Beyond the GED

Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College

By Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Shane Crary-Ross

Nearly 39 million adults in the United States do not have a high school diploma. Roughly two-thirds of them eventually obtain a high school equivalency credential like the General Educational Development (GED) certificate, with the hope of then obtaining a job. But in today’s changing economy, possessing a GED certificate ― while helpful for finding employment ― often isn’t enough, and many GED recipients will continue to struggle in the labor market. Postsecondary education is also helpful to improve their employment prospects, but fewer than 5 percent of GED recipients go on to enroll in college or other adult education programs.

Emphasizing results from quasi-experimental and experimental research, this literature review identifies the most promising approaches for increasing dropouts’ rate of attaining a GED certificate or other high school credential and making a successful transition to college. The report divides these recent interventions into three primary types of adult education reforms: (1) efforts to increase the rigor of adult education instruction and the standards for achieving a credential; (2) GED-to-college “bridge” programs, which integrate academic preparation with increased supports for students’ transition to college; and (3) interventions that allow students to enroll in college while studying to earn a high school credential.

Though rigorous research on these reforms is limited, two available studies suggest that programs that contextualize basic skills and GED instruction within specific career fields and that support students in their transition to college show promise in increasing the rate of students’ persistence, earning a high school credential, and entering and succeeding in college. In comparison with traditional adult education programs, these models tend to (1) provide more coherent and relevant instruction through curricula that better align with students’ career goals; (2) provide increased connections with colleges and vocational training programs; and (3) build in an advising component that fosters students’ engagement in the program and supports their transition to college.

While these innovations represent promising strides for the field, adult education is still in critical need of reform across a number of areas if the field is to see larger-scale improvements in dropouts’ academic success. First, programs will need to consider how to advance students with lower skills, as few college-readiness adult education programs are available to those with skills below the ninth-grade level. Promising programs, such as LaGuardia Community College’s GED Bridge program in New York City and the state of Washington’s I-BEST program, which enroll lower-skilled students, may serve as models. Alternately, programs might consider building “prebridge” models that help prepare students for these more advanced programs. Second, the fragmented funding streams and agencies upon which adult education programs rely should be streamlined, allowing for a more coherent focus on college- and career-readiness skills. Promising models have been suggested in the Adult Education and Economic Growth Act and revisions to the Perkins Act. In addition, statewide reform efforts in states such as Indiana and Washington could serve as models for achieving interagency integration and coordination.

Zachry Rutschow, Elizabeth and Shane Crary-Ross. 2014. Beyond the GED. New York: MDRC.