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Professor of Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania

Laura W. Perna is a James S. Riepe Professor and founding Executive Director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD) at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also serving as past chair of the Faculty Senate at the University of Pennsylvania, 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.

Dr. Perna’s 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 and ethnic minority groups. Her scholarship is published in a variety of outlets, including books, journal articles, and policy reports. Recent books include "Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice" (2010, Stylus), "Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America: The Policy, Practice, and Research Issues" (2012, University of Pennsylvania Press), "The State of College Access and Completion: Improving College Success for Students from Underrepresented Groups" (with Anthony Jones, 2013, Routledge), and "The Attainment Agenda: State Policy Leadership for Higher Education" (with Joni Finney, 2014, Johns Hopkins University Press). 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.


  • –present
    Professor of Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania