High school equivalency credentials

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

High school equivalency (HSE) credentials are accepted alternatives to traditional high school completion and can be used as educational certification on applications for employment or postsecondary education. HSE credentials are an option for individuals who have dropped out of school or have arrived in the US without a credential equivalent to a high school diploma. Each state determines the requirements for earning HSE certification or HSE diplomas in that state, although once earned, HSE credentials are accepted across the country1, 2. The most popular HSE tests are the General Education Development (GED) certificate and the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET)3. Attendance at any particular course or training program is not required to take the GED or the HiSET exams; however, HSE diplomas typically have additional coursework or classroom requirements. Passing an HSE exam accredits certain levels of general knowledge in mathematics, writing, reading, social studies, and science4, 5. HSE credential programs are sometimes combined with counseling and social services6.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased earnings

  • Reduced recidivism

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased HSE credential completion

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that high school equivalency credentials increase earnings for recipients7, especially among individuals with low cognitive skills and adults who use their credential to obtain postsecondary education8, 4. GED receipt through correctional education programs reduces recidivism and may increase employment for individuals who have been incarcerated9. Other recipients, such as youth transitioning out of foster care10, are less likely to realize earnings or employment benefits8, 4. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, especially among adults who have earned HSE credentials7.

It often takes several years of work experience after earning a HSE credential for recipients’ incomes to increase, and gains are typically modest4, 8. Few GED recipients advance to postsecondary education, but those who do substantially increase their earnings4, 8, 6. On average, GED recipients earn more than peers who do not complete high school and less than high school graduates4.

Health outcomes for GED recipients are generally similar to individuals who do not complete high school, and significantly worse than outcomes for high school graduates11. These outcomes may be compounded for some students, since most individuals pursuing HSE credentials come from low income, disadvantaged backgrounds and identify as persons of color12. One study suggests that HSE programs that include health literacy instruction can improve health literacy among Spanish-speaking, adult students13. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted concerns about the viability of long-term virtual programs, including HSE programs, which require access to broadband. The growing digital divide may exacerbate educational, economic, and social inequities, especially for students trying to pursue HSE credentials without adequate broadband access12.

Multi-component bridge programs that include education and basic skill instruction, HSE test preparation, and career training and supports can increase HSE credential receipt as well as college enrollment more than standalone HSE programs7, 14. GED programs that use more rigorous college and career readiness curricula may also be more likely to encourage GED recipients to continue with postsecondary education and training15.

Researchers recommend that HSE programs help students manage adult responsibilities that can make program completion difficult, link to postsecondary programs, stress the necessity of further education, and help students navigate the postsecondary admissions and financial aid processes4, 6, 15. Research also suggests GED classes can increase receipt of GEDs regardless of participants’ initial level of motivation6.

In some cases, GED access can induce potential high school graduates to drop out. Factors that decrease GED desirability such as high minimum dropout ages, more rigorous GED standards, or parental consent requirements are associated with higher rates of school completion. High school exit exams, conversely, may increase attempts to earn GEDs8.

Equity Analysis

Potential to decrease disparities: Suggested by expert opinion

High school equivalency (HSE) credentials are a suggested strategy to decrease disparities in earnings and labor market outcomes between people without a high school degree and those who have completed high school. HSE credentials may be especially beneficial for those from low-income backgrounds who did not complete a traditional high school program and for those who use their HSE credential to pursue further education4, 7, 8. On average, GED recipients earn more than peers who did not complete high school, but still less than high school graduates4. It often takes time for recipients’ incomes to increase, and gains are typically modest4, 8. GED recipients who do advance to postsecondary education substantially increase their earnings4, 8, 6. Additional evidence is needed to confirm the effects of HSE credentials.

Health outcomes for GED recipients are generally similar to individuals who do not complete high school and are significantly worse than outcomes for high school graduates11. These outcomes may be compounded for some students, since most individuals who are pursuing HSE credentials are from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds and identify as persons of color12. A Canada-based survey shows that 10 percent of Native populations who live off of reservations leave high school prior to completion and return to complete their credentials in adulthood. The survey indicates that HSE credentials provide a second chance to those who were unable to complete traditional high school24.

