Liv Ames for EdSource
Students bicycle to San Mateo Adult School.

If you’re done with high school, or about to be, and were unable to graduate, don’t give up. You can still get a high school diploma whether you dropped out or did not have enough course credits. Or you can pursue your education goals at a community college without one.

It will take dedication and a commitment on your part. How much time it will take will depend on how much work you have to make up — and how much energy you are willing to put it into it to make it happen.

But it is worth the effort — and never too late.  A high school diploma is your passport to a more interesting and better-paying job. Those who do not complete high school will earn, on average, between $280,000 and $350,000 less than high school graduates during their working life, according to 2015 estimates reported by the Social Security Administration. And 17 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds who do not have a high school diploma are unemployed, based on 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

There are many ways outside of high school to get a diploma, its equivalent or further education. This Q&A focuses on those options.

How can I still get a diploma?

Most communities in California offer adult education classes through your local school district or community college, which let you make up credits that you need to graduate. Adult ed programs are open to students who are 18 years or older. Usually they are free to local residents.

If you are younger than 18, you still might be eligible. You can take these classes if you are pregnant or taking care of your child, have a written agreement with your school district that allows you to take adult ed classes instead of high school classes, or you are an “emancipated minor,” which requires court permission to allow you to be free from parental control.

Check with your guidance counselor, a teacher or the school district office to find out about Adult Ed programs near you. Or go to California’s adult education website and click on “Directory of Schools,” and then on “California Adult Education Provider Directory.”

In addition, ask your high school counselor, principal or a teacher what your school district offers students who cannot graduate by the end of their senior year. Ask them if the district allows seniors to stay in high school over the summer or sometimes for an additional year to complete their course work. If you are in special education, you can stay in school until you are 22 years old.

Can I get a diploma without taking additional courses?

You can take one of two national tests – the High School Equivalency Exam or the GED – instead of completing coursework. If you pass one of these tests, you will get the equivalent of a diploma.

Both tests measure a student’s ability to do high school-level work, but they have different eligibility requirements and different strengths and weaknesses.

The High School Equivalency Test, administered by the Educational Testing Service, is only available to students who are 17 or 18 years old and meet certain eligibility requirements.

The exam includes five subtests. Four of the subtests – reading, math, science and social studies – consist of multiple-choice questions. The fifth subtest on writing includes an essay as well as multiple-choice questions. Each subtest costs $10 to take. The exam is offered on paper or online and is available in both English and Spanish. Students with disabilities can request what are called “accommodations” to allow them to take the test.

Most students need to study the subject areas before taking the test. To find out how much studying you may need to do, take a look at some sample test questions. If you have struggled academically, it would be advisable to take a preparation course beforehand, or if you work well on your own, buy test preparation materials such as the The Official Guide to the HSET, which may also be available for free in your local library.

Most Adult Ed programs and community colleges offer classes that help students prepare to pass the General Educational Development Test or GED. The GED is recognized nationally as an acceptable substitute for a high school diploma and is a valuable asset for pursuing career and educational opportunities. It has tests in math, reading, writing, social studies and science. You can take the test in English or Spanish.

The exam takes about 7 ½ hours to complete and includes multiple-choice and essay questions. You may take the exam at testing centers for a $150 fee. You may retake the exam or sections you have not passed, often for an additional fee. Also check with your school district to see if the district offers the GED test at a lower price.

Students who are within 60 days of their 18th birthday or older can take the GED. Under certain circumstances, 17-year-olds can also take the exam. Special education students can request “accommodations,” such as more time to take the exam, by contacting the testing center at least 30 days before the test.

In addition, many local GED testing centers have preparation programs available without charge or can refer you to a preparation program. Most bookstores and public libraries have GED test-preparation materials if you are able to study for the GED on your own.

Khan Academy, an online resource, offers free math practice for the GED test. And the creators of the GED also offer a free online “test prep toolkit” that covers all sections of the test. In addition, Study Guide Zone offers a free study guide, practice tests and skill building exercises.

For more information, go to the California Department of Education’s website on the GED and click on “Find out more about the GED test in California.” Or call 1-877-392-6433 for information in English or 1-877-450-3276 for information in Spanish.

If you are deciding between getting your GED or getting your high school diploma by taking summer classes, returning to high school, or enrolling in Adult Ed classes, consider the following:

  • How many courses do you have to take to be eligible for a diploma? If that number is high, you might prefer taking the GED because it will take less time.
  • How old are you? The GED may be more appropriate if you are 20 or older and have been out of school for a while.
  • Some employers require or prefer the high school diploma to the GED.

