In recent years, U.S. colleges have made their admission policies more inclusive. Some schools admit learners who do not have high school diplomas or GED certificates.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the financial value of higher education. On average, workers with bachelor's degrees earn more than twice as much as those who did not graduate high school. Going to college without a high school diploma or GED certificate is challenging. However, these learners have more higher education opportunities than ever before.
Options If You Don't Have a High School Credential
People without high school credentials still have a path to college. Different states offer different avenues. Students without diplomas or GED certificates can:
- Attend a college with no GED or high school diploma requirements. Some accredited degree-granting colleges accept students who left high school before earning diplomas or GED certificates.
- Enroll with high school equivalency. Some schools use specific policies for learners returning to education. These schools usually define "nontraditional learners" as individuals who have some high school education but no formal diploma.
- Take individual classes. Many schools permit learners to enroll in individual classes without entering degree or diploma programs. This option allows learners to earn college credits, strengthening their education and expanding access to future study opportunities.
- Attend a vocational school. Vocational and trade schools accept more learners without high school credentials.
- Attend adult high school. Adults can return to school to complete missing graduation requirements. This can help them qualify for college admissions.
- Take the GED exam. Many schools consider high school diplomas and GED certificates as equal when assessing applications.
Colleges That Don't Require a GED Certificate or Diploma
Most two- and four-year degree-granting institutions require a high school diploma or GED certificate. Some offer admission paths to applicants without these credentials. Some community colleges feature similar policies. In these cases, special admission requirements often apply.
Schools that admit learners without diplomas or GED certificates often use placement tests. These tests allow school officials to place students in the right programs. The programs bridge knowledge and skills gaps and prepare learners for their chosen programs. In most cases, a community college diploma or associate degree qualifies graduates for admission to bachelor's programs.
Some U.S. colleges do not require a high school diploma or GED certificate from students over the age of 24 who register under nontraditional status. These schools consider other academic markers, such as high school coursework, teacher recommendations, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, and work experience.
How Do You Find Colleges Without a High School Diploma or GED Certificate Requirement?
To begin, education counselors generally recommend identifying a trade, program, or academic area of interest. From there, candidates can seek institutions that offer those study opportunities. Start by searching locally and expand outward while also considering online programs.
After finding a suitable program, review the admission standards. If possible, search official documents for mention of the term "nontraditional." Schools often use this term for students who do not fit the typical profile.
If a school does not state that a candidate must have a high school diploma or GED certificate, check for their other requirements. For instance, an applicant may need to pass an aptitude or proficiency test to gain full admission. Admission officials can answer questions about the process. High school guidance counselors may also help.
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Vocational Schools and Adult Education
Vocational schools, sometimes called trade schools, provide training to students preparing for particular careers. These schools usually focus on practical programs in specialized or technical fields. Programs place less emphasis on academic material and focus more on job-oriented, skills-based knowledge. Popular vocational school programs cover:
Vocational schools are less likely than degree-granting colleges to require high school diplomas or GED certificates. Candidates may need to pass placement or aptitude tests. They may have to possess work experience in their field of study, as well, or meet certain physical or performance standards.
Students who plan to work in practical and technical fields may benefit from vocational programs. Learners returning to education can pursue other options as well. These may include auditing courses, non-degree college programs, and free online courses.
Auditing a college course means taking a course for no credit and no grade. Students often audit difficult courses before taking them for credit to gain knowledge. With instructor or school approval, non-degree students can also audit courses. This is a potential option for adult learners without diplomas or GED certificates.
Free online courses and massive open online courses (MOOCs) provide similar opportunities. They do not grant college credit or count toward degrees or diplomas. Still, free online courses and MOOCs offer valuable introductions to higher education.
Getting Your High School Diploma as an Adult
Students can attend college without high school diplomas or GED certificates. Still, many individuals find it easier to complete their missing credentials. A diploma or GED certificate opens access to more schools, programs, and study opportunities.
Dedicated adult education providers specialize in high school completion programs in classroom-based, online, and hybrid formats. Administrators at public schools and community colleges can link interested individuals to local opportunities.
High school completion programs cover the same material as high school courses with classroom dynamics. Learners should expect mature, focused settings, similar to community college. Consider colleges that support dual-credit programs. These pathways combine high school completion classes with coursework eligible for college credit.
These credentials carry as much authority and validity as high school diplomas. Colleges welcome applications from candidates who completed high school as adults. Most give little if any consideration to when or how applicants earned their diplomas.
Getting Your GED Certificate
As an alternative to completing a traditional high school diploma, aspiring college students can also pursue a GED certificate. This requires passing a standardized examination consisting of four separate tests.
Officials grade each of the four tests on a 100-200 point scale, with 145 as a passing grade. Test-takers need a score of at least 580 out of 800 to earn a GED certificate.