Historical Context

The GED test in the US was introduced in 1942 to help certify World War II veterans without a high school diploma. In turn, this allowed veterans a path to postsecondary education for those who are interested25. The GED test was broadened in 1947, from a wartime emergency measure to include anyone who did not complete high school. Over the years, civilians who were leaving school early to join the industrial workforce also began pursuing GED credentials. By 1959 the majority of GED test takers were civilians26. Increases in the number of GED test takers in the 1960s and 1970s were attributed to increased federal funding for adult education programs and financial assistance (e.g., Pell Grant) for individuals with GED credentials who want to go to college4. In 2014, two additional tests were introduced: Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC) and High School Equivalency Test (HiSET)27. Though TASC was discontinued as of December 31, 202128.

The 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) adapted and reauthorized funding for the nation’s employment, training, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation programs. WIOA acknowledged many of the barriers to adult education, high school completion, and workforce development that face adults and youth seeking job opportunities and economic success. One of the key provisions in WIOA expands the focus of education opportunities for adult secondary education or HSE credentials to include postsecondary training and career education opportunities29.

Equity Considerations

  • How can HSE credential programs be tailored to be more culturally competent?
  • Why do youth decide not to finish their traditional high school credentials? What factors contribute to the incompletion?
  • What supports and/or resources could help youth in your community complete high school?
  • Are there additional resources that can be provided to individuals participating in HSE credential programs?
  • What supports can increase access to HSE credential programs for individuals in rural areas? For those with limited access to broadband? For individuals with disabilities? For those with English language learner status?

Implementation Examples

HSE credential programs are available in all states, as well as online, and the US Department of Education website provides the contacts for state adult education agencies that implement high school equivalency credential programs for each state2, 16. As of 2018, over 1.1 million adult students were pursuing adult basic education, English as a second language, or adult secondary education. Approximately 108,000 students were taking classes to prepare for a high school equivalency credential17.

Bridge programs that support pathways for HSE recipients to continue with postsecondary education and training are also becoming more available like at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College18.

SciMentors is a science outreach program for adult learners from underserved backgrounds. SciMentors aims to create a sustainable and long-term mentorship program and to provide science focused education in partnership with HSE and adult literacy programs19, 20.

The High School Equivalency Program (HEP) helps migratory and seasonal farmworkers (and their family members) who are age 16 or older to obtain a high school equivalency certification. The program also supports those who obtain HSE certifications to gain employment or begin postsecondary education or training21.

YouthBuild programs combine academic preparation for the GED or other HSE tests with hands-on job training to prepare students for postsecondary education or employment. As of 2020, there are more than 275 urban and rural YouthBuild programs available across the US22. Project Rise, which links GED preparation classes with case management and part-time, paid internships, operates in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Kansas City, Missouri.23.

Implementation Resources

Learning Path - LearningPath.org. GED info by state.

WI DPI-GED requirements - Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WI DPI). Wisconsin’s GED/HSED program requirements.

MDRC-Rutschow 2014 - Rutschow EZ, Crary-Ross S. Beyond the GED: Promising models for moving high school dropouts to college. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2014.

US ED-State contacts - US Department of Education (US ED). State contacts. 2021.

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 US ED-FAQs-CTAE - US Department of Education (US ED). FAQ’s: Frequently asked questions. Career, Technical, and Adult Education (CTAE).

2 US ED-State contacts - US Department of Education (US ED). State contacts. 2021.

3 Mathematica-Hartog 2021 - Hartog J, Fesler L, Tabora B. Characteristics and performance of high school equivalency exam takers in New Jersey. Washington, DC: US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic (REL); 2021.

4 Tyler 2005 - Tyler JH. The General Educational Development (GED) credential: History, current research, and directions for policy and practice. In: Review of Adult Learning and Literacy. Boston: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy; 2005:45-84.

