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at SM848270@wcupa.edu. Her Twitter is @SunnyMorgan97.