Dropping out of high school may sound like it’s the end of the education road, but it’s never too late to get back on track. Even if you don’t have a diploma or your GED, there are still alternatives available if you’re interested in pursuing a college education. Learn more about your options, including how to get your GED.
States and individual colleges control requirements for admission, so the answer to this question isn’t straightforward. Kevin N. Ladd, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of Scholarships.com, says most public universities as well as private colleges will require a high school diploma or equivalent, but notes there are some exceptions such as community college and trade school.
While most four-year universities require a diploma or equivalent to enroll in a degree program, many community colleges have become more flexible in their admission requirements. In some states, such as California, students without a diploma or GED need to be 18 years old to be admitted. Ladd adds, however, “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.” Evidence of academic achievements through alternate studies, projects and reading lists is also considered. Many colleges also assess students’ abilities and previous accomplishments through essays or personal statements and recommendations from teachers and/or professional colleagues. Finally, students likely will be required to submit standardized test scores from the SAT or ACT. Although commonly taken in high school, these tests are also open to adults.
Ability to Benefit, or ATB, allows students who didn’t receive a high school diploma or its equivalent to be eligible for Title IV financial aid if they successfully complete a series of alternative requirements and government-approved tests. The ATB provision was cut in 2012, but was revised and reopened in 2015.
Basic eligibility requirements for federal financial aid – such as Pell Grants, federal student loans and work study – state students must have either a GED or high school diploma, or have been homeschooled at the time of finishing high school coursework. However, the U.S. Department of Education amended the Ability to Benefit provision in 2015, making it possible for some students to qualify for federal financial aid if they:
Enroll in a career pathways program that receives Title IV funding
Pass an approved Ability to Benefit exam administered via the DOE
Complete six credits or equivalent coursework that count toward a degree or certificate program
Federal aid is not the only available option, though – students without a diploma or GED may still be eligible for grants or scholarships through private organizations, foundations or an institution, and working professionals may be able to receive tuition reimbursement via their employer.
The Home School Legal Defense Association asserts that most homeschool programs, although unaccredited, are considered valid under state law and as such are able to issue the equivalent of high school diplomas. Traditionally these documents come from high school program administrators within public and private schools, but for a homeschooler the document typically comes from parents or guardians. The U.S. Department of Education, alongside public and private institutions, recognizes this document as on par with traditional diplomas.
Many colleges accept students who have completed a GED in lieu of a high school diploma. Schools with “open enrollment” require applicants have one or the other, while many adult education programs don’t list high school diplomas as an admission requirement. Schools with such policies look at prospective students’ life experiences to determine if they are prepared for the rigors of college.
People without a high school credential still have a path to college, with different states offering different avenues for students who are ready to return to school. Take a look at the options available when it comes to taking the next step into higher education.
Even if you didn’t complete all the credits required for a high school diploma, earning this credential isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Many public school systems and community colleges offer adult high school classes – or can direct potential students to a program in their area – so dropouts can earn those last few credits. Some schools, such as Penn Foster High School, offer online adult education programs.
You’ll need to spend a few months studying before taking the exam, but for some, earning a GED is the fastest and easiest way to qualify for college admission. Studying for the GED can be done on your schedule and testing centers are located throughout the U.S.
Some U.S. colleges don’t require a high school diploma or GED from students over the age of 24 who register under non-traditional status. Instead, these schools look at other academic markers, such as high school coursework or projects, teacher recommendations, current reading lists, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities and sometimes even work experience.
Some states, such as California, New York and Hawaii have no requirements for GED or high school diplomas when students attend certain community colleges. As of 2017, the only requirement is that students be at least 18 years old at the time of application. If a student plans to pursue a four-year degree after finishing community college, they may be required to show proof of high school credentials, and some community colleges require students to complete their GED as a condition of graduation. Many vocational and career colleges also fall under this category – some career colleges do require a high school diploma or equivalent, but others have additional criteria in place to allow applicants to bypass the diploma/GED requirement.
Aside from the option of dual enrollment while still in high school, some colleges also offer qualifying students the chance to completely bypass their senior year and go straight to college. Requirements for this option typically include a high GPA and the stipulation that the student pass the GED before the end of their first semester of college.
Most colleges allow people to take individual classes without being formally admitted to the school. In this case, however, you won’t be able to earn a degree and most colleges cap non-degree credits so there’s a limit to how many classes you can take. Still, this can be a great option for individuals who want to gain knowledge or skill in a specific area for a job or a resume boost.
There’s no single reason why students struggle to finish high school – some face life events that prevent them from completing their studies, while others realize the conventional high school model of learning doesn’t work for them. No matter the reason, the programs and organizations highlighted below focus on reducing the number of dropouts, as well as helping those who have find ways to achieve their higher education goals.
With a focus on serving 16- to 24-year-olds who haven’t excelled in a traditional high school environment, Gateway to College provides community-based initiatives to help dropouts gain high school diplomas or GEDs. Advocacy efforts aimed at improving policy and learning opportunities are also at the heart of this nonprofit’s mission.
NAEHCY 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.
Headquartered at Clemson University in South Carolina, NDPC was founded in 1986 to help educators, administrators, and others who work with students develop systems to lower dropout rates among high school students. Membership benefits include conferences, publications, certifications, and access to research findings.
This national nonprofit provides a range of services for runaway youth, including information on what to do if they’ve 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.
While there are some options for going to college without a high school diploma, getting your GED can open doors to many more opportunities. If going to college is your goal, getting your GED is a good first step. The following section walks you through the exam so you can prepare and study accordingly.
