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In 1939, Louisiana opened the Lake Charles Junior College, a division of Louisiana State University and the forerunner of McNeese State University. The following year, the school changed its name to John McNeese Junior College to honor John McNeese, a renowned Southwest Louisiana educator and the first superintendent of schools in Imperial Calcasieu Parish. In 1950, McNeese became a four-year college in its own right and came under the authority of the Louisiana Board of Education. Finally, in 1970, McNeese State University became the official name of the school.

As a member of the University of Louisiana System and a selective admissions institution, McNeese offers programs through the Department of General and Basic Studies and six academic colleges: Business, Education, Engineering and Computer Science, Liberal Arts, Nursing and Health Professions, and Science. McNeese's student body is comprised of students from throughout Louisiana, the United States, and approximately 50 countries. McNeese achieved Commission on Colleges/Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation in 1954 and maintains its regional accreditation status as a Level IV institution authorized to award associate, bachelor, master, and specialist degrees. The University also provides opportunities for continuing education in support of its mission to value lifelong learning.

McNeese's athletic programs are NCAA-certified for competition at the Division I level. McNeese is a member of the prestigious Southland Conference, and competes for championships in football, basketball, indoor track, cross country, outdoor track, baseball, and golf for the men and cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, tennis, golf, volleyball, basketball, softball, and soccer for the women. Through the years, McNeese athletes have won conference championships, bowl games, and even played for national championships, all while maintaining a high level of academic success.

The McNeese campus, located in Lake Charles, Louisiana, consists of the 121-acre main campus, the 503-acre Farm, the 65-acre Doland Athletics Complex, and nearly 1,600 acres of donated farm property used for research, farming, and ranching. The main campus, dotted with live oak trees and azaleas, comprises approximately 30 buildings including the three original structures - Kaufman Hall, Ralph O. Ward Memorial Gym (the Arena), and Francis G. Bulber Auditorium. Bulber Auditorium, a striking example of Art Deco architecture, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2013, McNeese opened the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center [SEED Center].  The SEED Center, a partnership between McNeese, the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance (which includes the Chamber Southwest Louisiana), the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, and the city of Lake Charles, is dedicated to strengthening and diversifying the economy in the five-parish area.

McNeese State University upholds a long tradition of service to the Southwest Louisiana community and the nation. The University motto of "Excellence with a Personal Touch" extends beyond the classroom. During World War II, the campus was the headquarters of the Louisiana Maneuvers, an extensive military exercise to prepare American soldiers for battle. In 1957, the McNeese community gave aid and comfort to the victims of Hurricane Audrey and served as the National Guard's base of rescue operations. In 2005, McNeese provided shelter for New Orleans residents and university students fleeing from Hurricane Katrina. Weeks later, McNeese then faced one of its greatest challenges when Hurricane Rita struck in the fall of 2005. The storm caused devastating damage to campus facilities and infrastructure. The recovery effort after Hurricane Rita demonstrated the resilience and commitment of the McNeese faculty, staff, and students to higher education.

In 2014, McNeese celebrated its 75th Anniversary with a slate of special events and programs. The  75th anniversary slogan, "Celebrating the Past~Pioneering the Future," captures the essence of McNeese – pride in its transformation from a small junior college into a regional university of national prominence while moving forward with innovative programs and ideas. Throughout its history, McNeese has maintained a dedication to its core values of academic excellence, student success, fiscal responsibility, and university/community alliances. McNeese State University remains a major influence in the rich cultural and economic success of Southwest Louisiana and continues to lead through innovative education, dynamic programs, and dedicated service to the region and beyond.