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College Access & Completion

In today’s economy, most jobs require some form of post-secondary education and training. Professor Laura Perna has devoted her career to researching and identifying best practices for enabling low-income, first-generation, and racial/ethnic minoritized students to enroll in college and complete a degree. She researches public policies and institutional practices that could help level the playing field and improve equity in higher education attainment, thereby increasing the number of people who reap the many benefits of higher education.

When it comes to a college education, the American Dream is a myth,” Professor Perna has said. “The American Dream assumes that our nation’s structures and systems allow anyone to succeed, regardless of family income, parents’ education, race/ethnicity, or other demographic characteristics.” But in reality, “our education attainment varies based on these and other dimensions.” For instance, students from higher-income families are much more likely to complete a college degree. College attainment rates are also lower for Hispanic and Black students than for white students.

Professor Perna’s widely cited conceptual model on college access and success (2006) encourages attention to the role of policy and practice by identifying and graphically portraying how college enrollment “decisions” and “choices” are structured for students based on the contexts in which they are embedded, including the K–12 schools they attend and states and communities in which they live. Integrating aspects of economic and sociological approaches, the model assumes that an individual’s decision to attend or not attend college is shaped by the person’s school and community context; the higher education context; the social, economic, and policy context; as well as the individual’s “habitus”—the internalized set of dispositions and preferences that is derived from one’s surroundings and that subconsciously define what is a “reasonable” action is.

Professor Perna has studied and written about many aspects of the complex issue of higher education attainment, including the student debt crisis, inequities in access to rigorous high school curricula, the role of state policy in promoting access, retention of minority students, the needs of working students, the role of counseling in shaping college opportunity, how state-mandated tests can create barriers to opportunity, and more.

She emphasizes that students need three foundations to succeed in college: adequate financial resources, sufficient academic preparation, and “the knowledge and support to navigate their way into and through higher education,” adding that, “our educational systems are not providing students with what they need.”

In 2015, Professor Perna shared her expertise on ways to improve college access and completion for underrepresented groups in testimony to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives.


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