The GED is divided into four sections, each of which is scored out of a possible 200 points. The lowest composite score considered a passing grade is 580, meaning students need to earn at least a 145 on each section to pass and receive their GED. (A higher score on one section cannot be applied to a lower score on another.) Scores are broken into four levels:
|Levels||Scoring Range||Implications of Score|
|Below Passing||145 or less||Examinee did not earn enough points to pass the GED|
|Passing/High School Equivalency||145-164||Examinee earned enough points to receive their GED and demonstrated high school level skills|
|GED College Ready||165-174||Examinee demonstrated their preparedness for college|
|GED College Ready + Credit||175-200||Examinee demonstrated above-average mastery of subjects and may be eligible to earn additional credits (similar to AP), depending on the college|
Test takers who don’t receive a passing score on their first time still have a chance – the test can be retaken 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 a student passed three subject tests and failed only one, they are only required to re-sit that subject rather than the entire exam. Subject tests can be retaken up to three times per year, giving students time to brush up on weak areas.
The current version of the GED is divided into four sections:
Math, with emphasis on quantitative and algebraic problems
Science, with emphasis on the life sciences, physical science and earth/space science
Social Studies, with emphasis on U.S. history, economics, civics, government and geography
Reasoning Through Language Arts, with emphasis on reading comprehension, written communication and editing
Each section takes between 70 and 150 minutes, with the entire exam taking approximately seven hours. Test takers are welcome to complete the exam in one sitting, but are also able to visit the testing center multiple times to sit for individual sections.
Specific types of questions are used throughout each section of the exam. Examples include:
Drag and drop
Fill in the blank
Hot spots (selecting an area)
Here’s a look at the practical elements of sitting for the GED:
Individual states have varied requirements for earning a GED, and there isn’t one standard body that oversees the exam. Some states allow individuals to take the exam once they are 16 years old, while others may require test takers to be 18 before registering. Review the rules for your state and contact the administrator if you have questions.
Prospective test takers can visit GED.com to register for the exam. The cost for each section varies by state, but most charge $30 or less per subject. Individuals who live in Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York or West Virginia must travel to a neighboring state as the exam is not currently offered in any of these places. Test takers also need to decide if they want to take the exam in one sitting, or schedule multiple times to complete each of the four sections.
Accommodations such as separate testing rooms, extra time, or additional breaks can be requested if the test taker has a documented disability. Applying for accommodations can be done during the registration process or by making a request via the user’s profile.
Make sure to pack a bag that includes identification, an approved TI-30XS MultiView Scientific Calculator, registration confirmation and a light jacket in case the room is cold. Students are allowed to bring water, snacks and a cellphone, but all these items must be stored in a locker during the exam and accessed only during scheduled breaks.
Preparing for the GED can feel overwhelming, especially to those who haven’t been in a classroom for a while or don’t feel confident taking standardized tests. These fears can be alleviated with a solid study plan and an insider’s knowledge of what to expect come testing day.
Before committing to anything, Ladd recommends students 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.”
When it comes to taking the GED, some students may prefer solitary review with a study guide, while others may thrive on the interaction that comes from an in-person or online review class. 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 and he never turns them away. “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.”
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.
Lots of prep companies offer free GED practice tests, and these are well worth using. Consider taking three practice exams – one at the very beginning to set a baseline for current knowledge, one in the middle to ascertain areas that might need a bit more work and one towards the end to ensure all material has been thoroughly reviewed.
GED Testing Service, the administrator of the exam, provides a breakdown of each section. Use this guide to identify areas to which you need to pay extra attention, such as algebra or earth science.
Rather than trying to cram four major subject areas into one week of studying, schedule the exam about two to three months out from when you start studying. Materials that have time to sink in are much more likely to stay with you on exam day.
Use 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.
Examinees can find information about the exam, how it is administered, and where to find the best study materials, directly from the company that oversees testing. The website also allows users to create an account to receive step-by-step guidance and strategies for getting the best score possible.
Students wondering about the type of math or science questions featured on the exam can find detailed information about this topic and more via Pass GED. This in-depth article explains how the material compares to high school subjects and offers insight on what constitutes a good score.
Peterson’s shares useful information about what to expect on the exam, how to best prepare for testing day, and what test scores actually mean when it comes to getting into college.
All four sections of the GED are represented in the practice exams offered by 4Tests, although each is an abbreviated version of the actual GED. Students complete 40 math questions, 47 reasoning through language arts questions, 30 science questions, and 25 social studies questions.
The official administrator of the GED offers both a free practice test and the GED Ready practice exam, which costs $24. The exams are one-quarter and one-half the length of the actual GED, respectively.
Examinees 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 one exam for science and one exam for social studies.
The Princeton Review provides 700 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. Content throughout the study guide is aligned to GED Testing Service standards, ensuring all questions reflect those found on the test.
Kaplan’s comprehensive study guide includes more than 1,000 practice questions, 60 online videos, and two practice tests. Materials can be accessed through the book and via online and mobile portals.
McGraw-Hill created this study guide to be a comprehensive resource that covers all four subject areas and gives helpful learning tips along the way. Priced at $11 for a paper copy or slightly less for the Kindle version, this study guide appeals to on-the-go students.
Goodwill Industries is just one example of non-profits providing free GED prep courses to students in need. Other local organizations that may offer similar services include vocational and/or trade schools, community centers, youth centers, and churches.
Pocket Prep offers a mobile and tablet application on both Google Play and iTunes. Features in the free version include limited access to practice questions and a comprehensive strategy guide, while the paid version offers nearly 1,000 practice questions, a customizable exam builder, and social media bonus questions.
Organizations such as Care.com provide a searchable database where individuals seeking one-to-one tutoring can connect with a local educator. Users are able to search based on location, years of experience, subject area, and cost per hour.