I need to support myself. Are there any programs that provide a salary or financial support while I’m studying for my high school diploma or GED?                                                        

Some organizations offer help to students to get their high school diploma or GED and a salary as well.

Students who join Job Corps, a federal program, are paid a monthly allowance. Job Corps helps you learn a trade at the same time you are getting a high school diploma or GED. It also helps its graduates find jobs. This is a competitive program, and admission is not guaranteed. You must be a U.S. citizen to qualify.

To learn more, go to the program’s website or call 1-800-733-JOBS (or 1-800-733-5627). Operators who speak English and Spanish are available 24 hours a day. An operator will provide you with information about the program, refer you to the admissions counselor closest to your home, and mail you an information packet.

You can earn a GED or high school diploma as a member of the California Conservation Corps (CCC), a competitive state program for 18- to 25-year-olds. You also learn life skills and work hard doing fire protection, emergency response or environmental conservation (such as building trails, planting trees or working in a salmon fishery). The CCC pays minimum wage and offers a grant for further education after you successfully complete the program. Some programs provide housing or a chance to travel to another country. Each year, the CCC participates in a work exchange with Conservation Volunteers Australia. For more details, go to the program’s website, or you can call 1-800-952-JOBS (or 1-800-952-5627) to get information in English and Spanish.

In addition, the state runs a Youth Employment Opportunity Program (YEOP) for 15- to 21-year-olds that offers peer advising, referrals to workshops and job placement assistance. Go to the program’s website for locations of YEOP programs and other information. Or call your local Employment Development Department to find out if there is a YEOP program near you.

Can I enroll in a job-training program before I earn a high school diploma, High School Equivalency Test or GED?

The 74 state-funded regional occupational centers and programs (ROCPs) offer career technical classes – for example, firefighting, carpentry, graphic arts, auto mechanics or health-related careers – to high school students and adults. No diploma or equivalent is required to take the courses, though high school students have priority for enrollment. Each center offers its own set of programs, and many of these centers also offer GED courses.

Go to the ROCP website to find a program near you, or ask your guidance counselor or a teacher.

In addition, there are apprenticeships, which offer on-the-job training in the skilled trades so you can learn to be, for example, a carpenter or electrician. Some apprenticeships require a high school diploma or equivalent, but some do not. To find out more about the minimum requirements for a variety of apprenticeships, check out the California Department of Industrial Relations website.

Do I need a diploma to go to college?

You will need a diploma to go to a four-year college, including public universities like the California State University or the University of California.

However, in California, you only need to be 18 years or older to attend a community college. A high school diploma is not required, though you may have to take remedial courses offered by the college and some majors, such as engineering, may require a GED before you can transfer to a four-year university. The requirements vary by college.

Besides preparing students to be able to transfer to four-year universities, community colleges also provide programs that prepare you for a specific occupation, such as firefighting, carpentry, auto mechanics, graphic arts and nursing. Go to your local college’s career center or admissions office and talk to one of its counselors. Or visit the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office website for a statewide list of colleges and their programs.

Can I get financial help to attend
 a community college?
                                    

Check out the website of the Student Aid Commission and click on “Financial Aid Programs,” then click on “Cal Grant Programs.” You can also call 1-888-CA-GRANT (or 1-888-224-7268) for information in English and Spanish to see if you qualify. Also check out the “I can afford college” website, which includes information on how to get a Board of Governors fee waiver.  Fee waivers are awarded based on financial need.  To qualify in 2016-17, students must have had family incomes for a family of four of $36,375 or less.  But there are probably other forms of financial aid that you’re eligible for.

But don’t wait! Start now.

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  1. Jimmie Forsström 2 days ago2 days ago

    Hi Susan! I was born and am living in Sweden where as a 16 year old I dropped out during some difficult times and never got back on the learning horse. I was wondering after I stumbled upon a video of foreigner getting their high school diploma in another country and was wondering which colleges offers such options to get a diploma and associate's degree? I saw one in Seattle. Still I want to … Read More

    Hi Susan! I was born and am living in Sweden where as a 16 year old I dropped out during some difficult times and never got back on the learning horse. I was wondering after I stumbled upon a video of foreigner getting their high school diploma in another country and was wondering which colleges offers such options to get a diploma and associate’s degree? I saw one in Seattle. Still I want to check more options. Do you know any i can look up?

