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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue C ::: November 2006

Is the GED an Effective Route to Postsecondary Education?

A Conversation with John Tyler

by Barbara Garner
Recognizing that high school is not enough, growing numbers of adult basic education programs (ABE) are emphasizing the transition to postsecondary education. What impact does earning a certificate of General Educational Development (GED) have on the post secondary enrollment of high school dropouts? Brown University professor and NCSALL researcher John Tyler and a colleague, Magnus Lofstrom of the University of Texas at Dallas, examined this question using data from Texas. Focus on Basics asked John Tyler to summarize the results and discuss the questions they raise.

"These days," Tyler explains, "a postsecondary degree is necessary for economic success. Most academic programs in postsecondary institutions require some kind of school leaving credential, for example a high school diploma or a GED, for acceptance into the program.

"With about three quarters of a million people a year trying to obtain the GED, a logical question is: To what extent is the GED an effective route to postsecondary education programs relative to what would have happened to dropouts had they stayed in school?"

One challenge in studying the issue is finding an appropriate comparison group to use. The idea is to set up a situation that lets you compare GED holders with people who are similar to the GED holders in all ways but the GED. That makes the GED the difference. We can't randomly assign individuals to drop out and obtain a GED or stay in school and graduate. Instead, statistical methods are used to control for factors that may differ systematically between GED holders and regular high school graduates, such as race, gender, socio economic status, and academic ability leaving the GED vs. the high school diploma as the major difference between the groups.

Uncredentialed dropouts — those with neither a high school diploma nor a GED — face barriers to getting into postsecondary school. "If we were to compare the postsecondary experiences of GED holders to those of uncredentialed dropouts," explains Tyler, "we might be measuring the effectiveness of the gatekeeping mechanism at postsecondary institutions. So we need to compare GED holders with others who hold some kind of school leaving certification, and thus have an equal chance of admission to a postsecondary academic program."

Tyler and Lofstrom used data from the cohort of Texas students who should have graduated from high school in 1998 and who scored similarly on the math portion of the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) they took as eighth graders in the 1993-94 academic years. With these data they created three comparison groups. One group was GED holders. A second group was students who were held back one or more years while they were in high school and eventually graduated, but graduated a year or two after the cohort with which they originally started first grade. The other comparison group was those who were labeled as "at risk" (as defined by the Texas Education Agency) in the eighth grade, but who graduated on time, and also scored similarly to the GED holders on the math portion of the TAAS in eighth grade.

Texas School Panel Data

Tyler describes the findings on these 1990s students as confirming what he and researchers Dick Mundane and John Willett (2000) had found using a national data set of students: low postsecondary enrollment rates for GED holders who left high school in the 1980s. In the current study, describes Tyler, "we followed the 1998 [Texas] cohort to 2001. For all high school graduates — on time or late graduates — 59 percent enrolled in postsecondary education within three years. Of those at risk who graduated on time, 38 percent enrolled in postsecondary within three years (see the table above). Only eight percent of late high school graduates enrolled in postsecondary education within three years. Only 20 percent of GED holders enrolled in a postsecondary institution in Texas within three years of getting the GED. That's not good for GED holders."

The study revealed that GED holders are only showing 7.3 accumulated enrolled credits within three year (that's enrolling, not necessarily finishing). In contrast, the at risk high school graduates are enrolling for 15.6 credits; all high school grads are enrolling for 32.8. GED holders are really looking different from the groups who completed high school on time. This is important to know because other research (Kane & Rouse, 1995) has shown that even a year of post secondary credits seems to have an impact on earnings.

Tyler also points out that when they examined the data four years after graduation, fewer than one per cent of GED holders had achieved an Associate's degree; about four percent of regular high school completers had earned an Associate's; and about two percent of the at risk students had earned the two-year degree.

"It reinforces," he says, "what we've found in earlier data. The contribution of this work is that we are able to start with a cohort of eighth graders, match them on observable characteristics such as gender, race, family economics, AND on eighth grade test scores. Perhaps this result is not too surprising. My understanding is that as of 2001 (when we looked at postsecondary out comes), it had only been a few years since a big emphasis on moving from GED into post secondary has been made in the field."

Assuming that this snap shot is accurate, and that high school completers enroll in and receive postsecondary credits and degrees at markedly higher rates than GED holders, research on why this happens is needed. If the school environment results in the higher postsecondary enrollment, perhaps more effort needs to be made to re-enroll dropouts in high school. Or, with proper programming, could this effect be duplicated in a GED program? Both may be valid approaches, suitable for different students. The important point is that the GED is not enough.

Kane, T. & Rouse, C. (1995). "Labor market returns to two-year and four-year college." American Economic Review, 85(3), 600-14.
Murnane, R., Willett, J., & Tyler, J. (2000). "Who Benefits from a GED? Evidence from High School and Beyond." The Review of Economics and Statistics, 82(1), 23-37.

For More Information
For all NCSALL work on the GED, including John Tyler's research and the teaching material "Beyond the GED: Making Conscious Choices about the GED and Your Future", go to http://www.ncsall.net/index.php?id=61.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL