Earning a high school diploma in the traditional sense, which means dashing from classroom to classroom through crowded hallways to sit, listen, and take notes for seven or more hours a day, isn’t for everyone. For some students, family obligations, such as needing to care for younger siblings or an ill parent, prevents them from attending school. For others, the rigid structure and expectations that they have the attention span to attend classes all day isn't a good fit. Regardless of a student’s reasons for not graduating high school, the disadvantages of not having a high school diploma are the same.

Challenges Making a Living

Many high school graduates find that having their diploma isn't sufficient to land a job that pays enough to make a living. But those without a high school diploma may discover that positions that don’t require the completion of high school are scarce and a lot less desirable than jobs that require their workers to have their diploma.

Common job opportunities for dropouts include strenuous manual labor and positions in the fast food industry. Predictably, then, not earning a diploma has significant financial consequences. The U.S. Census Bureau says those who fail to finish high school earn approximately $10,000 less annually than high school graduates and over $36,000 less than someone who’s earned a bachelor’s degree.

The poverty rate for dropouts is more than twice as high as college grads, and the unemployment rate for dropouts is generally 4 percentage points higher than the national average. Recent numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics indicate high school dropouts are nearly three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates.

GED: Paying the Price

The vast majority of students who don’t finish high school may plan on getting their General Education Diploma, or GED. The test, that consists of four subtests on the subjects of language arts, math, science and social studies, is a high school equivalency exam for those who haven’t finished high school. Working toward and earning a GED is the next best thing to receiving a traditional high school diploma. However, doing so can be a challenge for many students.

Depending on a student’s academic standing, grade level and district at the time he or she stops attending school, preparing to take and pass the GED exams can be a daunting and overwhelming task. Students who quit high school often require lengthy test preparation classes in order to have even a small chance of passing. And even when such resources are available, many of these individuals who have quit school still lack basic student success skills, such as note-taking, time management and regular attendance.

Finding preparation classes in certain areas, particularly more rural parts of communities, can prove to be difficult. To add to the challenges, government money to help fund such test prep classes isn’t as readily available as it’s been in recent years, so fewer of these classes are available across the country. Also, those who want access to GED materials to increase their chances of passing the test the first time around may have to pay for materials not available free-of-charge online.

The cost to take the test varies by state, and the range is considerable. For example, in Connecticut, the test is free for residents of the state while other states, such as Michigan and Hawaii, charge $150 total for all four subject areas. If a test-taker fails one or more subtests, the GED Testing Service will waive its fees for him to retake the test; however, each state has its own guidelines regarding waiving of its state fees that have been tacked on the base cost. Those who want information on their state’s retake policy should inquire when they register for the test.

Continuing Education

Quitting school before graduation can leave one with many questions regarding options for post-secondary schooling, one of the most popular being: Can you still go to college if you dropped out of high school? The short answer is yes, but dropouts won’t be able to enroll in a program of study without a GED. Everyone can take classes at community colleges, even those without a diploma or GED; they just have to enroll as non-degree students. This means they wouldn’t be able to take courses beyond the most basic the school has to offer, so making a plan to earn a degree or vocational certificate isn’t possible without at least a GED.

If you do plan to take the preparation classes, and eventually the tests, to get your GED, you may be wondering what your options are for enrolling in a college or university. According to the GED Testing Service, 98 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities accept applicants with a GED diploma or certificate in lieu of a traditional high school diploma. Even though the GED is seen as an acceptable substitute for a high school diploma on a college application, these institutions have other requirements in place in order for you to be considered for admission.

For example, you will most likely need to take the ACT or SAT, which are standardized tests used to assess a student and his or her eligibility for admission to a college or university. The knowledge required to the pass the GED test isn't as extensive nor as in-depth as the material covered on these standardized tests. That’s not to say that if you’ve dropped out and passed the GED that you can’t take and do well on either of these exams. However, if you’ve found yourself struggling with basic subjects in preparation for and while taking the GED, you will most likely have difficulty scoring well on these exams.

