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GED: A College Pathway That Few Complete

It's pretty well established by now that despite its nickname, the GED is not a "high school equivalency test." Young people who earn a General Educational Development certificate don't fare as well in earnings or in postsecondary education as those who graduate from high school.

But now a new study suggests that the GED offers a key pathway to college for those who didn't finish high school. At the same time, it offers sobering reminders that few GED recipients go far enough along that pathway to reap most of its benefits.

The study was circulated to insiders earlier this spring, but it's being released publicly just this week by the American Council on Education, the group that administers the GED. Made possible by better collection of longitudinal data, it marks the beginning of a three-year effort to dive deeper into the experiences of GED recipients and learn what supports might be necessary to improve their prospects. Part of that initiative is boosting the rigor of the GED exam, work that is already under way.

First, the good news from the study: Of the GED cohort that was examined (those who passed it in 2003), nearly 43 percent enrolled in postsecondary education within six years. While that might seem depressingly low, it suggests, as the ACE notes, that "given enough time," most GED-passers who aspire to postsecondary education (more than seven in 10) will follow up on that goal.

Now the cold water: Of the GED recipients who enrolled in postsecondary education programs, fewer than 12 percent completed them within six years. Only half stick around for a second semester, a potent message that the first semester experience is make-or-break for these students.

The report tells us that the vast majority (nearly 78 percent) of the GED-passers who enrolled in college chose programs of two or fewer years. It also confirms the message that the GED is no substitute for a diploma: GED recipients tend to earn associate's degrees, while diploma recipients earn bachelor's degrees, which carry higher future wages than do two-year degrees. And more high school graduates tend to go to college (64 percent) than do GED recipients (43 percent).

As we mentioned earlier, other research has suggested that the GED doesn't offer the earnings power or postsecondary-ed access that a high school diploma does. A study earlier this year found the GED "does little good" for those who pass it, largely because of their struggles with noncognitives such as low self-esteem, a propensity for high-risk behavior, and weak "soft skills."

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