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THE GED: New Report Finds that GED Recipients Fare Little Better Economically Than High School Dropouts

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“The same traits that lead them to drop out of school also lead them to leave from jobs early, to divorce more frequently, and to fail in the military.”

A new report from the University of Chicago finds that a General Educational Development (GED) credential holds little value in helping students succeed in the job market or earn a postsecondary degree. The report, The GED, also notes that GED recipients are more equivalent to high school dropouts than they are to high school graduates in terms of their career outcomes, earnings, and their general performance in society.

According to the report, GED recipients are as smart as high school graduates are when measured by a scholastic achievement test. However, as a group, GED recipients persistently fail to perform at the level of high school graduates. The report attributes the lack of success for many GED recipients to personality shortfalls such as lack of persistence, low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, and a high propensity for risky behavior. “The same traits that lead them to drop out of school also lead them to leave from jobs early, to divorce more frequently, and to fail in the military,” the report reads.

The report finds that GED recipients go to college at a higher rate than high school dropouts, but notes that few recipients finish more than one semester after enrolling. It cites a study by the GED Testing Service, which followed one thousand randomly selected individuals who passed the GED test in 2002, and found that only 31 percent ever enrolled in a postsecondary institution of any kind, and that 77 percent of those who enrolled did so for only a single semester.

“None of this would matter if the GED were harmless, like wearing a broken watch and knowing that it is broken. But the GED is not harmless,” write report authors James Heckman, John Humphries, and Nicholas Mader. “Treating it as equivalent to a high school degree distorts social statistics and gives false signals that America is making progress when it is not.”

According to the report, the GED, which is earned after passing an eight-hour battery of tests, distorts social statistics on high school completion rates, minority achievement gaps, and sources of wage growth. For example, it finds that GEDs account for 20 percent of black high school credentials, but only 11 percent of white credentials. “Rather than a convergence in minority education attainment, over the last 40 years the minority education gap has been constant,” the report reads.

Citing evidence from numerous research studies, the report argues that the GED option actually increases the high school dropout rate because some students view the GED program as an easier alternative to working hard and graduating from high school. For example, while the average high school student spends approximately 1,080 hours in class a year (4,320 hours over four years), the median study time for those who reported studying for the GED was twenty-five hours. Additionally, a 2002 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 40.5 percent of surveyed high school dropouts listed “would be easier to get the GED” as among their reasons for leaving school. Behind “missed too many school days,” this was the second most frequently cited reason for leaving.

Even with all of this evidence against the usefulness of a GED, it continues to grow. As shown in the chart below, nearly 500,000 high school dropouts passed the GED test in 2008. Those individuals accounted for 12 percent of all high school credentials issued that year. At the same time, the exam’s difficulty continues to decrease. When the GED exam was introduced in 1942, it was estimated that 80 percent of graduation-bound high school seniors could pass the test on their first try. Currently, however, it is estimated that only 60 percent of graduation-bound high school seniors are able to pass the test on their first try.

the GED

The report attributes the GED program’s explosive growth to an increase in government programs that promote the GED as a quick fix for addressing the high school dropout crisis and adult education programs that promote convict rehabilitation. At the same time, the test is being made available to younger individuals than ever before.

The GED exam was introduced by the American Council on Education in 1942 as a credential for returning World War II veterans who entered the armed services before completing high school. In the late 1940s, states began to offer the test to civilians, but by 1957, civilian test takers outnumbered veteran GED recipients. Throughout its history, the minimum age for taking the GED exam has decreased. In 1955 it was age twenty, in 1970 it was lowered to age eighteen, and today the national minimum age is sixteen. As a result, a higher percentage of younger people have the opportunity now to take the test than fifty years ago.

To download the entire report, visit http://papers.nber.org/papers/w16064 ($5 fee to download).

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