W. P. Carey School's Matt McCarthy draws inspiration from his own life to help keep students in school
On the surface, Matt McCarthy might be dismissed as merely an “oddball professor.”
He’s got tats and ’tude. He failed college twice. In his official university profile, he’s sporting shades and a straight face. When he’s not teaching, he’s kite surfing, using a surfboard he makes for his own surfboard company. And he takes his sabbaticals at his forest home in Oregon.
But upon closer inspection, he’s actually an iconoclast.
“Iconoclast, rebel, whatever label someone wants to put on me, it’s important to remember that what I do at ASU is never about me; it’s about the students I serve,” McCarthy says.
Despite his youthful misadventures, he eventually went back to college and earned a master’s degree, joining Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business in 2003. There, he’s known for teaching one of the largest classes on campus, Computer Information Systems 105.
And lately, he has been promoting his first book, “How to Avoid F---ing Up at College,” which he wrote this spring. From his perspective of failing college twice, guiding his kids through school and teaching at ASU for more than 20 years, he offers solid advice for college success.
He said his first go-round at college, in 1977, got derailed by a hodge-podge education (he was an Air Force brat and attended 17 different schools), cheap beer and a lack of direction.
McCarthy also says that at the time, guidance counselors were hard to find, answers were vague and registration was a free-for-all.
“I found out that you had to learn everything on your own, and nobody guided you to do anything,” McCarthy says. “Maybe your parents could help, or you might have had an older brother or sister to tell you what class to take, or even someone to warn you not to take a super early class because you might oversleep. There was also no way to check your prerequisites or even a map to help you find your major, so I was undeclared. Academically speaking, it was the wild West, at least to me.”
McCarthy's first semester at ASU ended with a 1.2 GPA, and his parents, who were footing the bill for their son’s education, told him to take a breather from college and — now that he was of legal age — perhaps he should live on his own. To add insult to injury, his older brother, Terry, whom he looks up to, was an engineering major, commander of ASU’s ROTC detachment and an honor student. He set an example for his younger brother, which McCarthy ignored.
“I’ve always said, if I were my dad, I would have kicked my butt out of the house, too,” McCarthy says. “It was the first time in my life I had to take some personal responsibility.”
McCarthy took a job at a family-owned gas station in Scottsdale, hitchhiked if he wanted to get around and lived in a cramped studio apartment. Admittedly, he was “scraping by.” It was a nowhere job, but he worked hard, and the owner took notice.
“The owner, who only employed college students, encouraged me,” McCarthy says. “He told me, ‘Hey man, you’re not a complete idiot. Go back to college.’”
He didn’t take the advice immediately. McCarthy worked in a bank, which was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation, and then went into business as an enterprise database consultant. He worked from home, traveled and played lots of golf. As enjoyable as it sounds, McCarthy said, he needed more human interaction and quickly grew bored of his life.
McCarthy’s second attempt at college was in the late 1990s, but he got a mule kick to the gut from a counselor who told him he was 18 lower-division credits short of graduation. That led to another few years in the wilderness.
In 2001, McCarthy finally received his bachelor’s degree in business administration. Feeling empowered, he immediately signed on for a master’s degree in business administration. He received his MBA 354 days after his bachelor’s degree and graduated at the top of his class. A year later, he was teaching one of the largest face-to-face classes at the largest public university in the country.