Pennsylvania officials denied any racial bias against Cheyney, one of 14 public universities overseen by the State System of Higher Education.
But a coalition called Heeding Cheyney's Call sent a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett demanding equitable funding for the struggling school, and warned of a possible lawsuit.
The group's attorney, university alumnus Michael Coard, said the current fiscal formula has led to inferior facilities, plummeting enrollment and a $14 million deficit at Cheyney.
That puts the school on unequal footing with the other 13 mainstream universities, making it harder to attract badly needed tuition dollars, he said.
"We don't have enough students because you're not giving us enough money," Coard said at a news conference outside federal court in Philadelphia.
The state has 10 days to respond to the letter, he said. The next step would be to file a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of current, former and prospective staff, students and faculty, said Coard. Plaintiffs would be identified at that time.
However, higher education officials contend the state has committed "substantial resources" to Cheyney, including $70 million over the past two years for a new dormitory and science center.
Peter Garland, the state system's acting chancellor, noted that the state's appropriation of $12,505 per pupil at Cheyney is nearly three times the average given to the other universities.
"Clearly, Cheyney University is treated fairly and equally in comparison to its other sister schools," Garland said in a statement.
Coard could not immediately be reached for a response. Cheyney administrators referred all questions to Garland.
Cheyney supporters filed a similar bias lawsuit against the state exactly 33 years ago on Monday. The resolution of that case - coupled with a 1999 agreement between the state and the U.S. Office for Civil Rights - was supposed to bring parity to Cheyney's funding and facilities, Coard said.
Yet alumnus Jeffrey Hart maintains that the inequalities persist. Hart said he helped to found Heeding Cheyney's Call in response to the school's failure to thrive.
Enrollment at Cheyney, one of two historically black colleges in the state, has dropped from 3,000 in 1977 to about 1,200 today, according to the group.
"We did not see the growth that we thought should be there," Hart said.
Coalition members include current Cheyney student body president Malik Williams. The 21-year-old junior from Pittsburgh said at the news conference that the university needs better facilities and more modern classroom technology.
"Money talks," Williams said. "And the message that we are hearing is the state does not care."
Cheyney was founded in Philadelphia in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth. Its current campus is about 20 miles west of the city.
Noted alumni include "60 Minutes" newsman Ed Bradley and civil rights activist Octavius Catto.