Limitations of the GED

The GED is a viable substitution in nearly every situation for which a high school diploma is needed. Most four-year colleges accept a GED in lieu of a traditional high school diploma. However, in the admissions process, those who have earned their diploma often have an advantage over those who’ve found themselves not graduating from high school. Despite GED scores that indicate a student has a similar knowledge and understanding of basic high school subjects as someone who graduated, many assert that a GED doesn't represent the same in-depth learning and academic achievement of a four-year high school education.

Presenting yourself as someone who has earned a GED rather than as a high school graduate often means people see you as a dropout who lacked the dedication and tenacity to finish all four years of high and earn the necessary credits to graduate. These post-secondary challenges are reflected in the numbers: According to the U.S Census Bureau, 33 percent of high school graduates go on to earn a bachelor’s degree while just 5 percent of those with a GED hold a four-year degree.

If you have a GED and are interested in serving in any branch of the U.S. military, the enlistment process will be more difficult for you than if you had a high school diploma. Only a certain number of basic training spots are allotted for those with a GED, so if you want to enlist and all of those slots are taken, you must wait for an opening. According the Department of Defense, the military put these limitations in place after years of research indicated that those with a GED are at least twice as likely to drop out or get kicked out during their first service term. Even those with a GED who end up enlisting are required to score higher on the military’s own readiness exams, such as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB.

High School Dropout Effects on Health

Recent research indicates that dropping out before graduation has an adverse effect on one’s health which can, in turn, lead to premature death. In a study done by researchers from the University of Colorado, New York University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, findings suggest that heart-related diseases and complications are to blame for many early deaths among high school dropouts. According to Ahmedin Jemal, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tobacco use, obesity and high blood pressure are the biggest culprits among dropouts that lead to such cardiovascular diseases.

Serious health issues may also be detected later because many lower paying jobs don’t offer benefits. This lack of benefits may mean fewer dropouts seek regular, preventive healthcare, such as annual physicals. Those who don’t finish high school may be more likely to see a doctor only when they're really sick or having serious symptoms. The poverty rate for dropouts is over twice as high as college grads, which may also be a contributing factor to poor health. An unhealthy diet made up of inexpensive, high-fat food with little to no nutritional value as well unsafe living conditions, which may include exposure to lead or inadequate access to clean water, can result in substandard health conditions.

Schoolhouse vs. Jailhouse

Russell Rumberger, Professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, asserts that students who not only graduate from college but also those who graduate from high school are a privileged population in the U.S. In contrast, those who don’t finish high school have the odds stacked against them. The numbers indicate he’s onto something. The National Dropout Prevention Center reports that 82 percent of U.S. prisoners are high school dropouts. In addition, young black men between the ages of 20 and 24 who lack a high school diploma or a GED are more likely to be in jail than they are to have a job. Rumberger’s research indicates that those who fail to earn a high school diploma are five to six times more likely to serve jail or prison time.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, research indicates that just a 10-percent increase in high school graduation rates results in a 9-percent decline in criminal arrest rates; this same increase in the graduation rate would reduce murder and assault rates by 20 percent. Many who work in both K-12 education as well as in the prison system have been making the argument for some time that investing money in programs that aim to keep students in school now will save taxpayers money later. These programs, especially when involving poverty-stricken, at-risk demographics, have proven to reduce the number of students who will later become incarcerated.

For example, a 40 year study evaluated 123 at-risk students in Michigan. One group attended Perry Preschool and another group didn't. Researchers discovered the findings were quite remarkable. By age 40, those who didn't participate in the preschool program were five times more likely to be chronic criminal offenders by age 27 than children who were enrolled. In addition, at age 40, those who had attended were 48 percent less likely to have been incarcerated. In general, those who were previously enrolled in the program earned more money, committed less crime, were more likely to be employed and were less likely to have dropped out of high school compared to their at-risk counterparts.

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