What Keeps GED Recipients from Succeeding? Not What You Think Header


What Keeps GED Recipients from Succeeding? Not What You Think

Elana McDermott NA

Critics of the GED often argue that it’s an easier alternative[1] to a high school diploma. And research has shown that it’s not equal to the diploma within the workforce. GED recipients’ employment and other life outcomes more closely resemble those of students who drop out of school (and do not obtain a GED) than those who graduate with a high school diploma.[2] 


Researchers have shown that GED recipients rate lower in some of the non-cognitive skills that impact long-term economic and employment prospects.[3] From these findings, researchers and practitioners have assumed that GED recipients also lack the persistence and self-control necessary for achieving positive outcomes. But the Center for Promise’s own recent research shows that it’s not a lack of persistence or self-control that hinder GED recipients from succeeding, but rather a lack of supportive relationships. 

Supportive Relationships, Not Soft Skills, Responsible for Student Success

Our recent brief, “Dispelling Myths about Young People who Leave School,” supported the idea that youth who leave school demonstrate the social and emotional competencies that are typically considered essential for academic success. We continued this line of research using data from our Don’t Quit on Me study. This time we wanted to know:

  1. Whether youth who obtained a GED reported differences in persistence and self-control compared to their diploma obtaining peers,
  2. Whether differences in those factors related to lesser vocational outcomes for GED recipients, and
  3. Whether differences in social relationships might help to explain why GED recipients look more like students who drop out in terms of employment.

In short, we found:

  • GED youth have worse vocational outcomes than youth with a high school diploma.
  • There are not statistically significant differences in these social and emotional competencies between GED and traditional diploma youth.
  • A lack of social supports, not a lack of self-control or persistence, hinders GED recipients from finding jobs.

How do supportive relationships factor into employment prospects?

Supportive relationships with parents and adults in school may be leveraged to help youth find jobs.[4] When we examined students’ educational status by their reported levels of social support from parents, friends, and adults in and out of school, we found that there were no statistically significant differences between youth who obtain a GED and youth who drop out.

Education Status by Employment Status

There were, however, statistically significant differences across all four categories of supportive relationships (parents, friends, and adults in and out of school) between youth who obtained a GED or who dropped out and youth who obtained a diploma. 

In other words, young people with diplomas had more supportive relationships in their lives than those who obtain a GED or drop out.

Educational Status By Type Of Supportive Relationships

Furthermore, our research shows that there are not differences between GED and diploma recipients in terms of self-reported persistence and self-control.  And yet, in our analyses, GED recipients look most like youth who leave school in terms of employment outcomes and levels of social support. These employment differences could be due to market perceptions of GED recipients (including the idea that GED earners have a “lesser” degree that is obtained by people with “lower” skills) may harm their ability to obtain employment.[5] If we approach employment differences with the assumption that individuals who drop out or obtain a GED do not rate differently in self-control or persistence from individuals with a diploma, we change the way we can approach interventions for engaging individuals in workforce and educational opportunities.            

ucational Status by Level of Persistence and Self-Control     

Programs That Create and Leverage Social Support

In response to recent criticism, the GED Testing Service has made the GED more difficult, focusing on college and career readiness. Some states have even dropped the GED for other high school equivalency tests (e.g., HiSET developed by McGraw Hill) that supposedly focus more on the skills needed for workforce readiness. 

Instead of abandoning the GED or focusing on programs that enhance soft skills, states should champion programs that work to create and leverage social support. Here is a short list of programs that do that:

  • LIFT: Multi-generational approaches and programs that draw on the support of family, advocates, and community members like LIFT may help build a web of support around youth. 
  • The Family Independence Initiative leverages participants’ strengths to encourage their economic and social mobility, including helping participants to draw on and enhance their social capital and providing new paths into the workforce. 
  • Programs like Year Up connect young people to internship and educational opportunities, preparing them for the workforce while increasing their social and professional networks.

These are just a few programs that can help GED youth find the social support they need to succeed on par with their peers. Tell us about others in the comments section below.

[1] Schulzke (2015) [Accessed from: http://national.deseretnews.com/article/5307/the-future-of-the-ged.html]

[2] Heckman & Rubinstein (2001)

[3] Heckman & Rubinstein (2001)

[4] Granovetter, 1973, 1995; Lin & Dumin, 1996; Lin, Ensel, & Vaughn, 1981

[5] Indeed, research has shown that GED recipients tend to be more academically capable than youth who left school and did not receive a GED (Heckman & Rubinstein, 2001)