Career Education: Does a GED Diploma Really Open Doors to Jobs and College?
I was listening to a story on public radio about people who go for their GED diplomas, and was a little surprised by some of what I heard. But I hadn't caught the entire program, so I did some extra investigating. Seems there are pros and cons to getting a GED – and for those people looking to hire the people who have them.
Some things I learned about GEDs
- Approximately 12% of all high school degrees are GED diplomas.
- On average, about 40% of the people who study for their GEDs don't pass the test.
- In New York State, 47% don't pass.
- An estimated 39 million American adults don't have a high school diploma.
- In 2012 more than 700,000 people took the GED test.
- The military once treated GEDs as they would any other high school diploma. In the 1980s, they put some limits on that.
- According to one expert in the public radio story: "People take the GED test because they think the credential will help them get a better job or a college degree. But research shows earning a GED does not help most people do better in life."
Did those last two points surprise anyone? Studies show that, on average, those people who get GED diplomas are just as intelligent as regular high school graduates who don't go to college. And yet, the GED does not necessarily make them equivalent. Why is that?
What's the problem with the current GED?
There are many bright, talented people who study for the GED and pass. In no way should all GED test takers be lumped together. There are hardworking people who had to drop out for reasons beyond their control (family issues, health, need to work), and also some who just weren't ready to take school seriously, for whatever reason.
But included in the group of people who get their GEDs after having dropped out, are a significant percentage people who are still missing some of the skills necessary to succeed in jobs and life. According to the public radio story, the GED test looks at what they classify as cognitive skills. But it misses what they call "non-cognitive skills", especially ones that are important to employers, including the military:
"Cognitive skills are things such as memory, attention, reasoning and thinking. Non-cognitive skills include things like persistence, the ability to get along with people, self-control, and conscientiousness. Attitude. Showing up on time. Following the rules. The things the military is looking for in its recruits, and the reason the military is strict about admitting people with GEDs."
So not only are there different types of people taking the GED, but there are a good percentage who take and pass the test, and yet haven't acquired the skills they really need. And studies show that. But I have to add that there are also a good number of people with regular high school degrees (and also college degrees) who don't have those skills yet either. And then there's the test itself which, arguably, cannot serve as a truly equivalent measure of the same exposure to diverse ideas, experiences, commitment, follow-through, relationship building, etc. that goes into getting a high school diploma.
When you study for a GED, you aim at passing the test, but perhaps you miss out on the broader experience that gives value to a regular high school diploma. Not that all high school graduates have that, just perhaps a larger percentage than some of the folks who go back for a GED.
What's being done to improve equivalency testing quality?
Big news in the GED world: Starting in 2014, there will be a new GED test that will be harder and emphasize critical thinking skills. According to the public radio story:
There will be two passing levels on the new GED. One will indicate that a person meets the requirements for a high school credential. A higher passing level will indicate that a person is ready for college.
BUT, the new test still won't measure those non-cognitive skills. Also, will employers really know the difference between the two levels? And will they even know anything has changed? What about GEDs issued before 2014? Does their value go down as a result? My guess is that the information about the new test may not be disseminated widely enough for that to register any time soon with most employers.
And perhaps, as time goes on, the new, more stringent test will lift the value for all. In the meantime, it probably means a lot of scrambling to prepare for GED programs and test takers. As an alternative to the GED, some states offer an equivalency diploma from the National External Diploma Program (NEDP) administered by casas.org. At the moment, the diploma is available in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and Washington D.C. Whether it will catch on as a valid credential for employers in general is still to be seen.
So what is the value of a GED in today's economy? Does it really get you to better jobs and, if you want it, college? The short answer is YES. There is probably value in the GED for anyone without a high school diploma looking to get a better job. Even for jobs that don't require a high school diploma, if they have multiple applicants who seem qualified, the degree might just make the difference. A job seeker without a degree might also opt for courses and certificates that relate directly to the job sought. Some employers see such things as a sign that the job seeker was determined enough to go back and make this happen for themselves. A good thing.
The public radio story mentions a person without any diploma who used to work as a janitor and a security guard, but can't get those kinds of jobs anymore. He decided to go back for a GED and feel good about his choice. At the very least, getting the GED will offer him a sense of accomplishment, and that alone shows in interviews – and beyond.
Sources: American Radio Works, SECOND-CHANCE DIPLOMA: Examining the GED Casas.org, National External Diploma Program (NEDP)