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Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 19722008

NCES 2011-012
December 2010

General Educational Development (GED) Credentials and National Status Completion Rates

General Educational Development (GED) programs allow individuals who would otherwise lack a high school credential because they did not complete a regular high school program of study, to obtain an alternative credential. Not completing a regular high school program can occur for several reasons including dropping out of high school and immigrating into the country without ever enrolling in U.S. high schools. The GED is accepted by most colleges and universities that require a high school diploma for admission, and most companies that have positions requiring a high school diploma accept the GED as an alternative credential (American Council on Education 2009). While GEDs provide an important opportunity for those who do not earn a regular high school diploma to obtain a high school credential, GED recipients tend to fare significantly worse than those holding regular diplomas across a range of measures. For example, while GED recipients and regular diploma recipients who complete postsecondary programs experience the same economic benefits from the programs, GED recipients attend and complete postsecondary programs at much lower rates than regular diploma holders. Also, while high school dropouts with relatively low cognitive skills experience improved incomes if they earn a GED, dropouts with relatively high cognitive skills do not experience increased earnings after earning a GED (see Boesel, Alsalam, and Smith 1998, and Tyler 2003 for overviews of GED research).

To better understand how the rate of GED receipt relates to different rates presented in this report, data from the GED Testing Service are used to estimate the number of GED holders in the civilian, noninstitutionalized population in 2008.22 Estimates are provided for 18- through 24-year-olds to correspond to age ranges used for the status completion rates.23

  • National estimates of 18- through 24-year-olds with a GED in 2008: There were approximately 1,500,000 persons ages 18 through 24 in 2008 who had passed the GED exam in 2008 or in prior years (data not shown in tables). This represents 5.5 percent of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population of 18- through 24-year-olds who were not in high school in 2008. Subtracting out those who passed the GED exam, the status completion rate in 2008 for regular high school diploma holders and those holding alternative credentials other than a GED was 84.4 percent (data not shown in tables).24

    Focusing on the 18- through 24-year-old population without consideration of high school enrollment, approximately 84.7 percent held some form of high school credential in 2008 with 5.2 percent holding a GED and 79.5 percent holding a regular high school diploma or other alternative credential (data not shown in tables).25

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22 The number of GED holders was based on counts of those who passed the GED exam. Counts of successful GED examinees each year are published by GEDTS. It is possible to pass the GED exam and not obtain a GED, so estimates here represent an upper bound of GED holders in the population. To determine how many people in a given age range have earned a GED requires summation of reported data over multiple years of GEDTS reports. For example, the number of 18- through 24-year-olds in 2008 who had passed the GED exam was estimated by taking the sum of those who passed the exam in 2008 at ages 1824 plus those who passed the exam in 2007 at ages 1723 plus those who passed the exam in 2006 at ages 1622, and so on. See appendix A of this report for details of this calculation.
23 Civilians in the noninstitutionalized population are the focus of the status dropout and completion rates. To align the GED estimates with this population, data from the Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2004 prorated to 2008 and data provided by the Defense Manpower Data Center for active duty military personnel in 2008 were used. See appendix A of this report for details of how the GED estimates were aligned with the noninstitutionalized population.
24 The CPS data used for the status completion rate include those holding alternative credentials such as a GED in the count of completers. Other alternative credentials exist so removing GED counts from the counts of completers does not result in a count of regular high school diploma holders.
25 Similar estimates could be made in reference to the 16- through 24-year-old population, which is the focus of the status dropout rate. There were approximately 1,597,000 persons ages 16 through 24 in 2008 who had passed the GED exam in 2008 or prior years (data not shown in tables). This represents 4.3 percent of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population of 16- through 24-year-olds in 2008.


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