The College Enrollment Behavior of Young Adult High School Dropouts, GED Holders, and High School Graduates with Regular Diplomas in the United States: 2000–2010

This resource compares college enrollment among high school dropouts, GED holders, and high school graduates from 2000 to 2010. 

Andrew Sum
Ishwar Khatiwada
Mykhaylo Trubskyy
Sheila Palma
Walter McHugh
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

The labor market experiences and outcomes of America’s young adults over the past few decades have become increasingly associated with their formal educational attainment. The ability to obtain jobs, to work full-time, year round, to acquire skilled jobs, and to achieve adequate annual earnings has become more closely linked with the years of schooling completed by the nation’s adults. Adults without a regular high school diploma or GED certificate have fared the worst in the labor market over the past decade, but even those with a high school diploma or GED have lost a considerable amount of economic ground, particularly over the 2007 – 2010 time period.

Efforts to keep teens in high school through graduation or to encourage dropouts to pursue a GED have been accompanied by calls for them to seek some additional post-secondary education and training including formal training from employers and apprenticeships, to boost their skills and their earnings capacity. Adult education agencies have been called upon to integrate their services with those of community colleges and workforce development agencies, and some community colleges have established GED programs on their campuses that enable some joint enrollment of high school dropouts in GED courses and regular community college classes.

This research report tracks the college enrollment behavior of young adults (18-29, 25-29) who are high school dropouts, GED holders, and regular high school diploma holders. Their college enrollment behavior in selected years over the 2000-2010 decade also is tracked, both for young adults overall and in gender and race-ethnic groups. Further, it examines influence of the academic skills of these young adults on their college enrollment behavior. The final section of the paper tracks the college degree awards of 25-29 year old adults in 2009.

The estimates of the college enrollment behaviors of young adults and their college degree recipiency rates appearing in this paper are based on two primary sources of data. The first source is the October Current Population Surveys (CPS) for calendar years 2000, 2001, 2009, and 2010. The second source of data is the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLS).

Findings of the October CPS surveys for the past decade (2000-¬2010) and from recent interview rounds (2009) from the NLS consistently reveal only a negligible rate of college enrollment for high school dropouts with no GED. Young adults with GED certificates were considerably more likely to attend college than their dropout peers, and their college enrollment rates have been rising over time but remaining far short of those of young adults with high school diplomas. As was the case for all three groups of young adults, women were more likely to be enrolled in college than their male counterparts. Young adults (18-29 years old) with a regular high school diploma were four times as likely as GED holders to have secured a college degree. While increasing numbers of GED holders have enrolled in college over the past decade, their overall degree attainment rate remains quite low.

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