Sitting in her office at the College of St. Scholastica on a sunny Wednesday morning in Duluth, two days into the new school year, Dr. Barbara McDonald was ready to engage.
McDonald is a month into her new tenure as St. Scholastica’s 13th president after a long career with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
The job marks a return to campus for McDonald, who began her undergraduate studies at St. Scholastica in 1975. Her vision going forward builds on the Benedictine values that long have guided life and learning here.
“I think what I remember from my launch into higher education, what I took with me from St. Scholastica, were the five values in our Catholic tradition — love of learning, stewardship, respect, community and hospitality.”
Global upbringing, Minnesota roots
McDonald, 61, was born in Beirut to Minnesota natives, and she spent her entire childhood there except for two years in New York during high school.
Before settling in Lebanon, her parents — her father an engineer, her mother a nurse — had moved to Saudi Arabia in 1950, where her father worked on an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea.
Intending to study nursing, McDonald began her studies at St. Scholastica before changing her focus to English. She transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where she finished her bachelor’s degree.
She earned a master's degree from the American University in Cairo (Egypt) and later a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Minnesota.
McDonald’s globetrotting experiences read like a page out of a Jules Verne novel. Her husband, David, whom she met in Egypt, worked as a journalist, and together they’ve lived and worked in Egypt, the U.S., the United Kingdom, South Africa, the Philippines, China and South Korea.
“Each one of my kids was born in a different country,” she said. (They all live in Minneapolis now.)
In 1997, the family moved to Minnesota, and McDonald took a job teaching at Rainy River Community College in International Falls.
McDonald went on to teach at Itasca Community College before becoming the school’s dean of academic affairs and, later, provost. She also spent a year as interim president at Minnesota West Technical and Community College.
In 2015, she became president of North Hennepin Community College in the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park, where she stayed until her recent return to St. Scholastica, which has more than 4,000 students at its main Duluth campus as well as six satellite campuses and an online program.
A close-knit, community focus
“There's sort of a secret sense of belonging that I think people feel here, and I think it's part of the faith tradition, of those Benedictine values that run deep across every aspect of the college,” she said. “So it’s really a lived tradition.”
Those traditions are what drew McDonald back to the school she first attended more than 40 years ago.
“I think what really attracted me was the just phenomenal faculty and staff here, both on campus at our extended sites throughout Minnesota, and their compassion and commitment to the values and to student success,” she said. “That just really resonated with me.”
Asked about St. Scholastica’s place in Minnesota’s post-secondary landscape, McDonald touted the school’s focus on community and industry partnerships, highlighting the health care industry as one of St. Scholastica’s historical strengths.
“Health care has been in (our) mission for many years, (and) one of our key partners is with our health care facilities here — St. Mary’s, St. Luke’s,” she said. “How can we support their goal and their mission to have a highly educated health care workforce in the area? That’s a role we can play.”
McDonald also notes St. Scholastica’s reach, with six campuses across the state — Austin, Brainerd, Inver Grove Heights, Rochester, St. Cloud and St. Paul — as well as an online program, offering programs across the spectrum, from health care to business to technology and more.
“I think what’s unique about St. Scholastica is, in terms of our mission for the state of Minnesota, what we offer in our extended sites,” she said. “Where St. Scholastica really shines is with its programs that connect working adults across the state. We can collaborate with different institutions in different areas.”
Access and opportunity
In the years since McDonald and her family moved to Minnesota, she kept her experiences abroad close to her heart.
“We spent a lot of time in developing countries where people didn't have access to education — primary, secondary or post-secondary education,” she said. “So, (what stuck with me was) just this idea of opportunity and what it can do in somebody's life.”
This gave her a unique perspective on how best to serve students of diverse needs and backgrounds.
“I translated that into (our work at) the Minnesota State system — that access and opportunity, particularly for first-generation students, and students whose families didn't have access to higher education,” she said.
At St. Scholastica, more than 42 percent who attend are first-generation students, McDonald said, and nearly every one of the school’s 4,000 or so students receives some sort of financial aid — crucial for a private university that’s trying to reach diverse populations across the state.
Tuition for an ‘outstanding experience’
A year’s tuition at St. Scholastica runs about $37,000 — but that’s actually on the lower end for private schools in Minnesota.
“We’re actually 13th out of 15,” McDonald said. “But you’re right — our tuition is such that we can then afford to offer the students an outstanding experience.”
McDonald said scholarships, grants and loans help offset the cost, and she noted the school’s “robust” endowment, as well.
LendEDU, an online student lending marketplace, analyzed student debt data from 2017 and found that St. Scholastica topped Minnesota’s list in terms of debt load upon graduation, at $41,133.
St. Scholastica spokesman Bob Ashenmacher said the numbers were slightly skewed, however.
“That ranking is largely because St. Scholastica has a lower number than peer institutions of families taking PLUS loans,” he said in an email, referring to a credit-based federal loan that parents can take out to fund a student’s education. “Our traditional students are taking out more federal loans in their own names, which is why our debt rate appears a bit higher than our counterparts.”
Job placement for graduates within six months is about 98%, McDonald said, and she noted the school’s low default rate as a sign that St. Scholastica was the right choice for students.
“Our default rate is about 3%, which is really phenomenal,” she said. “That tells me is that we are educating our students very well, that we're great value for them coming in, and that when they leave they're well prepared to pay off their loans.”
She said that the school also has programs in place to ensure that students graduate on time, which helps cap tuition costs.
“I think what I've seen at other colleges is that debt encouragement,” she said. “Students flounder in their path, and they continue to go to school and switch majors and not know what they want to do.”
As it is a liberal arts university, McDonald said that lifelong learning and an ability to evolve are key to St. Scholastica’s continued success.
“The programs we have are evolving to meet the needs of the workforce,” she said. “What we know about the world today is our graduates — through that training of intellectual Catholic inquiry and (looking) at the science of life — are going to have to really understand how to continue learning, because the world is changing so rapidly.
“The skills they acquire here are really about that intellectual curiosity.”