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Salem College

Only 15 U.S. colleges and universities are older than Salem College, a women’s college in Winston-Salem, N.C., founded in 1772. Most of those colleges are much more famous and wealthier than Salem, which has an endowment of only $62 million.

In the fall of 2021, Salem enrolled only 45 new students. Even for colleges in the pandemic, the numbers were so low that some questioned the college’s ability to go on. But the college had a plan, adopted earlier that year, that appears to be working.

Salem announced that year that it would begin to offer three new health-related majors—health sciences, health humanities and health advocacy and humanitarian systems—beginning that fall. The college also unveiled a curriculum revamp that centers on leadership and health. But students could still major in traditional liberal arts disciplines if they wanted to.

It’s too early to declare whether the plan, which has since been expanded, will work. But Salem points to some solid numbers on the plan so far: Salem received more than 2,000 applications for enrollment in fall 2023. In an era when some colleges boast receiving more than 100,000 applications, that may not seem notable. But consider the statistics:

Applications and First-Year Students to Salem College

Year Total Applications First-Year Students
2018 630 100
2019 818 107
2020 888 116
2021 616 45
2022 1,401 88
2023 2,010 ?

The numbers are all small. But they are encouraging to Salem.

Summer McGee, the new president, said that the goal for the year is to land a class of 150 to 175 students. The college already has 58 deposits, up 48 percent from the same week a year ago, and McGee notes that there is a lot of time before May 1, the traditional date to respond to admissions offers, not that the college will be finished with its class by May 1. And the college is still accepting applications.

The college has done a number of things to get students to commit to Salem if admitted. For instance, it is offering single rooms in the dormitory for those who commit early (they won’t last for all admitted applicants). And the college is offering free online courses over the summer.

But it’s the new curriculum that she credits the most. Fifty percent of Salem students were interested in health careers before the new model. Now 80 percent are. McGee talks with passion about Salem’s role in preparing women to become leaders in the health professions.

The college is bringing back overnight visits for those it admits, which were called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Salem is particularly seeking students who are economically poor. Of last year’s freshmen, 55 percent were eligible for Pell Grants, the primary federal program for low-income students. And 45 percent of the students are the first in their families to get a higher education.

“Salem is radically inclusive,” said McGee. While Salem wants to grow, there is no chance that a student at Salem will have large lecture classes.

McGee also believes this is a time for women’s colleges to embrace their unique role, rather than beginning to admit men, as many have done.

“I think the interest in women’s colleges is increasing,” she said. “Women see now the threats to their rights, and in the future, we want to be empowered. They want a place that sees them as individuals.” She said that Salem has been “intentionally small,” with the largest enrollment ever having been 1,100, which would be a great level to reach once again.

At the same time, McGee acknowledged that lacking a large endowment limits what Salem can offer low-income students. Within a few years, she said, she hopes for an endowment of $100 million. As an old college, Salem should have much more of an endowment, but it didn’t prioritize that. Historically, she said “it was very hard to get women to give."

What the Students Say

McGee is also encouraged by what her new students say about Salem. They stress that Salem is small and that people really care.

Alysa Thombs is from Chesapeake, Va. She is double majoring in health sciences and public health with a minor in nutrition.

“Initially, I was attracted to Salem because of an athletic offer to play volleyball, as well as being given an opportunity to play a key role in the growing health leadership program. Over all, Salem was one of the only schools that was willing to give me a wonderful opportunity to support my athletics and academics, therefore helping me balance all of these responsibilities,” she said via email. “Salem has delivered more times than I can even think of, the close knit community helps make networking easy. I have had multiple opportunities to have lunch with numerous award-winning people, who could one day end up helping me in my career field. The family-like community has also helped me find a home away from home. Given Salem is so small, I know my peers and faculty would never hesitate to check up on me if something is wrong. Salem is a wonderful school with numerous opportunities, and I am glad to see my new home growing.”

Ashlyn Wood is from Kings Mountain, N.C. “I plan to double major in psychology and public health with a minor in business administration,” she said via email. Wood praised the “individualized attention I received during my visits. I felt like I was more than a number or a spot to be filled. Salem has been a place where I have experienced extensive personal growth and gained greater insight into what I want my future to be. It is clear that the college is committed to creating an environment where all students are valued, guided, and cared for.”

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