Professional Biography

Laura W. Perna is GSE Centennial Presidential Professor of Education and Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania. She is past chair of Penn’s faculty senate and currently serves as 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, and member of the advisory board for the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. She holds bachelor’s degrees in economics and psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and earned her master’s in public policy and Ph.D. in education from the University of Michigan. 

She has held leadership positions in the primary national scholarly associations in the field of higher education administration. Dr. Perna served as President of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) from 2014 to 2015 and Vice President of the American Educational Research Association’s Division J (Postsecondary Education) from 2010 to 2013 and now is a member of the AERA Grants Governing Board. She has served on the editorial boards of leading journals including American Education Research JournalEducational ResearcherEducational Evaluation and Policy AnalysisJournal of Higher EducationReview of Higher EducationJournal of College Student DevelopmentResearch in Higher Education, and AERA Open. She is now serving as editor of Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research. She is also a member of the Board of Directors for Postsecondary Network Policy Institute (PNPI).

Among other honors, Dr. Perna has received the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching from the University of Pennsylvania, Early Career Achievement Award from ASHE, Excellence in Public Policy in Higher Education Award from ASHE’s Council on Public Policy and Higher Education, the Dr. Constance Clayton Education Award from the Philadelphia College Prep Roundtable, and the Robert P. Huff Golden Quill Award from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. In 2014, Dr. Perna was named a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, a Penn Fellow, and the inaugural James S. Riepe Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2019, Perna was elected to the National Academy of Education.

Research Interests and Current Projects

Dr. Perna’s research examines the ways that social structures, educational practices, and public policies promote and limit college access and success, particularly for groups that continue to be underrepresented in higher education. Her scholarship is published in a variety of outlets, including books, journal articles, and policy reports. Recent books include Taking It to the Streets: The Role of Scholarship in Advocacy and Advocacy in Scholarship (2018, Johns Hopkins University Press), The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership for Higher Education (with Joni Finney, 2014, Johns Hopkins University Press) and The State of College Access and Completion: Improving College Success for Students from Underrepresented Groups (with Anthony Jones, 2013). 

Her research 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 and Huffington Post Live. She has offered recommendations based on her research to federal policymakers through invited testimony to the U.S. Senate’s Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee and the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, Committee on Education and the Workforce, United States House of Representatives. Her research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, Lumina Foundation, and other organizations.

Dr. Perna’s current projects focus on improving equity in higher education in the United States (funded by Lumina Foundation) and advancing knowledge of College Promise programs.


Ph.D. (Education) University of Michigan

M.P.P. (Policy Studies) University of Michigan

B.A. (Psychology) University of Pennsylvania

B.S. (Economics) The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania


Areas of Expertise

Access, choice, and equity in higher education

College finance and affordability

Federal and state involvement in pre-college and college education

Selected Publications

Paulsen M.B., & Perna, L. (Eds.) (2019). Higher education: Handbook of theory and research. New York: Springer.

Perna, L.W., Orosz, K., & Kent, D. (2019). The role of educational research in Congressional hearings. American Education Research Journal, 56, 111-145.

Perna, L.W. (Ed., 2018). Taking it to the streets: The role of scholarship in advocacy and advocacy in scholarship. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perna, L.W., & Leigh, E. (2018). Understanding the promise: A typology of state and local college promise programs. Educational Researcher, 47, 155-180.

Perna, L.W., Leigh, E., & Carroll, S. (2017). “Free college:” A new and improved state approach to increasing educational attainment? American Behavioral Scientist, 61, 1740-1757.

Perna, L.W., & Hillman, N. (Eds., 2017). Understanding student debt: Who borrows, the consequences of borrowing, and the implications for federal policy. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 671.

Cahalan, M., Perna, L.W., Yamashita, M., Wright, J., & Santillan, S. (2018). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States—2018 historical trend reportWashington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD).

Perna, L.W., & Ruiz, R. (2016). Technology: The solution to higher education’s pressing problems? In P. Altbach, P. Gumport, & M. Bastedo (eds.), American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 432-461.

Perna, L.W. (2016). Throwing down the gauntlet: Ten ways to ensure the future of our research. Review of Higher Education, 39, 319-338.

Orosz, K., & Perna, L.W. (2016). Higher education internationalization in the context of ongoing economic-political transitions: Insights from former Soviet and Eastern bloc nations. Hungarian Education Research Journal, 6, 3-21.

Cahalan, M., Perna, L.W., Yamashita, M., Ruiz, R., & Franklin, K. (2016, April). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: An historic trend report. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute of the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

Perna, L.W. (2016, January). Connecting research and state policy: Implications for academic researchers and intermediary organizations. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation, Lumina Issue Papers.

Cahalan, M., & Perna, L.W. (2015, February). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 45-year trend report. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute of the Council for Opportunity in Education and the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

Perna, L. W., Orosz, K., & Jumakulov, Z. (2015). Understanding the human capital benefits of a government-funded international scholarship program: An exploration of Kazakhstan’s Bolashak programInternational Journal of Educational Development, 40, 85–97.

Perna, L. W., Orosz, K., Jumakulov, Z., Kishtentayeva, M., & Ashirbekov, A. (2015). Understanding the programmatic and contextual forces that influence participation in a government-sponsored student mobility programHigher Education, 69, 173–188.

Perna, L. W., May, H., Yee, A., Ransom, T., Rodriguez, A., & Fester, R. (2015). Access to the international baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme: An exploration of opportunity to rigorous high school curriculaEducational Policy, 29(2), 402–425.  

Perna, L. W., Ruby, A., Boruch, R., Wang, N., Scull, J., Ahmad, S., & Evans, C. (2014). Moving through MOOCs: Understanding the progression of users in MOOCsEducational Researcher, 43,421–432. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perna, L. W. Toward a more complete understanding of the role of financial aid in promoting college enrollment: The importance of context. In J. C. Smart (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.

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

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

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

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

Perna, L. W., & Thomas, S. L. (2008). Barriers to college opportunity: The unintended consequences of state-mandated tests. Educational Policy, 23(3), 451–479. 

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