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Perspective | myFutureNC blog series: Innovative models for increasing college enrollment and completion: McNair Mentors program

Rutherford County is a rural county located in the foothills of North Carolina. Ranked as a Tier 1 county by the North Carolina Department of Commerce, it is one of the most economically distressed counties in the state. Over 70% of the students in Rutherford County Schools come from low-socioeconomic households and less than 25% of residents have earned a two- or four-year degree. As such, a majority of graduates from Rutherford County will be first generation college students.

Recognizing these challenges, the Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation created the McNair Mentor program in 1992 to provide additional support to students in Rutherford County Schools. This program serves three traditional public high schools and their respective feeder middle schools. Every student from seventh through 12th grades is partnered with a volunteer adult mentor. There are currently 215 mentors serving approximately 3,500 students.

Mentors meet individually with their mentees every other month from seventh grade through high school graduation to discuss grades, behavior, pathways to college, and any other topics related to their success in school. The Foundation has also recently implemented a virtual mentor program for students who enroll in postsecondary education, designed to increase postsecondary retention and success.

While it is difficult to separate the impact of the mentoring program from the existing efforts of Rutherford County Schools, the following data points exemplify the impact of the mentor program:

  • In 1992, 34% of Rutherford County seniors were meeting UNC system admission requirements; in 2019, 86% of seniors met this benchmark. Nearly two-thirds of those seniors had at least a 3.0 weighted GPA, and 65% met the minimum UNC system requirements for the SAT or ACT scores.
  • Today, graduates of Rutherford County Schools exceed the national average for college enrollment for low income, rural schools. Students are also above the state and national average for FAFSA completion.
  • Finally, Rutherford County Schools’ dropout rate is at a record low of 1.9 percent and its graduation rate is over 80% —the highest in its history.

While the McNair Mentors aren’t the only factor that affects these student outcomes, Dr. David Sutton, superintendent of Rutherford County Schools, credits the program as one of the pieces of the puzzle leading to the system’s success in those areas. The McNair Mentoring Program hopes to serve as a promising model for other programs seeking to offer support for students early and throughout their path to postsecondary success.


Editor’s note: This piece was first published by The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Monica Lee

Monica Lee is the Executive Director of the Robert and Janice McNair Educational Foundation.