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Laura W. Perna

Executive Director

Professional Biography

Laura W. Perna is executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (AHEAD), professor in the Graduate School of Education, Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Urban Research, and Penn Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. She has served as the Vice President of the Postsecondary Education Division (Division J) of the American Education Research Association (AERA) and is currently the President-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).

In 2003 Professor Perna received the Promising Scholar/Early Career Achievement Award from the Association for the Study of Higher Education. In 2010 Penn honored her with Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching.  In  2011 she received the Robert P. Huff Golden Quill Award from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. 

Research Interests and Current Projects

Dr. Perna’s research focuses on identifying 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 demonstrates that differences in college enrollment and other outcomes depend on the resources and opportunities that are available in the communities in which students reside, the high schools they attend, the states in which they live, and other characteristics of the contexts in which they are embedded. A primary goal of her research is to improve the role of government policy (in the United States and other nations) in promoting educational attainment and human capital development. 

Areas of Expertise

  • Access, choice, and equity in higher education
  • College finance and affordability
  • Federal and state involvement in pre-college and college education


Ph.D., Education, University of Michigan
M.P.P., Policy Studies, University of Michigan
B.S., Economics and B.A., Psychology, University of Pennsylvania