  2. Jamie Steiner 7 months ago7 months ago

    Hello, So, my situation is unique. I actually just graduated from university but I never graduated high school. I was going through a lot during my senior year and one thing led to another and just never got my diploma. I did go to a community college, transferred and now have a bachelor's degree in Science. When I apply to jobs though I get a bit wary of putting not graduated high school since I … Read More

    Hello,
    So, my situation is unique. I actually just graduated from university but I never graduated high school. I was going through a lot during my senior year and one thing led to another and just never got my diploma. I did go to a community college, transferred and now have a bachelor’s degree in Science. When I apply to jobs though I get a bit wary of putting not graduated high school since I have a bachelor’s and it seems backwards to not have an HS diploma. Should I still get a GED or can I get an equivalency degree without doing anything else since I have received higher education? I’m just wondering because I am employed but I don’t want anything like that to deter future employers from higher me.
    Any advice helps, thanks!

  3. Laura 8 months ago8 months ago

    This is a very informative article but I wish one area would’ve been discussed and that’s how students who haven’t finished high school should/can go about taking the ACT or SAT test. For example, my daughter became disabled with severe medical problems after one year of high school so she had to leave. She’s now almost 20 and working on the Hi-Set test and we’ve been looking into colleges but some require that she have … Read More

    This is a very informative article but I wish one area would’ve been discussed and that’s how students who haven’t finished high school should/can go about taking the ACT or SAT test. For example, my daughter became disabled with severe medical problems after one year of high school so she had to leave. She’s now almost 20 and working on the Hi-Set test and we’ve been looking into colleges but some require that she have both the Hi-Set diploma and ACT scores. But I was under the impression she couldn’t take the ACT test with only one year of high school completed. Or is it that she can take the ACT test after she completes the Hi-Set? It’s very confusing and it would be great to have this information as even the admissions directors at the schools seem confused about it.

  4. Marie lubin 9 months ago9 months ago

    I have all my credits but I couldn’t pass this one test to graduate.

  5. Delicia Bryant 9 months ago9 months ago

    I have all credits but cannot pass the test – very bad test anxiety.

  6. Penny Albano 9 months ago9 months ago

    This is probably really crazy but I'm 67 years old. I never finished high school, I also cannot afford to pay for anything. My income is $1,321/month. So before I even get my hopes up, I wanted to know if I even stand a chance at this. It's something I've always wanted to finish but was never able to. It haunts me to this day. … Read More

    This is probably really crazy but I’m 67 years old. I never finished high school, I also cannot afford to pay for anything. My income is $1,321/month. So before I even get my hopes up, I wanted to know if I even stand a chance at this. It’s something I’ve always wanted to finish but was never able to. It haunts me to this day. I went to Ulysses S. Grant high school in North Hollywood. Finished 1/2 of the eleventh grade. I don’t know if I even have the focus to do this, but with help and support, I just might have a chance. I want to do this not only for myself but for my kids.

    Thank you for your attention and consideration in this matter.

    Replies

    • Crystal 8 months ago8 months ago

      Hi Penny,

      Just wanted to give you some encouragement. There’s no need for regrets. Age doesn’t matter. Get your GED if it’s something that would bring you joy and happiness. If you really want to… you can do it… just go for it!

  7. Maria Montoya 11 months ago11 months ago

    This is great information. I was a high school dropout myself and because I did not know about systems and options and no one offered information, it took me 11 years to get my B.A. Thank you, again.

  8. Betty 11 months ago11 months ago

    Hello and thank you for hosting this informational forum. I am nearing 60, have had a very good career up until I stopped working to care for my mother 3 years ago and now can’t seem to land a position, even though I’ve had multiple and great interviews. They just seem to fall off at the end of multiple interviews. I think I know why that is though. In my senior year in … Read More

    Hello and thank you for hosting this informational forum. I am nearing 60, have had a very good career up until I stopped working to care for my mother 3 years ago and now can’t seem to land a position, even though I’ve had multiple and great interviews. They just seem to fall off at the end of multiple interviews.
    I think I know why that is though. In my senior year in high school (1976), I was one history credit short of graduating because I failed the class. And because of a personal situation I never returned to re-take that class. I am wanting to return to school to get my BA degree in Design as that is the industry I have worked in my entire career. I obviously need my high school diploma to qualify for entering a BA program. So my question is, can I just re-take and pass that one failed history class to receive my diploma or have the high school requirements changed so significantly that I would need to satisfy the current high school curriculum in order to graduate?

  9. jaileen 11 months ago11 months ago

    I really hope my brother gets to finish his classes to go to college and start a new career

  10. christina summers 12 months ago12 months ago

    I would like to get a high school diploma or GED so I can advance on my job

  11. Soumya Shrivastav 1 year ago1 year ago

    Very good insight..
    Gives a brief description of diploma course for high school.
    Thanks.