The following sections explore details about the GED examination, how to prepare for the test, and how and where to take the exam.
What Does the GED Test Look Like?
The current version of the GED comprises four sections:
- Math: This section emphasizes quantitative and algebraic problems.
- Science: Students complete questions about the life sciences, physical science, and earth/space science.
- Social Studies: This section emphasizes U.S. history, economics, civics, government, and geography.
- Reasoning Through Language Arts: Test-takers are evaluated on reading comprehension, written communication, and editing.
Each section takes 70-150 minutes, with the entire exam comprising approximately seven hours. Test-takers commonly complete the exam in one sitting, but they can also visit the testing center multiple times to sit for individual sections.
Test-takers can expect several types of questions in each section of the exam. Examples include:
- Drag and drop
- Extended response
- Fill in the blank
- Hot spots (selecting an area)
- Multiple choice
- Short answer
How and Where to Take the Test
Candidates must follow a specific set of steps to register and sit for the GED exam. The process differs among states, but it covers the following set of common elements:
Individual states have varied requirements for earning a GED certificate without a standard body overseeing the exam. Some states allow individuals to take the exam at 16 years old. Others may require test-takers to be 18 before registering. The official GED website contains detailed, state-specific information about costs, testing rules, and eligibility guidelines. Consult this page to find the most up-to-date and accurate local information.
Prospective test-takers can visit the GED website to register for the exam. The cost for each section varies by state. Most states charge $30 or less per subject. Individuals who live in Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Tennessee, or West Virginia must travel to neighboring states to take the exam. Test-takers must decide to take the exam in one sitting or schedule multiple sessions to complete each section.
An individual can request accommodations such as separate testing rooms, extra time, or additional breaks if they have a documented disability. Test-takers can apply for accommodations during the registration process or by making a request through their user profile.
Pack a bag with identification, an approved TI-30XS MultiView Scientific Calculator, registration confirmation, and a light jacket. Students can bring water, snacks, and a cell phone. These items must be stored in a locker during the exam and accessed only during scheduled breaks.
Candidates can now take the GED online instead of traveling to a physical testing center. Individuals must schedule online tests within 60 days of passing a GED practice exam. The online test functions the same as the in-person GED exam, with an online proctor monitoring via webcam. Each online test-taker needs a computer with a webcam and a reliable high-speed internet connection.
Alternatives to the GED Exam
Learners seeking alternatives to the GED exam have two main options: the High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC). Some states do not offer the GED exam. Others have elected to phase it out in favor of another examination. For instance, New York State decided in 2014 to replace the GED exam with TASC.
HiSET covers math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. The math, science, social studies, and reading sections comprise 50-60 questions. The writing section requires each test-taker to author an essay. As of 2021, 23 states and five overseas U.S. territories have adopted the test.
The TASC test is very similar to HiSET, differing only in its implementation of Common Core standards. Indiana, New Jersey, New York, and West Virginia offer the exam as of 2021.
Earning Your GED Certificate
The GED exam comprises four sections, each scored out of a possible 200 points. The lowest composite score considered a passing grade is 580. This requires students to earn at least a 145 on each section to pass and receive their GED certificate. A higher score on one section cannot be applied to a lower score on another.
Scores are broken into four levels:
|Levels||Scoring Range||Score Result|
|Below Passing||145 or less||Test-taker did not earn enough points to pass the GED exam|
|Passing/High School Equivalency||145-164||Test-taker earned enough points to receive their GED certificate and demonstrated high school-level skills|
|GED College Ready||165-174||Test-taker demonstrated their preparedness for college|
|GED College Ready + Credit||175-200||Test-taker demonstrated above-average mastery of subjects and may be eligible to earn additional credits (similar to AP), depending on the college|
Those who do not earn a passing score their first time can retake the exam at a discounted rate. GED Testing Service waives its $20 testing fee for each subject, allowing students to retake the exam twice at a lower cost. If they passed three subject tests and failed only one, a test-taker is only required to re-sit that subject rather than the entire exam.
Candidates can retake each subject up to three times per year. This gives time for test-takers to brush up on specific areas.
GED Tips and Recommendations
Preparing for the GED exam, like any exam, can feel overwhelming. Test-takers can alleviate these fears with a solid study plan and an insider's knowledge of what to expect.
- Figure out what you want to accomplish
- Before committing to anything, Ladd recommends that learners take time to think about their big-picture goals. "I advise all students to first deliberate a bit about what they wish to accomplish and their motives," he says. "Not just earning higher wages, though that's obviously important. Trying to get a clear path in one's head, with a series of smaller goals will help them persevere and realize their dreams."
