The Value of a High School Diploma

Policy, Workforce

Commentary by Lavanya Madhusudan

Not every student has the opportunity to complete high school. Yet most job opportunities that pay a living wage or start individuals on a career path require a high school diploma. Sooner or later, individuals who were unable to obtain a high school diploma find themselves in need of this important credential. It is a first step towards economic mobility, financial security and professional success.

The story below highlights the incredible impact that obtaining this essential credential can have on one individual. This story is shared with permission from Chandra Villanueva, a fellow member of the Working Poor Families Project, which is a national initiative focused on state workforce development policies.

My GED Story – and why mentors and systems matter

By Chandra Kring Villanueva

Last month I was honored to deliver a commencement address at the Hays County GED Graduation Ceremony, held by the Hays County Literacy Action and Community Action of Central Texas. This is a modified version of what I told those Texans earning their GED.

My formal education ended with a Master’s degree from NYU, but it started by passing the GED.

Currently, 22 percent of all children in the U.S. live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. That is the equivalent of about $24,000 per year for a family of four. I was one of those children.

My mother waited tables and struggled to support five children. She was constantly preoccupied with paying the bills and making ends meet, so there was never an emphasis on education or encouragement to strive for college. No one in my family went to college; most failed to complete high school. My aspirations for higher education were met with snaps of, “No one else went to college; why do you think you’re so special?” Dreaming is not encouraged when survival is the focus.

I was surrounded by others just like me while growing up in low-income housing developments. No one was successful or middle class because as soon as your income increased you had to leave the neighborhood. I always knew college was the door to opportunity, yet I couldn’t see a clear path to get there. There were no role models. No one believed in me.

This changed when I met the woman who would eventually become my mother-in-law. She was a professor at the local university and the first person I had ever met with a college degree outside of my school teachers. Her Ph.D. was in anthropology. As a 14-year-old, I had never even heard that word before. Suddenly, my world became much larger.

She had high expectations for her son, and if I wanted to hang out with him, those expectations extended to me. Quickly, she became my mentor and a source of knowledge, guidance, and support—the first adult to see I had potential beyond my circumstances.

Even with my mentor’s support, I was not on track to graduate high school. However, I was fortunate enough to live in areas with strong systems in place to move me through the educational pipeline. The GED prep program I enrolled in was offered at the community college, free of charge. Illinois, my home state, subsidizes GED testing so I didn’t have to worry about how to pay for the test.

Texas adults seeking to take the GED pay for each test in addition to administrative fees charged by the state and the testing center. The Adult Education coordinators running the GED program helped me navigate the enrollment process so I could immediately begin taking courses at the community college as soon as I finished the GED.

I moved to Washington State with the goal of finishing my four-year degree. There I was able to take a year off and work in order to qualify for in-state tuition, which kept college affordable. By completing my Associates degree at a community college I was able to take advantage of the statewide transfer and articulation agreement in place that allowed all my credits to transfer when I was accepted to a state university.

Texas college students often lose credits when they transfer institutions, which increases both the cost and the time needed to complete a degree. Through it all, I had my mentor encouraging me every step of the way, editing and reviewing applications for schools, scholarships, jobs, and other opportunities.

The greatest takeaway from my story is that I did not get here by myself. I had a mentor who believed in me and strong systems that created a pathway, even though I chose a non-traditional route.

GED graduates here in Texas should be especially proud of themselves because this state lacks the strong educational pathways that I benefited from. Their struggles have been much greater: For example, Texas adults seeking to take the GED pay for each test in addition to administrative fees charged by the state and the testing center. And Texas college students often lose credits when they transfer from two-year to four-year universities, which increases both the cost and the time needed to complete a degree.

For Texas to remain a prosperous state, we must address the fact that we lead the nation when it comes to adults without a high school diploma or equivalency. The State Board of Education and the Legislature will be making important decisions in the coming year about the future of educational and career pathways in our state. This is an opportunity to share with state leaders the barriers to higher education we’ve seen in our communities and advocate for the systems and investments that will benefit us all. We all have a role in strengthening the education pipeline for those who come after us.

Commentary by Lavanya Madhusudan, JOTF Policy Research Analyst

In Maryland, there are currently two options for adults to complete a high school level of education: preparing for and passing the GED® tests, or completing the National External Diploma Program (NEDP®). Both of these programs offer a Maryland High School Diploma, jointly awarded by the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Maryland State Department of Education. Even with these options, the U.S. Census estimates that 500,000 Maryland adults do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Recent changes to the GED test have compounded the problem. In January 2014, the cost of taking the full battery of GED tests increased to $120, which is prohibitively expensive for many low-income test-takers. To address this, Maryland provides an essential subsidy that reduces the cost of the test to $45. However, along with the fee increase, the GED test was revised to be fully computerized (paper option no longer available) and the questions have increased in difficulty, resulting in lower pass rates and fewer individuals taking the test nationally. In Maryland, the total number of diplomas earned via GED declined to 1,986 in FY 2015, compared with annual diploma numbers of 4,677 for 2011; 5,023 for 2012; 5,056 for 2013; and 4,033 for 2014.

There is also increasing concern that the revised GED test is fully-based on the Common Core Curriculum. This can be a hurdle for many would-be GED test takers. Some may be many years out of high school, before the Common Core was mandated, while others may have attended a high school more recently that is still transitioning to the Common Core. Thus, many states – including Maryland – are seeking alternatives to the GED test as a path to attaining a high school diploma.

Currently in Maryland, there is only one alternative to taking the GED test: the National External Diploma Program (NEDP). NEDP is an online program designed for self-directed individuals with life and work experiences and familiarity with a computer. Participants meet periodically with an assessor to develop a portfolio to prove that they have acquired the skills required to be awarded a Maryland high school diploma; it is not a classroom attendance program. NEDP is meant to allow flexible scheduling for adults who may have challenging schedules, may have attended high school many years prior and have lost touch with taking exams. It also allows life experiences to count towards the high school credential. But the NEDP’s effectiveness is limited. In FY 2015, only 203 individuals received a high school diploma for successful completion of the NEDP.
Clearly, the GED and NEDP are not fully meeting the needs of the half million Marylanders looking to obtain a Maryland high school diploma. It is time for another alterative.

An option that is currently under consideration in Maryland is the adult high school model. During the 2016 Maryland General Assembly session, a bill was introduced to bring this option to Maryland. The bill as passed established a task force to study the adult high school model in order to identify successful practices and develop standards for implementation and oversight of a model in Maryland. Key stakeholders have been appointed to the task force, including State legislators, agency staff, and various adult learning and workforce development entities, including nonprofit organizations such as the Job Opportunities Task Force. The “Task Force to Study the Adult High School Concept” will be issuing an interim report by the end of 2016, and a final report including criteria for establishing adult high schools in Maryland by June 30th, 2017.

JOTF is honored to be a member of the task force, which will play an important role in ensuring that affordable, accessible and practical options exist for adults seeking to obtain a high school diploma in Maryland.

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