5 ECS-Zinth 2015 - Zinth J. GED, HiSET and TASC: A comparison of high school equivalency assessments. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States (ECS); 2015.

6 MDRC-Bos 2002 - Bos JM, Scrivener S, Snipes J, et al. Improving basic skills: The effects of adult education in welfare-to-work programs. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2002.

7 Mathematica-Borradaile 2021 - Borradaile K, Martinez A, Schochet P. Adult education strategies: Identifying and building evidence of effectiveness - Contract No. 91990018C0057. Washington, DC: US Department of Education (DOE), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Evaluation (NCEE); 2021.

8 NBER-Heckman 2010 - Heckman JJ, Humphries JE, Mader NS. The GED. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2010: Working Paper 16064.

9 RAND-Davis 2013 - Davis LM, Bozick R, Steele JL, et al. Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2013.

10 Okpych 2014* - Okpych NJ, Courtney ME. Does education pay for youth formerly in foster care? Comparison of employment outcomes with a national sample. Children and Youth Services Review. 2014;43:18-28.

11 Zajacova 2014 - Zajacova A, Everett BG. The nonequivalent health of high school equivalents. Social Science Quarterly. 2014;95(1):221-238.

12 Zukowski 2021 - Zukowski I, Parker Z, Shetterly D, Valle K. Public health crises compounded: A high school equivalency context in the time of a pandemic. International Review of Education. 2021:67;31-52.

13 Mas 2017 - Mas FS, Jacobson HE, Olivárez A. Adult education and the health literacy of Hispanic immigrants in the United States. Journal of Latinos and Education. 2017:16(4);314-322.

14 MDRC-Martin 2013 - Martin V, Broadus J. Enhancing GED instruction to prepare students for college and careers: Early success in LaGuardia Community College's Bridge to Health and Business program. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2013.

15 MDRC-Rutschow 2014 - Rutschow EZ, Crary-Ross S. Beyond the GED: Promising models for moving high school dropouts to college. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC); 2014.

16 Learning Path - LearningPath.org. GED info by state.

17 NCES-Adult education 2018 - US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Digest of Education Statistics. Participants in state-administered adult basic education, adult secondary education, and English as a second language programs, by type of program and state or jurisdiction: Selected fiscal years, 2000 through 2018.

18 NWTC-Career Pathways Bridge Program - Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC). Career Pathways Bridge Program.

19 Gagnon 2017 - Gagnon NL, Komor AJ. Addressing an overlooked science outreach audience: Development of a science mentorship program focusing on critical thinking skills for adults working toward a high school equivalency degree. Journal of Chemical Education. 2017:94;1435-1442.

20 UMN-SciMentors - University of Minnesota. SciMentors: Science mentorship program.

21 US ED-Migrant Education-HEP 2018 - US Department of Education (US ED). Migrant education—High school equivalency program (HEP). 2018.

22 YouthBuild - YouthBuild USA. About YouthBuild.

23 MDRC-Project Rise - Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). Project Rise.

24 O’Donnell 2019 - O’Donnell V, Arriagada P. Upgrading and high school equivalency among the Indigenous population living off reserve. Ottawa: Statistics Canada; 2019.

25 Davidson 2017* - Davidson JC. National shifts in adult basic education: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, ability to benefit, and high school equivalency tests. New Directions for Community Colleges. 2017;180:27-35.

26 General Education Development - Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com. General Education Development Test.

27 NCES-High school equivalency tests 2015 - US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Digest of Education Statistics. Number and percentage of people taking, completing, and passing high school equivalency tests, by test taken and state or jurisdiction: 2013 and 2015.

28 DRC-TASC - Data Recognition Corporation (DRC). Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC).

29 CLASP-Bird 2014 - Bird K, Foster M, Ganzglass E. New opportunities to improve economic and career success for low-income youth and adults: Key provisions of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP); 2014.

Date Last Updated