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Focus On Policy

Is it Time for the Adult Education System to Change Its Goal from High School Equivalency to College Readiness?

According to a comprehensive research review by Portland State University's Steve Reder, the adult education system should change its goal to successful transition to postsecondary education. Reder concludes that a high school diploma or GED is no longer sufficient for success in the workforce. The following is a summary of the main points and policy implications from that review.

While a high school diploma or equivalent did at one time provide reasonable access to well-paying jobs and other opportunities, changes in technology, labor markets, and global competition have increased demand for the skills and knowledge traditionally learned in postsecondary education and training. Reder's paper finds that the earnings gap between the education "haves" and "have-nots" is widening, reflecting the increasing economic returns of higher education.

Reder found significant overlap between students in adult literacy programs and those in remedial education classes at postsecondary institutions. Using data from the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS, see About the Research, below), which places adults into one of five levels of literacy skill, Reder conducted an analysis of postsecondary student literacy proficiencies. He found that 15 to 17 percent of postsecondary students have proficiencies below NALS Level 3. The average NALS score for GED graduates is at the transition point between NALS Levels 2 and 3. In other words, 2.9 million postsecondary students have literacy skills below that of the average GED graduate.1 Of this group, 30 percent are enrolled in two-year degree programs, 53 percent in four-year degree programs, and 17 percent in advanced degree programs. 


About the Research

Adult Literacy and Postsecondary Education Students: Overlapping Populations and Learning Trajectories, by Stephen Reder, NCSALL, 1999

In this article, Reder used data from the National Adult Literacy Survey of 19921, the Beginning Postsecondary Student Survey (BPS), and other national studies to review the proficiencies, needs, and completion rates of GED recipients who enter postsecondary education. NALS randomly selected and tested 26,000 Americans who were 16 years of age and older. Each participant was tested for reading and math skills using materials that simulated the literacy demands of everyday life and interviewed about demographic, employment, education and other characteristics. Available on the NCSALL web site.

1 Kirsch, I.S., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L., & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult Literacy  in America: A first look at the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

The literacy skill level, as measured by NALS, of high school graduates and GED graduates is comparable, but their postsecondary completion rates are not. Sixty-three percent of all beginning postsecondary students either attain a degree or are still enrolled and pursuing one five years after entry. Of those, the overall rate is much higher for students entering with high school diplomas (65 percent) than with a GED (40 percent). 

The grades of GED recipients who do enter postsecondary education are roughly comparable to those of students entering with high school diplomas. While GED recipients' grades are initially lower during the first year of postsecondary education, over time they rise to levels statistically comparable to high school graduates. Reasons that GED holders have dramatically lower rates of persistence and completion in postsecondary programs may be a result of their being older, less likely to be full-time students, and more likely to be full-time workers and single parents. 

Reder makes four policy recommendations for ways that the adult education and the postsecondary education systems could increase the number of GED holders who both enter and are successful in further education and training:

Teaching Materials: Helping Students 
Consider the Implications of Education... 
Beyond the GED

Receiving a GED credential is a valued step in an adult's life for many intangible reasons. At the same time, GED students deserve an opportunity to understand just what the GED may or may not do for them in tangible, economic terms. NCSALL was eager to see research findings on the economic impact of the GED made accessible to adult students and their teachers. Beyond the GED: Making Conscious Choices about the GED and Your Future is a set of materials designed to be used in GED classrooms. The materials provide GED students with practice in graph and chart reading, math, analysis of data, and writing, while they examine the labor market, the role of higher education, and the economic impact of the GED. After using these materials, GED students are better prepared to make decisions about their work lives as well as being better prepared to pass the GED. Adult education teachers can use these materials as the basis for professional development for themselves, so that they are better equipped to advise their students on career and educational decisions. Beyond the GED: Making Conscious Choices about the GED and Your Future is available online.


  1. Fifteen percent of this group have limited English proficiency.

  2. Mean earnings for adults age eighteen and over with education, taken from U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Educational Attainment in the United States, March 1998 (Update), Table 9, p. 51.

  3. Also called "developmental education".

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