New Paper Blames GED for Adding to Dropout Problem

While the GED – general educational development certificate – is often portrayed as a quick fix for America’s dropout problem or a “second chance” for out-of-school youths, a new paper blames the widespread availability of the GED for causing youths to drop out of school.

“None of this would matter if the GED were harmless, like wearing a broken watch and knowing that it is broken,” states the paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and titled simply, The GED.

“But the GED is not harmless,” the paper states. “Treating it as equivalent to a high school degree distorts social statistics and gives false signals that America is making progress when it is not.”

In the paper – penned by University of Chicago economics professors James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries and Nicholas S. Mader – the authors cite data that shows the average dropout who earns a GED does not experience a wage increase.

Yet, the dropout rate has increased to varying degrees in places where the GED became more widely available, according to the paper. The authors say the trend has been fueled largely by more teenage youths taking the GED test ever since age requirements were dropped and then set at age 16. At one time, youths were actually prohibited from taking the GED.

 “Because these individuals are still of high school age, their growth as a group raises the question of whether the GED is serving as a true second chance opportunity or as a substitute for a more valuable high school degree,” the authors write. “Of particular concern is the possibility that teenagers with the lowest levels of non-cognitive skills are the most likely to opt out of high school in order to receive the GED and least likely to benefit from doing so.”

The authors also lament how the decision-making capabilities of teens “may lead them to make choices that restrict their educational paths and earnings in a way that they later regret.” (Another view of the GED here.)

 “Given questionable teen decision-making, several institutional practices may increase the rate of ill-advised dropping out,” the authors state.

With some 500,000 high school dropouts passing the GED in 2008, the professors contend that counting GED recipients as high school graduates distorts high school completion rates and graduation gaps among minorities.

The professors say that while obtaining a GED does not increase wages for the average dropout, it does make a difference in wages for those who go on to college, the paper states. The problem is that the vast majority of GED recipients fail to complete more than one semester of college.

 “The same traits that lead them to drop out of school also lead them to leave from jobs early, to divorce more frequently and to fail in the military,” the paper states.


How the GED originated

Military service is relevant to discussion of the GED because the test was not designed for the general public, or even civilians.

The American Council of Education (ACE) created the GED in 1942, midway through World War II, for returning veterans who hadn’t completed high school but needed a certificate to prove they were ready for work or college.

But in 1947 – two years after the war – New York started offering the test to high school dropouts. The idea of offering the test for other than its original purpose soon caught on, and by 1957, more civilians were taking the GED test than veterans, the paper states. In 1974, California became the last state to offer the GED.

Over time, the difficulty level of the test has varied. So has the age of eligibility.

In 1955, ACE implemented a minimum age of 20 for taking the GED to prevent teenagers from seeking the GED as a replacement for high school, the paper states.

Now the minimum age for the test is 16 – an age so low that the authors say many youths are being tempted to leave school because they think the GED is roughly the same as a high school diploma.

The authors say many state-issued GED certificates have names such as Kansas State High School Diploma or Maryland High School Diploma, which, they say, “mislead students into false expectations of equivalence with traditional high school.”

The authors question making the GED so widely available.


A true diploma equivalent?

“Given the preponderance of evidence against beneficial effects of GED certification for the average GED recipient, it is surprising that the GED program has grown so dramatically in the past 50 years,” the authors write.

But they also note how the increased difficulty of earning a high school diploma has helped lead more youths to drop out of high school and go for a GED, thinking they can go straight to college.

While most colleges accept a GED, the paper states, it’s unclear how much weight they give a GED in relation to a real high school diploma.

The authors cite widespread confusion over just what the GED acronym stands for, saying it  feeds into the perception that the GED approximates a high school diploma.

“GEDs are widely held to be equivalent to individuals who receive a traditional high school diploma by taking courses and acquiring credit hours,” the report states.  “Indeed, capturing this sentiment, many erroneously term the GED certificate as a ‘General Equivalency Degree.’ ”

 GED is short for a General Educational Development certificate.

The National Bureau of Economic Resaerch paper titled The GED is available for $5 at


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