How Aaron Walton Plans to Save Cheyney University
Despite financial aid issues and major declines in enrollment, the school's president is on a mission to keep the nation’s oldest historically black university afloat.
Cheyney University president Aaron Walton. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The spring semester may be coming to a close at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, but Aaron Walton is still a busy man. At 72, he’s drawing on his substantial business experience to create a model that can somehow keep the nation’s oldest historically black university from closing its doors.
Walton is a little less than halfway through the four-year commitment he made to Cheyney. “I want to get back to retirement,” he says. “My grandkids are waiting for me.”
They’ll have to be patient, because Walton’s job is far from over. After an eight-year retirement, he was lured to Cheyney to bring a different perspective to running the struggling university. He’d left healthcare provider Highmark in 2008 after serving for many years as an executive, most recently as senior VP. And while Cheyney has made progress under his leadership, it remains in a tenuous position. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education placed it on probation in 2015. There’s also the potential financial aid irregularities from previous administrations, amounting to $29.6 million in federal aid money it may have to repay. For a university that has seen its enrollment drop from 1,586 in 2010 to 469 in 2018-19, that’s not exactly pocket change. “We submitted [thousands] of records to the Department of Education,” Walton says. “Those that were done properly have no issue. Those that were administered improperly may cause a liability.”
While that investigation continues, Cheyney must bolster enrollment and address other problems. Over the past decade, Cheyney has sustained a considerable decline in its student population, eliminated athletic programs and made substantial budget cuts. The Middle States Commission granted it an extension on its probationary period, but Walton and his team must continue to make progress in order to gain accreditation and assure a future for the 182-year-old institution.
Even with all the negativity swirling around him, Walton is enthused about Cheyney’s possibilities. “The vision for this university is that it strives for excellence in academics, character and social responsibility,” he says.
Cheyney is not alone in its enrollment struggles among Pennsylvania’s state universities. The overall student population in the system has dropped in each of the past eight years. This year, only two schools—West Chester and Millersville—had increases, and total enrollment fell below 100,000 for the first time since 2001. One of the culprits is a smaller overall pool of available candidates, a condition that was forecast more than a decade ago using data on a drop in births.
But there’s also a funding issue, thanks to the state covering fewer system costs. The combination of fewer students and less funding is making it harder for all universities to attract students. At Cheyney, a school with problems that go well beyond those factors, it creates a particularly difficult situation. Still, Walton has gained confidence from the commission’s willingness to extend the probationary period. “I think their wording is compelling,” he says. “They felt confident we could address our outstanding issues. That’s why they gave us another year.”
On June 4, 2018, when Jeff Jones took over as executive director of enrollment management, Cheyney had just five students enrolled for the fall term.
He went to work quickly. Connecting with high school counselors and reaching out to students, he compiled a freshman class of 162 for the 2018-19 school year. Jones didn’t merely grab any high school graduate and sell him on Cheyney. Despite a mandate to get the freshman class from single to triple figures, he was selective. It may sound counterintuitive, but Jones believes the best way to make Cheyney’s student body more robust isn’t just with more bodies—it’s with the right bodies. “The requirements to get into this school are going to drastically change,” Jones says. “This is no longer a dumping ground for kids who don’t perform well in high school.”
Jones spent 24 years as a Division I basketball coach and 18 in college admissions, the last 10 as director at East Stroudsburg and Kutztown universities. He no longer wants Cheyney to accept students who need remedial work to prepare for college. He has strong relationships with college counselors throughout the state, and his message to them—and their students—is direct: “If you happened to do poorly in high school, don’t apply to Cheyney. I’m going to deny you.”
Accepting students who need a year of prep work puts a burden on the university. It also means that students have to pay five years of college tuition to graduate. Walton and Jones want to direct the students who need to clean up transcripts and fill gaps to two-year colleges. Once they’ve completed their associate degrees, they’ll then be ready to produce at the level Cheyney prefers.
Through the end of 2018, says Walton, Cheyney had received nearly 2,000 applications, offering admission to about half of those candidates. Fifty of those students paid deposits toward the 2019-20 school year, a good number so early in the admissions cycle. Further, the GPAs of many of those admitted were above 3.2, according to Walton, who also reported that the SAT scores of the admitted students ranged from 1100-1450. “After looking at their college board results, we made over 200 school visits and sent out emails to in excess of 40,000 students,” Walton says. “We want them to know what we are doing at Cheyney.”
The school is also developing partnerships with corporate entities. Cheyney has teamed with Thomas Jefferson University to study healthcare issues in Philadelphia. Students will interview residents to learn about the challenges they face. In addition to the experience, they’ll be able to earn some money, have a chance to do some lab work and perhaps even open a pathway to a career in medicine.
Cheyney has also developed partnerships with Starbucks and West Chester-based technology provider Epcot Crenshaw. The school’s students will be exposed to research and innovation at Epcot, and they’ll work with Starbucks on refining its approach to social justice.
So Walton has made progress, but there’s plenty left to be done. If Cheyney can’t solve its financial aid issues, nothing else will matter. If it can, the path ahead emerges more clearly—although it will still be difficult. “I see a future in which Cheyney is fully accredited, with many more relationships with business and industry that provide more opportunities for our students,” Walton says.
And that should leave him with plenty of stories to tell the grandkids.