Lees-McRae College educates and inspires students to approach life and work from a creative, collaborative, and critical perspective in preparation for diverse careers and environments.
“Banner’s Elk,” as the village was once called, is said to have been settled around 1850. By the end of the century, the Presbyterian Church was becoming established in the area and in the summer of 1895 Concord Presbytery sent a young student from Union Theological Seminary in Virginia to organize a church at Banner Elk. In 1897, newly ordained, the Reverend Edgar Tufts returned as pastor of the church and remained to serve the community until his death in 1923.
In the winter of 1899, concerned with the limited offering of the district school which was supplemented only by summer school work conducted by the church, Mr. Tufts took some of the young people of the neighborhood into his study for further instruction. This small group, called the Class of 1900, marks the beginning of Lees-McRae College.
Mr. Tufts saw, however, that this effort was not enough and that there was a need for a boarding school, especially for the girls of the mountain region. A small amount of money was raised at a prayer meeting and the promise of lumber and labor made possible the opening in 1900 of a frame dormitory for fourteen girls and one teacher. One of the summer school teachers was Elizabeth A. McRae, originally of South Carolina, who had been sent to Banner Elk by Fayetteville Presbytery. Knowing the devoted character of her work, Mr. Tufts, named the institute for her. A few years later, after a boys' department had been opened at Plumtree, he added the name of Mrs. McRae’s friend, Mrs. S.P. Lees of Kentucky and New York, who had been a generous benefactor. The schools were chartered by the state in 1907 as the Lees-McRae Institute. In 1927 Lees-McRae became coeducational when the boys unit was moved to Banner Elk after the buildings at Plumtree had been destroyed by fire.
Lees-McRae Institute became Lees-McRae College in 1931, gradually eliminating the high school department to form an accredited, coeducational junior college. In 1987 the Board of Trustees of Lees-McRae College voted to seek senior college status. In June of 1990 the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools granted Lees-McRae status as a senior (four-year) college.
Over a hundred years after its founding, Lees-McRae College continues in the vision of the Rev. Tufts meeting the educational needs of the Southern Appalachian region and beyond. The college continues to fulfill its motto, in the mountains, of the mountains, and for the mountains while extending its ministry of education and service to diverse populations.
Today, Lees-McRae is a small, private, four-year, coeducational liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with over 900 students from more than 20 states and countries. Lees-McRae offers 22 outcomes-based, learner-focused major programs of study and several minor programs of study, providing a quality, values-based education in an ecumenical environment, inspiring and enabling individuals to contribute to a changing society with integrity and civic responsibility. Through a curriculum rooted in a liberal arts core to educate the mind, body and spirit, combined with an emphasis on leadership and service, graduates obtain knowledge, skills, and a holistic understanding of themselves and the world.