Cecilia Marie Orphan

Associate Professor

  • Faculty

What I do

I am interested in understanding how higher education contributes to a healthy, functioning democracy and advances racial and social equity.


Public Policy and Finance, Organizational Governance and Academic Administration, Regional Public Universities, Rural Serving Postsecondary Institutions, Civic Engagement, Neoliberal Theory and the Privatization of Higher Education

Professional Biography

Cecilia Orphan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Higher Education at the University of Denver and Director of Partnerships for the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. Dr. Orphan’s research has been funded by the Spencer Foundation, the Ascendium Education Group, and the Joyce Foundation. She has been quoted by CBS, The Chronicle for Higher Education, InsideHigherEd, Open Campus, and Newsy, among other media outlets. From 2006-2011, she directed the American Democracy Project, a national civic engagement initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Dr. Orphan's research agenda is informed by her experiences as a working class, first-generation college student who received maximum Pell grants to attend college. She is personally familiar with the transformative nature of access institutions having attended Linn Benton Community College and Portland State University, a regional public university in Oregon. Simply put, attending these institutions changed the trajectory of her life and she believes in the power of access institutions to promote racial and economic justice and democracy. Dr. Orphan holds a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Portland State University.


  • Certificate, Hybrid 3D Workshop, University of Denver, 2016
  • Ph.D., Higher Education , University of Pennsylvania, 2015
  • BA, Political Science, Portland State University, 2006

Professional Affiliations

  • American Educational Research Association
  • Association for the Study of Higher Education

Media Sources


Dr. Orphan's research agenda broadly interrogates the following question: What are higher education's purposes in a democratic society? Dr. Orphan’s research is comprised of two strands that examine this question: 1) the societal purposes, equity contributions, institutional functioning, governance, and administrative strategies of regional public (comprehensive) universities and rural serving postsecondary institutions; and 2) how policy discourses and agendas for higher education shape the system's equity and public purposes.

Areas of Research

Public Policy and Finance
Organizational Governance and Academic Administration
Regional Public Universities
Rural Serving Postsecondary Institutions
Civic Engagement
Neoliberal Theory and the Privatization of Higher Education

Key Projects

  • Ending Data Invisibility: Identifying and Defining Regional Public Universities
  • Federal Support for Broadly Accessible Rural-Serving Institutions in Response to COVID-19
  • What It Means To Be A Rural-Serving Postsecondary Institution

Featured Publications

Crisp, G., McClure, K. R., & Orphan, C. M. (Eds.). (2021). Unlocking opportunity through broadly accessible institutions. New York: Routledge.
Gasman, M., Spencer, D., & Orphan, C. M. (2015). "Building bridges, not fences": A history of civic engagement at private Black colleges and universities. Higher Education Quarterly.


Orphan, C. M. (2022). Digital Equity Assets in Postsecondary Education. Action Lab on Leveling the Academic Playing Field: The Role of Postsecondary Education in Digital Equity Planning for States. Washington, DC: AAC&U, National Governors Association, Education Strategy Group.
Kiyama, J. M., & Orphan, C. M. (2020). Advancing an Equity Agenda with Coalition Building. Provost Conference: Summit on Shared Governance. Denver, CO: University of Denver.
Orphan, C. M. (2019). Rural Students and College Choice. ASHE Annual Conference. Portland, Oregon: Association for the Study of Higher Education.


  • Helen C. Bailey Alumni Award, University of Pennsylvania
  • Graduate Career Faculty Champion, Career & Professional Development