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.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.