- Identify how you learn best
- Some students may prefer to prepare through solitary review with a study guide. Others may thrive on the interaction that comes with in-person and online review classes. Figure out what works best for you by testing out different methods, reading reviews, and talking to others who have already gone through the process. Ladd also says, "Don't be afraid to ask for help. Find someone at your school, in your family, or a friend." He added that students often reach out to him for advice. "I do what I can to be of assistance, even if that's just to point them in another direction because I don't have what they need."
- Create a dedicated study space
- One of the biggest determining factors of success is a student's ability to focus on and process test content. Rather than setting up shop at the dining room table or on the couch, create a quiet area where you can spread out review materials and concentrate.
- Use practice tests
- Consider taking three practice exams. A test at the very beginning may set a baseline for current knowledge. One in the middle can ascertain areas that might need a bit more work. A final test toward the end ensures you have thoroughly reviewed all of the material.
- Familiarize yourself with content in each section
- GED Testing Service provides a breakdown of each section. Use this guide to identify specific areas where you may need additional preparation, such as algebra or earth science.
- Give yourself time
- Rather than trying to cram four major subject areas into one week of studying, schedule the exam for 2-3 months after you begin preparing. Materials that have time to sink in are much more likely to stay with you on exam day.
- Get lots of rest and try not to stress
- Take the evening before exam day to relax and de-stress. Instead of pulling out study guides for a last-minute review session, step away from thoughts of the exam. Enjoy a nice meal, take a luxurious bath, or go for a walk to clear your head. Have a balanced breakfast on testing day and walk in feeling confident.
Frequently Asked Questions
Requirements vary among schools and states. Kevin N. Ladd is chief operating officer and vice president of Scholarships.com. Ladd says most public and private colleges require a high school diploma or the equivalent. He notes some exceptions, such as community college and trade schools.
Most four-year universities require a diploma or equivalent for admission. However, many community colleges have expanded their admission requirements. In other states, such as California, students without diplomas or GED certificates must be 18 years old for admission.
"You'll probably need to take some sort of placement test and/or remedial courses so that the institution knows which courses you'll be able to successfully complete," Ladd adds.
Schools also consider academic achievements from alternate studies, projects, and reading lists. Many colleges assess students' abilities and previous accomplishments through essays or personal statements. Schools may use recommendations from teachers and professional colleagues as well.
Finally, students typically must submit SAT or ACT scores. These tests are open to adults.
Students without high school diplomas or GED certificates can still pursue some degrees, certifications, and credentials. These learners can explore careers in healthcare support, pharmacy, information technology and computer programming, and emergency services dispatching.
Federal financial aid includes Pell Grants, federal student loans, and work-study programs. These require each recipient to possess a GED certificate or high school diploma. Candidates may have been homeschooled when they finished their high school coursework as well.
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) amended the Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision in 2015. This allowed more students to qualify for federal financial aid. Candidates qualify if they enroll in a career pathway program that receives Title IV funding or pass an approved ATB exam administered by ED. They may also complete six credits of coursework toward a degree or certificate program.
Students without diplomas or GED certificates can still apply for grants or scholarships through private organizations, foundations, or institutions. Working professionals may receive tuition reimbursement from their employers.
The Home School Legal Defense Association claims that most homeschool programs are valid under state law. Homeschool programs can issue the equivalent of high school diplomas.
High school program administrators in public and private schools deliver these documents. Homeschooled students earn them from parents or guardians. ED and public and private institutions recognize these documents as equal to traditional diplomas.
Many colleges accept students who completed GED certificates instead of high school diplomas. Schools with "open enrollment" require applicants to hold a GED certificate or high school diploma. Many adult education programs do not list high school diplomas as an admission requirement.
These schools consider potential students' life experiences to determine whether they received enough preparation for college.
General GED Resources
GED Testing ServiceTest-takers can find information about the exam, how it is administered, and where to find the best study materials directly from the company overseeing the exam. This website also allows users to create an account to receive step-by-step guidance and strategies for getting the best score possible.
How Hard is the GED Test?Students wondering about the type of math or science questions on the exam can find detailed information about the topic through Pass GED. This in-depth article explains how the material compares to high school subjects and offers insight on what constitutes a good score.
Need-to-Know Tips and Strategies for the GED TestPeterson's shares useful information about what to expect on the exam, how to best prepare for test day, and what test scores actually mean for getting into college.
4Tests GED Practice TestsPractice exams offered by 4Tests cover each section as an abbreviated version of the actual GED. They offer several different practice tests with 30-40 math questions, 30-47 reasoning through language arts questions, 30 science questions, and 25-30 social studies questions.
GED Testing Service Practice TestThe official administrator of the GED offers both a free practice test and the GED Ready practice exam, which costs $6 per subject. The exams are one-quarter and half the length of the actual GED, respectively.
