Schapiro received a B.S. in economics from Hofstra University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979. He joined the economics faculty at Williams College in 1980 and departed to become the chair of the economics department at the University of Southern California in 1991, rising to become the dean of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences in 1994, and the vice president for planning in 1998. He was appointed as the 16th president of Williams College in 2000, a post he held until becoming president of Northwestern University in 2009.
Schapiro's research concerns economics in higher education, about which he has authored 100 articles, as well as five books including The Student Aid Game: Meeting Need and Rewarding Talent in American Higher Education, Paying the Piper: Productivity, Incentives and Financing in Higher Education and Keeping College Affordable: Government and Educational Opportunity.