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By James F. Birge


This isn’t another COVID think piece written by a college president. This is a story about upward mobility in the face of the most significant public health crisis of our lifetime.

In fact, the faculty and staff at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) are so dedicated to this mission that we’ve received national recognition for it — MCLA ranks 21st on U.S. News and World Report’s list of the 50 public and private “Top Performers on Social Mobility,” which measures how well schools graduate students who receive federal Pell Grants. These grants are typically awarded to those whose families make less than $50,000. The publication also ranked MCLA as a 2021 Top Ten College for the third consecutive year, and the ninth time in the past 11 years.

Nearly half of MCLA students are Pell Grant recipients, the highest percentage across the Massachusetts state-university system. More than 40% are the first in their families to go to college. Nearly 85% of students receive some kind of financial aid.

These are students who need support in their academic journey. Many are balancing work and family commitments. Many are coming from urban areas and are discovering what it is like to live in a rural area for the first time. Many have no frame of reference for what a college experience is like. They are discovering who they are, and who they want to be, in a time of global upheaval, and many of them have seen increased economic insecurity as a result of COVID-19.

What does a commitment to social mobility look like during a pandemic? Here are some examples.

• In 2020, MCLA kicked off its TRiO Program, supported by a $1.2 million federal grant, which works toward increasing the retention, good academic standing, and graduation rates of low-income, first generation, and students with disabilities. This program serves up to 160 students a year;

• MCLA’s Office of Admission adopted a test-blind policy in 2020 and waived SAT requirements for students applying for the fall 2021 and 2022 semesters;

• In 2020, in response to economic uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, MCLA established the Resiliency Fund, which has to date distributed nearly $300,000 to 296 students in need;

• The MCLA Food Pantry combats student food insecurity, supported with student volunteer work and donations; and

• MCLA boasts more than 100 of its own private scholarships, including five new additions since 2020.

Like all other schools, MCLA has seen its enrollment decline as a result of the pandemic. Still, we continue to serve these students well. We continue to graduate our high-need students at higher rates than the national average, and the vast majority of MCLA graduates — 93% — land jobs or get accepted into some of the finest grad schools in the country. Helping our under-resourced students achieve a college education will help them earn more in their lifetimes, find fulfilling careers, and live meaningful lives. Public colleges help contribute to furthering economic equity every day, and we are proud to make this part of our mission as an institution.

I’m incredibly proud of all our students, as well as our incredible faculty and dedicated staff, who are changing individual lives and working toward a more equitable future.


James F. Birge is president of MCLA.