Test Guide Practice ExamsExaminees have lots of options when it comes to the practice tests offered by Test Guide. The website provides five to six free practice tests for the math, reading comprehension, and writing/language usage sections, as well as four exams for science and one exam for social studies.
Cracking the GED TestThe Princeton Review provides 835 drill questions, two full-length practice tests with answer explanations, and a bevy of tips and strategies to help test-takers crack the GED exam. Study guide content aligns with GED Testing Service standards, ensuring all questions reflect those on the test.
Kaplan's GED Test Prep Plus 2021Kaplan's comprehensive study guide includes more than 1,000 practice questions, 60 online videos, and two practice tests. Users can access materials through the printed materials and online portals.
Preparation for the GED TestMcGraw-Hill created this study guide as a comprehensive resource covering all four subject areas on the GED exam. It highlights key concepts of focus for each subject area, and with its included apps for studying and practice testing for tablet and smartphone platforms, this study guide appeals to on-the-go students.
- Free Classes: Goodwill Industries, among other nonprofits, provide free GED prep courses to students in need. Other local organizations offering similar services include vocational and/or trade schools, community centers, youth centers, and churches.
- GED Exam Prep App: Companies like ABC E-Learning and Pocket Prep offer mobile and tablet applications on both Google Play and iTunes. Free versions include access to practice questions and comprehensive strategy guides, while paid versions may offer additional practice questions, customizable exam builders, and social media bonus questions.
- Paid Tutoring: Organizations such as Care.com provide a searchable database where individuals seeking one-on-one tutoring can connect with local educators. Users can search based on location, years of experience, subject area, and cost per hour.
Resources for Students Who Did Not Finish High School
There is no single reason why students struggle to finish high school. Some face life events that prevent them from completing their studies. Others realize the conventional high school model of learning does not work for them. The programs and organizations highlighted below focus on reducing the number of learners who drop out. These groups help learners who left traditional high school achieve their higher education goals.
For Students Considering Dropping Out
Everyone Graduates CenterThe Everyone Graduates Center maintains multiple targeted programs integrated into schools, with a particular focus on middle schools and high schools with high dropout rates. Its approach combines early intervention with job-oriented training programs. High-risk learners also qualify for personalized case management services.
IES What Works ClearinghouseWWC offers a digital resource library as part of the Institute of Education Sciences. It contains links to evidence-based educational resources on targeted issues known to cause dropouts. Most materials appeal to professional educators, but the organization maintains a focused Path to Graduation section with links to dozens of national and local educational support programs.
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and YouthNAEHCY works nationally to ensure that, regardless of their home life, all children have access to the services and resources they need to stay in school. The association also works to educate minors and homeless youth about their educational rights.
National Council for Community and Education PartnershipsThis Washington, D.C.-based organization prioritizes early interventions and works to improve the college readiness of at-risk high school students. Its flagship GEAR UP program provides grants for youth leadership training, along with career clubs and multimedia instructional tools. Instructional programs focus on participants from lower-income households with the potential to become first-generation college students.
National Dropout Prevention CenterEstablished in 1986, NDPC applies evidence-based approaches to improving national high school graduation rates. Its programs include a 15-point strategy for preventing high school dropouts, along with resources for students and families. The agency also leads professional development workshops for educators and guidance counselors.
For Students Who Have Already Dropped Out
Graduation AllianceFounded in 2007, Graduation Alliance maintains partnerships with more than 200 education organizations and offers programs leading to high school completion. Students can participate in in-person, online, or hybrid formats. The organization's Dropout Recovery program provides academic coaching, direct links to licensed teachers, local support networks, 24/7 access to qualified tutors, and career services.
YouthBuild USAYouthBuild specifically targets people in the 16-24 age range who are not enrolled in school or employed. Participants enroll in a structured program with high school and GED preparation courses, along with home construction and renovation projects for lower-income earners. Supplementary features include an intensive job training and placement program that guides participants into the labor force.
Gateway to CollegeWith a focus on serving individuals ages 16-24 who have not excelled in traditional high school environments, Gateway to College provides community-based initiatives to help dropouts gain high school diplomas or GED certificates. This nonprofit also delivers advocacy efforts aimed at improving policy and learning opportunities.
Safe PlaceThis national nonprofit provides an array of services for runaway youth, including information on what to do if they have dropped out of high school but still have educational and career aspirations. Safe Place programs provide in-person support at different schools and community centers throughout the country.
Ability to BenefitATB allows students who did not receive high school diplomas or GED certificates apply for Title IV financial aid. Candidates must complete a series of alternative requirements and government-approved tests. Following its removal in 2012, ATB was revised and reopened in 2015.
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