GED or High School Diploma: Which is Right for You

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Adults, homeschoolers and anyone who needs a diploma to find a good job or enroll in college often wonder whether they should earn a traditional high school diploma or take the GED high school equivalency exam. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but there are some things to consider before you decide on a GED or a high school diploma.
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The New GED

In the past, a General Education Development or GED high school equivalency diploma was often called a good enough diploma. A GED was good enough to get a job and enroll in a local community college, but there was a general sense that a GED was a lesser credential that did not necessarily reflect graduate-level skills. That perception has been quickly changing since January, 2014, when a new GED exam was introduced. Today, the GED is a much tougher test that requires more study and effort to pass. Although educators are still analyzing the statistics, the number of people who passed the GED exam in 2014 has dropped significantly from 2013.

To be eligible to take the GED, you need to meet state requirements which generally include being at least 18 and not enrolled in high school. The test is usually available to 16 and 17 year old candidates who have age waivers and other types of documentation such as signed consent forms from parents or guardians. Some states also require you to pass a GED practice test before you take the actual test.

Passing the GED

To pass the GED, you need to score at least 150 on each of the four test sections which cover language arts, math, social studies and science. The new test is taken on computer and questions, which previously were mostly multiple-choice, now include fill-in-the-bank, hot-spot, drag-and-drop and other technology-enhanced formats. While the old GED required one original essay, the new test has added a short essay question in social studies and two extended-response questions in science. The updated math test now emphasizes algebra and assesses you logical thinking skills.

Depending on your background and level of formal education, you may be able to pass the GED with relatively little studying (though the average student needs to spend a considerable amount of time studying.) Passing the GED may also depend on how you score on standardized tests, particularly computerized tests. Even if you are likely to pass the GED without much trouble, you may want to consider the following factors before deciding on this route to a high school diploma:

GED Pros

  • The GED is a nationally recognized credential
  • Depending on your commitment, even if you need extensive study and review, you can still earn a GED is far less time than the four years it takes to graduate from high school
  • The majority of employers hiring for entry-level positions consider GEDs comparable to actual diplomas.
  • Community colleges and technical schools accept almost all applicants with a GED

GED Cons

  • Although the GED Testing Service claims 95 percent of all colleges and universities accept applicants with a GED, there may still be some hurdles depending on where you apply. College admissions officers consider more than just diplomas. They also look at transcripts to see what courses you've taken, and a GED won't help with that.
  • Colleges also consider class rank. Although the GED Testing Service has created a ranking system based on test scores, it's not clear if admissions officers are accepting the alternative ranks.
  • A GED doesn't allow you to build the academic skills that you acquire earning a traditional diploma

High School Diploma

A diploma from an accredited high school or secondary school program shows that you've completed the academic work required to earn a set number of credits. It also demonstrates the scope and progression of your academic knowledge and experience.

Today, there are many new options and routes to a traditional diploma. An increasing number of colleges and universities including Stanford, Brigham Young and the University of Texas offer online high school programs. More public school systems and charter schools are also launching virtual high school programs. Many of these programs accept high school students, homeschoolers and adult learners from all over the country, and in some cases, all over the world. These programs offer rigorous academics with more flexibility and freedom than brick-and-mortar high schools.

While the new 2014 GED test may level the landscape, in the past high school graduates earned significantly more money at their jobs and enrolled in college at much high rates than those who held a GED. Still, there are pros and cons with high school diplomas.

High School Diploma Pros

  • A diploma shows your academic accomplishments and allows you to effectively compete with other candidates for jobs and college admissions.
  • A diploma may also allow you to access college scholarships and financial aid that are not available to those with a GED.
  • A diploma typically requires you to develop study skills and abilities that will help you in a career or in college.

High School Diploma Cons

  • State and federal departments of education are continually ramping up requirements, adding new tests that must be passed.
  • Diploma requirements usually include courses and subjects that are irrelevant to your plans and goals.
  • High school diplomas are built on a progression of subjects and often you must have a full year of study in one area to advance. Even online programs which allow students to work at their own pace require a significant time commitment.
  • While a high school diploma is an important credential, it doesn't guarantee future success. That is entirely up to you.

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