Economist McPherson Honored

USF honors Michael McPherson with an honorary doctorate for his achievements in pushing for student success.


By Vickie Chachere

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 8, 2011) – In an era when the nation’s economic and social future seems even more dependent on the success of students at America’s colleges and universities, economist Michael McPherson is widely regarded as a leading voice of reason and insight.


A Chicago-based higher education expert, McPherson has traveled the nation presenting startling and insightful data on what makes a difference in student success in higher education. His cutting-edge studies have led the University of South Florida in its student success initiatives, and Friday the university will show its appreciation with an honorary doctorate in education for McPherson.


For many at USF who have kept their focus on the singular question of what must be done to help more students graduate, it is a fitting tribute to a leading thinker who has helped lead the way at USF, which has seen graduation rates rise in recent years and is implementing new programs, such as Take 15, to move more students steadily through their academic careers.


“I would argue that Dr. McPherson is one of a handful of national experts who have provided the intellectual foundation for our student success initiative,” said Paul Dosal, USF’s Vice Provost for Student Success. “People understand that increasing college completion rates, at USF and throughout the country, is necessary for our economic development and national security – thanks in no small part to the scholarship and advocacy of Dr. McPherson and a few national experts.”


McPherson is the fifth President of the Spencer Foundation, which studies methods to improve the world through education. A nationally renowned economist who has focused on the interplay between education and economics, McPherson is the author of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at American's Public Universities.


His book has served as a national model of practices and in his nomination letter USF academic leaders noted McPherson’s compelling and inspiring keynote address at the university’s inaugural student success conference in 2010 as being an inspiration to USF faculty, staff and students.


McPherson, the former president of Macalister College in Minnesota, is known for challenging the conventional wisdom on what helps college students succeed.


For example, his studies have identified the phenomenon of "undermatch," which describes the problem of students failing to apply to the most selective colleges for which they qualify. It would seem common sense that students who picked less selective and less expensive universities might graduate at higher rates, but McPherson’s examination of data from scores of colleges and universities show that taking the less challenging route significantly reduces those students’ chances of graduating.


He proposes as one of a myriad of reforms to the college admission process – including more precise college matching efforts to direct students to the best institution for them - that the most selective universities expand their undergraduate enrollment, particularly as endowments recover from the Great Recession.


In Crossing the Finish Line, McPherson and his colleagues drew on data from nearly 70 U.S. public universities to examine the variables that impact higher education retention and graduation rates, including parental education, family income, race and gender, high school grades, test scores, financial aid and the characteristics of the universities attended.


In their examination of the data trends, McPherson and his co-authors call for improving transfer and financial aid policies and the process of matching students with the best institution to ensure their success.


McPherson’s achievements have won him recognition as a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, among many designations. He has served as a trustee of the College Board, the American Council on Education, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. He serves as President of the TIAA and CREF Boards of Overseers.


McPherson holds a B.A. in Mathematics, an M.A. in Economics, and a Ph.D. in Economics, from the University of Chicago. 


For more on USF’s Student Success initiatives, visit the Office of Student Success’ website.


To see McPherson’s presentation at USF’s inaugural Student Success Conference, click here.


Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.