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Why Go Beyond the GED?

A Conversation with FOB...

Why Go Beyond the GED

Why dedicate an entire issue of Focus on Basics to transitioning to postsecondary education? Isn't the GED good enough? The psychic benefits are well documented: GED holders feel a sense of satisfaction and completion. What about the economic benefits? Does the GED provide the economic security a high school diploma once did? NCSALL researcher John Tyler studies the labor market benefits that accrue to those high school drop outs who pass the tests of General Educational Development. His research reveals that certain groups of GED holders benefit economically in comparison to similar drop outs who do not complete the GED. Even with these economic benefits, however, GED holders who fail to continue on to postsecondary education are left with very low earnings. Focus on Basics spoke with Dr. Tyler to learn more about what his research can teach us about the need for successful transitions to higher education.

FOB: Your research shows that while the GED helps many GED holders to raise their economic earning power, it doesn't raise it enough to bring people out of poverty. What level of education do people need for that?

JOHN: I think you'd find that the average high school graduate without college earns above the poverty level, but you can't make an across-the-board statement since the poverty level is a function of family size. In 2002, for example, the poverty threshold for a two-parent, four-child family was $24,000. 

Through the late 1980s and 1990s, the world got much worse for anyone with less than some years of college. Even those with a high school diploma became much worse off over this period relative to those with at least some college. Simply put, the economic returns to higher education (relative to having just a high school diploma) grew dramatically, although the growth of the economic gap between those with and without some college education has slowed in recent years.

FOB: Your research shows that economic benefits associated with the GED seem to accrue only to low-skilled high school drop outs. What about higher-skilled dropouts? How do they perform economically without the GED, and with the GED?

JOHN: Higher-skilled drop outs, with or without a GED, tend to do better on average than low-skilled drop outs with a GED. Skills really matter.

Education and Training Pays graph

FOB: As you know, few GED holders go on to postsecondary education. Any indication of why that is?

There's no research on that. Another interesting point is that we don't know how well the GED enables them [GED holders] to get into degree-granting programs. Oftentimes you need the GED to get into degree-granting postsecondary education programs. However, we don't really know how effective studying for the GED is in preparing one to do college-level work.

FOB: What advice would you give to GED preparation program staff - program designers and teachers - based on the results of your research?

JOHN: The advice is going to sound self-evident, but based on my research, there are two messages. First, concentrate resources on those with the least skills, because they'll get the most out of obtaining the credential. Second, do whatever you can to help make the GED a bridge to postsecondary education [rather than an endpoint], because postsecondary education is where the real economic payoffs are. 

Also, research shows, not surprisingly, that the two tests that tend to be the biggest hurdles are the writing test and the math test: the writing for males, the math for females. Those trends have been known for some time among the general student population, and work we have done has shown them to be true in the GED population as well. So put an emphasis on these areas.


To help make the GED a bridge to postsecondary education, students must be convinced that continuing beyond the GED is worthwhile. For teaching materials that tell that story as they help students prepare for the GED, download Beyond the GED: Making Conscious Choices about the GED and Your Future. These 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.

For more information on the economic benefits (and limitations therein) of the GED, download Focus on Policy Volume 1, Issue 1. John Tyler's research reports, as well as summaries of the research, are available here, under NCSALL Reports and NCSALL Research Briefs. And, for articles covering similar information in other issues of Focus on Basics, click here.

Education and Training Pays

Education and Training Pays graph

Unemployment and earnings for workers 25 and older, by educational attainment
Sources: Unemployment rate, Bureau of Statistics; earnings, Bureau of Census