Does the GED give students a second chance?

August 24, 2012

Download Story
Flowers got her GED when she was 17 and later entered the national program Year Up.

Life with a GED
On a drizzly morning, Jorge Gonzalez is standing in line outside a Public Aid office in Chicago. Growing up his family was poor, so he left high school and got a job to help make ends meet. But as time passed, it got harder and harder to make a living wage without a diploma.

Teachers and job counselors told him that the GED would set him on the path for a good career.  “I thought it would open doors,” says Gonzalez. So in 1988 he took the test and passed.

His plan was to become electrician. It seemed like a humble, attainable goal, but still one that would at least help him to support his mother. But in the nearly twenty-five years since getting his GED, Gonzalez hasn’t been able to go college or get a stable job.  Right now, his days mostly consist of putting in applications and then waiting for calls that never come.

“I have to work to get a career and get my life together, but everything is going sideways,” said Gonzalez.

People call GED the biggest high school in the country. Twelve-percent of high school credentials in 2008 were GED’s. GED testing service is creating a new version set to be released in 2014. At this critical juncture, researchers and educators are looking back and asking how well the GED works and if the changes will improve it.

Among the researchers most involved in GED research is James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and his assistant Tim Kautz. They are currently working on a book called, “The GED and the Role of Character in American Life.”

Sitting in his office building at the University of Chicago, Tim Kautz shows me these incredibly detailed graphs of people’s lives. “It’s a little bit complicated,” says Kautz as her scrolls to one graph, “The first one shows their annual earnings, then if they are currently employed, married, divorced, have children of various ages, [and] if they are in jail.”

The information is graphed along a timeline of their life from age 16 to 40. It’s a little overwhelming to see hundreds of lives, graphed in such specific detail. He points to his screen. “This dash black line here shows this person got his GED at age 25,” he says on a graph showing income, “And you can see there is no dramatic jump.”

He shows me life graph, after life graph that tell the same story. GED recipients look almost identical to high school drop outs. “Even things like health, welfare receipt, marriage, later life depression, obesity, substance abuse, GED recipients seem to be far behind highs cool graduates and in most cases are very similar to high school drop outs,” says Kautz.

Worse than we think: Could the GED be doing harm?

Kautz believes the GED is not only failing to help, it is actually doing harm.  

The high school dropout rate actually increases in areas where the GED is most available.  “We found, for example, that when California introduced the GED, graduation rates dropped by three percentage points,” says Kautz.

The problem has gotten worse as the required age for taking the GED as dropped as low as 16 in some states.

Historically the GED is counted as equivalent to HS diplomas on the census. That’s hidden a growing problem with actual graduation rates. If you don’t count GED recipients as high school graduates, the graduation rate among African-Americans hasn’t increased since the sixties.  “If it deludes people into thinking we’ve fixed social problems that we haven’t, that’s also a big cost. Because papering over a problem is not going to make it go away,” says Kautz. 

But GED testing service says it’s correct to count the GED as equivalent to high school. “Who determines if it’s actually equivalent is the consumers, which are colleges and employers,” said CT Turner, Director, Public Affairs & Government Relations for GED Testing Service. He says 98% of colleges accept the GED. 

“I’ve been all over the country. And I was somewhere talking with local employers. And two of them told me they would prefer to hire a GED graduate over someone who is directly out of High school. And he looked at me and said, ‘they can count change.’”

A new test aspires to help GED grads go into higher ed
Turner may think that that the GED is an appropriate equivalent for a HS degree. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think there is room for improvement.

He says not enough people with GED’s go on to get post-secondary education. Currently, only about one percent of a GED recipients will earn a Bachelors degree.

That’s why in 2014 they are introducing a new test. If a student scores high enough on that test, which includes more critical thinking and essay writing, the student will get a college ready credential.  The harder test, with more detailed scoring, will force students to clear a higher bar and actually be prepared for school.

But the problem for GED grads, at least according to Kautz, isn’t about being smarter. What GED grads lack are soft skills. Like conscientiousness or time management. That’s something a test can’t fix.

Beyond the GED: Skills over certificates

Cherise Flowers got her GED when she was 17. Because of personal problems at home and school she moved into an alternative school. But the work at the alternative school felt like it was made for an elementary student. The school gave her the offer of taking the GED test instead of going to school and without any preparation, she passed.

But when she started applying for jobs, she noticed how employers were scanning her application. They’d always stop right at the line where it said she had gotten a GED. “The assumption is that we’re lazy. That we can’t complete anything.”

Flowers doesn’t blame GED services. The GED was just paper. A paper she needed for certain jobs, or training programs. But nothing more.

She says when you come from a bad neighborhood, or didn’t go through high school, you have to be twice as determined “It seems like they are expect you to fail. Like they are expecting you to come late. You really have to prove your character to people.”

Eventually she got in a program called Year Up. They teach the students technical skills, like working with computers. But they also teach them budgeting, navigating the bureaucracy of college admissions, or dressing for work. And because Flowers had a difficult and stressful life, with a lot of hurt and anger, she said some of the most important skills they taught her were more like life skills. She clearly remembers lessons about anger management and forgiveness.

As part of the Year Up program she got an internship at an e-mail marketing company called Responsys.  She still works there now and is making a solid wage. She’s thinking hard about what she wants to do next in terms of work and education.

While were talking I tell Flowers how only about 1 percent of people with GED’s go on to get a Bachelors. She’s silent for almost a whole minute before she talks. “Wow, 1 out of 100 people means 2 out of 200 people means 3 out of 300. Wow, that’s really I am having all kinds of thoughts in my head. We have to do something about that.”

And that’s the one thing everyone agrees on, from the test service, to the researchers, to the GED Graduates. We have to do something. “We are not lost causes at all,” said Flowers. “We want to work. We just need pathways.”

Correction: This story originally incorrectly reported what award James Heckman won. He won a Nobel.