Laura W. Perna

James S. Riepe Professor
Executive Director, Penn AHEAD
Chair, Higher Education Division

Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania

Phone: 215-746-2522


Professional Biography

Dr. Perna is the James S. Riepe Professor and founding Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (Penn AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn she is also Chair of the Higher Education Division of the Graduate School of Education, Faculty Fellow of the Institute for Urban Research, Faculty Affiliate of the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, member of the Advisory Board for the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and member of the Social Welfare Graduate Group of the School of Social Policy and Practice. 

She has held leadership positions in the primary national associations in the field of higher education administration.  She is currently President-Elect (2013-2014) of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) and she served as Vice President of the American Education Research Association (AERA)’s Division J (Postsecondary Education) from 2010 to 2013.  She has also served on the editorial boards of leading journals including American Education Research JournalEducational ResearcherEducational Evaluation and Policy AnalysisAcademeJournal of Higher EducationReview of Higher EducationJournal of College Student DevelopmentJournal of Women in Higher Education, and Research in Higher Education and is associate editor of Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research.

Her research examines the ways that social structures, educational practices, and public policies promote and limit college access and success particularly for individuals from lower-income families and racial/ethnic minority groups. Her scholarship is published in a variety of outlets, including books, journal articles, and policy reports, and has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlantic, Education Week, and Huffington Post, as well as on National Public Radio programs, Huffington Post Live, and other media outlets. She is also a regular contributor to The Hill.

Her research has been supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Science, Lumina Foundation for Education, American Educational Research Association, and Association for Institutional Research. She serves or has served as a member of the technical review group for the GEAR UP follow-up evaluation and the Upward Bound and Student Support Services Innovative Practices Study, the technical review panels for the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, the Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey, and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Study, the external advisory committee for the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs, the research advisory board for Research for Action, the advisory board for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education GEAR UP Advisory Committee, and Lumina Foundation for Education’s Research Advisory Committee. She is also on the Board of Directors of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

In 2003, the Association for the Study of Higher Education awarded her the Promising Scholar/Early Career Achievement Award. In 2010 she was awarded the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching from Penn, and in 2011 she received the Robert P. Huff Golden Quill Award from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. In 2014 she was named a Fellow by the American Educational Research Association, as well as a Penn Fellow and the inaugural James S. Riepe Professor by the University of Pennsylvania. 

Research Interests and Current Projects

Gaps in educational attainment by race/ethnicity and family income persist despite substantial annual investments by federal and state governments, colleges and universities, school districts, philanthropic organizations, and other entities in policies and programs that are designed to close these gaps. The central focus of Dr. Perna’s scholarship is to understand the forces that limit educational attainment, despite these considerable efforts, and the ways to promote educational attainment, particularly for students from traditionally underrepresented groups. Current scholarship draws on economic and sociological frameworks and uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to understand how public policies and institutional practices influence students’ opportunity to enroll and succeed in college, taking into account the contexts in which students are embedded.

Selected Publications

Perna, L. W., Orosz, K., Jumakulov, Z., Kishtentayeva, M., & Ashirbekov, A. (in press). Understanding the programmatic and contextual forces that influence participation in a government-sponsored student mobility program. Higher Education. Online first,

Perna, L. W., May, H., Yee, A., Ransom, T., Rodriguez, A., & Fester, R. (in press). Access to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme: An exploration of opportunity to rigorous high school curricula. Educational Policy.  Online first, June 20, 2013.

Perna, L.W., & Finney, J. (2014).  The attainment agenda: State policy leadership in higher education. Baltimore, MD:  Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perna, L.W., & McLendon, M. (2014). The role of state policy in promoting college access and success. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Perna, L.W., & Jones, A.The state of college access and completion: Improving college success for students from underrepresented groups. New York, NY: Routledge. 2013.

Perna, L. W., & Orosz, K., with Gopaul, B., Jumakulov, Z., Ashirbekov, A., & Kishkentayeva, M. (2014). Promoting human capital development: A typology of international scholarship programs in higher education. Educational Researcher,43(2), 63-73,

Perna, L.W..  Preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs in Metropolitan America: The policy, practice, and research issues. Philadelphia, PA:  University of Pennsylvania Press. 2012.

Perna, L.W., Harkavy, I., & Bowman, C.. Understanding the role of research universities in improving college preparation and access at local urban high schools. Metropolitan Universities, 22, 3, 63-82. 2012.

Perna, L. W., & Steele, P.. The role of context in understanding the contributions of financial aid to college opportunity. Teachers College Record, 113, 895-933. 2011.

Perna, L.W.: Understanding the working college student: New research and its implications for policy and practice. Stylus Publishing. Stylus Publishing, LLC. 2010.

Perna, L.W.: Toward a more complete understanding of the role of financial aid in promoting college enrollment: The importance of context. Higher Education: Handbook of theory and research. J. C. Smart (eds.). Springer, 2010.

Perna, L. W., Lundy-Wagner, V., Drezner, N., Gasman, M., Yoon, S., Bose, E., & Gary, S.: The contribution of HBCUs to the preparation of African American women for STEM careers: A case study. Research in Higher Education 50: 1-23, 2009.

Perna, L. W., & Thomas, S. L. : Theoretical perspectives on student success: Understanding the contributions of the disciplines. ASHE-Higher Education Reader Report. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Perna, L. W.: Understanding high school students’ willingness to borrow to pay college prices. Research in Higher Education 49: 589 - 606, 2008.

Perna, L. W., Rowan-Kenyon, H., Thomas, S. L., Bell, A., Anderson, R., & Li, C. : The role of college counseling in shaping college opportunity: Variations across high schools. Review of Higher Education 31(2): 131-160, 2008.

Perna, L. W., & Thomas, S. L.: Barriers to college opportunity: The unintended consequences of state-mandated tests. Educational Policy 2008.

Perna, L. W., Rowan-Kenyon, H., Bell, A., Li, C., & Thomas, S. L. : Typology of federal and state policies designed to promote college enrollment. Journal of Higher Education 79(3): 243-267, 2008.

Perna, L. W., Gerald, D., Baum, E., & Milem, J. F. : The status of equity for Black faculty and administrators in public higher education in the South. Research in Higher Education, AIR Forum Issue 48: 193-228, 2007.

Perna, L. W., & Li, C. : College affordability for middle-income students: Implications for college opportunity. Journal of Student Financial Aid 36(1): 7-24, 2006.

Perna, L. W., Milem, J. F., Gerald, G., Baum, E., Rowan, H., & Hutchens, N. : The status of equity for Black undergraduates in public higher education in the South. Research in Higher Education, AIR Forum Issue 47: 197-228, 2006.

Perna, L. W. : Studying college choice: A proposed conceptual model. Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. J. C. Smart (eds.). Springer, XXI: 99-157, 2006.