Should you get a high school diploma or a GED?

America's Alliance Promise reports one in four students will drop out before graduating from high school. Failing to complete high school does more than limit employment options. Research for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found it also increases an individual's likelihood of incarceration, poverty, poor health and unemployment. If you missed completing high school or if you have a teen who is struggling, don't despair. You can still earn your diploma or take the General Educational Development test, also known as the GED.

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Diploma and GED basics

Virtually everyone who has some experience in a classroom knows what a high school diploma represents. Recipients have generally completed 12 years of schooling and demonstrated proficiency in core subjects as required by their state. Meanwhile, the GED is a content-based test that measures high school equivalency knowledge in five areas.

"A GED is like running a 5k race," said Raymond J. McNulty, chief learning officer for Penn Foster Career School. "A high school diploma is like running a marathon."

Within the educational community, there is debate about which option is best. Some, such as the American Council on Education, which administers the GED test, say earning a high school equivalency credential is virtually the same as finishing high school. Others, including McNulty, say a GED may be better than nothing but it pales in comparison to a diploma.

The case for GEDs

First created in 1942 at the request of the military, the GED can be a quick and convenient way to demonstrate competency and move on to a new career or further education. Approximately 18 million people have earned a GED since the program's inception, and it is the only nationally recognized high school equivalency credential.

ACE (acenet.edu), a testing service that delivers the GED, says the test is a rigorous, and that most colleges and employers accept it. According to the council, only 60 percent of high school graduates would be able to successfully pass the GED exam. The organization also points to data from the College Board indicating 95 percent of colleges and universities accept the GED. In addition, ACE says it is accepted by 96 percent of U.S. employers.

"A GED is viewed by most post-secondary educators as equivalent to a high school diploma for admission," said David Profita, Director of Admissions for YTI Career Institute in Pennsylvania.

Profita notes a GED can provide a sense of accomplishment for those who were or are unable to complete high school for any reason. In addition, it can be earned in significantly less time than what is needed to complete a high school diploma program.

Why high school diplomas may be better

Despite their wide acceptance, GEDs still have the stigma of being second-best compared to a high school diploma.

"It is a lower standard," said McNulty. "A diploma is more connected to what the workforce is looking for."

McNulty says a high school diploma represents a broader experience. He also notes some post-secondary schools may accept GED holders only on a limited basis, and others may impose additional requirements on those without a diploma. The Air Force, for example, requires GED holders to wait for certain slots to open and these individuals must score 65 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery as compared to 36 for those with a diploma.

Also important to know for those considering a GED is recent research from Russell Rumberger, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In a recent story on NPR (npr.org, 2012) Rumberger reported that most GED holders fare no better than drop-outs when it comes to employment. In addition, only 10 percent go on to earn a college degree.

Learning options for today's students

At one time, students had limited options when it came to completing their education. If they missed their window of opportunity to earn a degree at a traditional high school, a GED was their only other choice. However, with the advent of online learning, high school diplomas are widely available: McNulty notes Penn Foster graduates 8,000 students through its diploma program each year, and these individuals range from teens studying as homeschooled students to older adults returning to complete their education.

Still, GED still remains a viable option for many. For those planning to pursue a GED, there are 21st Century learning options available. Although the test is administered in person, there are numerous online GED prep sites that make studying both convenient and flexible.

Should you choose a diploma or a GED?

"I believe the choice is personal," said Profita.

According to Profita, the fact you have completed your education will be more important to colleges and employers than the method you chose. However, returning students may want to consider the following when determining whether to pursue a diploma or take the GED test:

  • Cost: Online diploma programs can vary in price as can the fee for GED exams. Do your research and compare first.
  • Time: Since the GED is a test instead of an education program, it can be earned relatively quickly. However, a high school diploma program can be expedited depending on a student's previous experience.
  • Career goals: Those interested in furthering their education should be sure a GED will be accepted at their preferred college or university.

Regardless of whether you opt for a diploma or a GED, it is important to have a plan for what you will do with your new credential. Remember, many careers today require some form of post-secondary education.

"The GED or the diploma should not be seen as the end of the game," McNulty said. "Why are you doing it and what do you want to accomplish?"

And that means a GED or diploma isn't the end of an education; it is only the beginning.

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