  12. Antanaya Mazzccua 1 year ago1 year ago

    I’m 23 years old and trying to get my G.E.D and I don’t know what else to do because all the schools that I call or apply to want thousands of dollars, and I don’t have that type of money.

    Replies

    • Maria Montoya 11 months ago11 months ago

      Antanaya, please reach out to your nearest public high school and ask them to transfer you to the district’s adult education program. Or you can google adult education in (your city). You should get plenty of results for very, very low-cost program options. Don’t pay thousands of dollars for your GED, there are options, Reach out to a teacher, a friend, anyone. Good luck to you!

  13. Christopher 1 year ago1 year ago

    I was only 5 short due to electives. How can I save time and get these 5 covered? I also take classes at West Valley currently.

  14. Willie 1 year ago1 year ago

    I graduated out of high school, and receive a certificate I am 34 years old now and needing a diploma. Do I have to get the GED?

  15. Poohbear 1 year ago1 year ago

    I’m reading information on the web and some say you need a diploma or GED. Some say you do not need one, so which one is it? CSU or UC

  16. Cornelia J Carroll 2 years ago2 years ago

    A home study program?

  17. el 2 years ago2 years ago

    This article is very helpful, but it does make certain assumptions about the population of people in this circumstance.

    For people lacking a diploma who are nevertheless good at exams, there are paths for admission to UC and CSU that involve the GED/equivalency exam and excellent scores on the SAT and SAT subject tests.

    Once you have a degree from somewhere, it typically doesn’t matter if you graduated from high school or not.

  18. Caroline 2 years ago2 years ago

    In Chicago, my dad passed away in September of 1992, and I was not able to completely finish the 12 grade. I tried to go back in 1993 and was willing to re-do the 12th grade but was told I could not go to classes any more because I was 18 and would have to take the GED classes. I was so mad I did not want to take the GED night classes. And I … Read More

    In Chicago, my dad passed away in September of 1992, and I was not able to completely finish the 12 grade. I tried to go back in 1993 and was willing to re-do the 12th grade but was told I could not go to classes any more because I was 18 and would have to take the GED classes. I was so mad I did not want to take the GED night classes. And I had no parent to come to the school and fight to get me back into high school. I did take GED classes but was too broke to take the test and had no money or idea where the test was held. So I had to get a job and had no time to even go out and take the test.

    More then 20 years have gone by, and I’ve always wondered if I can still use the credits I did earn during the 12th grade. And is there a way to earn the last credit requirements that I still need to get my diploma?

  19. The Deplorable Miss B 2 years ago2 years ago

    My only complaint is that the GED and High School proficiency exams offer them in Spanish for an American diploma. No other languages are offered. I’ve seen students from Vietnam, China, the Middle East all struggle and fail these tests while Spanish speaking students are somehow deemed more valuable and given the test in their home language. Totally biased and geared to support the success of only one foreign speaking group rather than all.

  20. Matt Jones 2 years ago2 years ago

    I think the most important point that was missed is that the GED is not the only test approved in California to achieve a state High School Equivalency certificate. The author should have referenced all CDE approved options as posted at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/gd/ instead of referring to a product name like GED in place of the correct name of High School Equivalency certificate. Not one every gets a GED; you pass a test … Read More

    I think the most important point that was missed is that the GED is not the only test approved in California to achieve a state High School Equivalency certificate. The author should have referenced all CDE approved options as posted at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/gd/ instead of referring to a product name like GED in place of the correct name of High School Equivalency certificate. Not one every gets a GED; you pass a test like the GED, HiSET or TASC to get the same state certificate.

  21. Eric Premack 2 years ago2 years ago

    The article misses one of the most important source of instruction for students who haven't graduated. Dozens of charter schools specialize in serving students who haven't graduated. While an arbitrary age cap limits most charter schools to students who haven't yet hit their 20th birthday, there are many others that have special dispensation to serve older students too. Many offer innovative and flexible instructional methods, including project-based instruction, online instruction, team-teaching, … Read More

    The article misses one of the most important source of instruction for students who haven’t graduated. Dozens of charter schools specialize in serving students who haven’t graduated. While an arbitrary age cap limits most charter schools to students who haven’t yet hit their 20th birthday, there are many others that have special dispensation to serve older students too. Many offer innovative and flexible instructional methods, including project-based instruction, online instruction, team-teaching, intensive tutoring, independent study, one-subject-at-a-time, flexible scheduling, etc., to help non-traditional students to succeed. The California Department of Education’s web site has a list of schools–searching by county and pursuing the schools’ web sites is probably a good way to identify potential matches: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/si/cs/ap/rpt.asp?s=2