Beyond the GED: Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College

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.

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow
Shane Crary-Ross
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Nearly 39 million adults in the United States do not have a high school diploma. Roughly twothirds 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.

What the experts say

This is a comprehensive and well-written analytical review of literature and resources for educators, administrators and policymakers serving adults who possess the high school equivalency diploma and  wish to enter postsecondary education or training.

The Executive Summary of this report provides a brief overview of promising ways to enhance the effectiveness of adult education programming in the US. Chapter 1 introduces the challenges faced by the field for moving adult learners toward their education and career goals and the reform efforts currently underway. Those efforts include (a) college-readiness standards and curriculum reforms, (b) GED-to-college bridge programs, and (c) concurrent enrollment in adult education and college. This chapter identifies structural changes to the field based on what is currently known from research.

Chapter 2, “Laying the Foundations: Adult Education’s Move toward College and Career Readiness,” discusses frameworks currently used in adult education and references the changes underway in both high school equivalency testing and curriculum, as per the College and Career Readiness Standards. This section also explores the question of how effective standards-based education is.

Chapter 3, “Building the Bridge: Helping Adults Make the Transition from the GED to College Ready,” examines nine GED-to-college bridge programs and initiatives and highlights four common elements: more rigorous curriculum, transition supports, strong connections with postsecondary institutions, and managed enrollment. Box 3.1 on page 31 summarizes the current research findings on GED-to-college bridge programs.

Chapter 4, “Spanning the Divide: Concurrent Enrollment in College and Adult Education,” acknowledges that there are no rigorous studies on concurrent enrollment with the exception of Washington state’s I-BEST model. That being said, the report examines16 concurrent enrollment programs and notes that these programs “often occur as part of career pathways models” and “vary in the amount of access they give to non˗high school graduates.” Table 4.1 on page 33 illustrates the tiers of college preparation programs for GED-to-college bridge as well as concurrent enrollment programs and stipulates which offer options to earn college credit and which are part of a career pathways model. The chapter offers descriptions of several concurrent enrollment programs. Box 4.1 on pages 37-38 describes national initiatives that support the development of career pathways programs including Accelerating Opportunities, Shifting Gears, Career Pathways Technical Assistance Initiative, and Alliance for Quality Career Pathways. A summary of the research appears in Box 4.2 on pages 41-42.

The final chapter presents a synthesis of the various models, the progress “they have made in overcoming barriers to adult education reform, and suggestions for overcoming continuing challenges in the field.” The report emphasizes two critical issues that are yet to be considered: how to address the needs of the lowest level learners and how to effectively manage the issue of learning disabilities.

It is important to note that the report mentions immigrants and refugees only tangentially. Given the significant numbers of English learners in adult education programs and the wide range of needs represented among them (e.g., from refugees with no or limited formal schooling to immigrants with advanced and professional degrees), it will be essential for policymakers, researchers, adult education practitioners and other interested parties to carefully consider the needs of these learners when planning further reforms and future research.

The appendix includes descriptions of GED-to-college bridge programs and concurrent enrollment programs and a table of states participating in Career Pathways programs.

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