Scott MacDonald is familiar with the struggles that come from the trillion-dollar student debt crisis in this country. His MacDonald Scholars program was created to help address this by providing scholarships to full-time college students in exchange for community service hours and a project to help those in need. Now, he’s written a book that tackles the issue of the high cost of a college education in “Education Without Debt: Giving Back and Paying it Forward.”
“Spending time with students and financial aid staff at universities made me keenly aware of the issue of student debt,” he says. “I wanted to spotlight the problem and focus public attention so we can fix this problem, which has been talked about but largely ignored.”
A retired CEO who’s worked extensively in real estate, MacDonald notes that his generation was able to work their way through college without incurring the amount of debt and interest debt more recent graduates have been saddled with. That’s something that he’s invested in finding solutions to change.
At 73, MacDonald is also an author and philanthropist, enjoying the personal satisfaction that comes from giving, he says. He splits his time between his home in Del Mar and his condominium in downtown San Diego, and has two children, three grandchildren, and a dog. He took some time to talk about what went into his book, “Education Without Debt,” how he’ll always be a humble Midwesterner, and learning that being successful and kind aren’t mutually exclusive.
Q: A number of our readers will remember you from a few years ago, when we wrote about your MacDonald Scholars program in 2017. Since then, your latest book, “Education Without Debt: Giving Back and Paying it Forward,” has been released. In writing this book, what did you learn about why college costs so much, compared to when previous generations earned their degrees?
A: My generation was mostly able to work our way through school. Wages were good and school costs were low. Today’s generation does not have this option. School costs have risen at about 7 percent per year over the last 40 years, while wages have risen less than 4 percent per year, creating a significant affordability gap. The reason why college costs have risen so much is complex and includes less state funding per student, higher administrative costs, replacement of obsolete facilities, more student services and other factors. There is no magic bullet or policy to reduce college operating costs.
Q: Can you talk a bit about what your experience was like, paying for college?
A: I worked in a factory whenever I was not in school. During the school year, I always had a job: waiting tables, pumping gas, or whatever was available. Mostly, I was able to earn enough to pay for my schooling. At one point, the family suffered a financial setback, and I took out a student loan so I could finish school. For graduate school, I had scholarships, veterans’ benefits, and my job in the factory.
What I love about Del Mar and downtown San Diego …
My friends and neighbors, the beach in Del Mar, and the activity and culture of downtown San Diego. … I believe it is the best of all worlds. The small-town character of Del Mar, with its beautiful beach, complemented by the urban character and excitement of downtown with restaurants, culture, entertainment venues, and the Padres within walking distance.
Q: Do you think private philanthropy is a sufficient answer to the country’s student debt issue?
A: Philanthropy is very important. One reason I wrote the book was to inspire others to donate to universities to set up scholarships for needy students. The book talks about the need to give and some ways to do this, but anyone can call the development office of their favored university and engage. If they do not have a favored university, I have a MacDonald Scholars program at the University of San Diego, organized by the school’s development office. Private donors alone cannot solve the problem. The gap between college cost and personal income is too great for private funding alone to close. But private donations definitely help.
Q: You also outline what’s being done to either reduce or eliminate student debt. Can you share a couple of those ideas with us? What are some of the approaches being offered or implemented to address this issue?
A: There are many things that can be done. I list three pages of recommendations in the book. A few items would include more financial grants; partial school liability for loan defaults; greater explanation of loan requirements to prospective borrowers, including their future repayment requirements and likely future income in the field they are pursuing; and the ability to dismiss loans in bankruptcy, etc.
Q: During the 2020 presidential campaign, and since the Biden administration has taken office, there have been plans to forgive specific amounts of student loan debt. This has been met with some pushback, both from people who’ve managed to pay off their loans without debt forgiveness, and from others who argue that people who can’t afford to pay for college on their own, should accept the consequences of their decision to pursue degrees that were too expensive for them. What do you make of the idea of student loan forgiveness, based on the research that went into your book?
A: I do not believe loans should just be completely forgiven for the reasons you indicate, but I do believe the existing debt in many instances is too burdensome for people, specifically, and society, in general, to carry. I do support debt forgiveness tied to borrowers paying down a portion of their balance or agreeing to provide community service. Providing relief on interest rates and crediting public service can help, too. We cannot ignore the problem because an 18-year-old borrowed too much money at the encouragement of lender representatives.
As I wrote in the book, “Doing nothing is a slow form of national suicide. The country is on the path to realize a less-educated public, heavily indebted consumers unable to participate fully in the economy, and a society where future opportunity is increasingly based on parental income.”
Q: Why is it important to you to “pay it forward”? And why was it important to you that your scholarship recipients do the same?
A: I grew up in a family that had limited resources. We were not really poor, we just never had any money. I was able to access professional opportunities, which led to a long and successful career, but this would not have been possible without a good and affordable education. It is incumbent on those who have benefitted similarly to provide access and opportunity to the next generation.
The act of giving back and helping others provides a learning experience and the immense satisfaction that comes from helping those in greater need. I know this from experience, and my scholarship students tell me this every time we discuss their projects.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Family first. Also, you can work hard, work smart, be successful, and still be a nice guy.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: As a CEO of multiple companies during my career, I had access to other CEOs, bank presidents, elected politicians and other “movers and shakers.” But I will always be a kid from the Midwest, unpretentious, and who would rather spend time with family and friends.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Breakfast at Café 222 or a similar place, with my dog, Sadie; a play at Balboa Theatre with a friend; and a Padres victory over the Dodgers at Petco. The more lopsided the score, the better.