Going to College Without a GED or High School Diploma

If you didn’t complete high school or pass the GED, college may still be an option. It’ll take hard work and dedication, but the effort can lead to a more exciting and better-paying job. Find out what your options are and how to get your GED along the way.

Meet The Expert

Dave Kobzina Assistant Director for Transfer Recruitment,
Portland State University

No GED or High School Diploma? Here Are Your Options

No GED? No high school diploma? No problem. For various reasons, some people don’t complete their high school education during their teen years, but that doesn’t mean the road to higher education is forever closed to them. Although regulations vary by state and school, students without high school credentials do have alternatives for starting a college career.

  • Nontraditional student status

    “Nontraditional student” is often used as a blanket term for students who are older than the norm and who have taken an extended break — at least six years — between high school and college. Many schools run nontraditional student programs and loosen admissions criteria by offering credit for life and work experiences, or by letting applicants test out of certain classes.

  • Apply as a non-degree student

    Students can take individual classes without being formally admitted to a university. But there’s a catch – they’ll have caps on how many credits they can take, won’t be eligible for federal financial aid, and ultimately won’t receive a degree. This could be an ideal option for students who just want to gain a specific skill or knowledge for a particular job.

  • Dual/concurrent enrollment

    Students in most states can take college classes while still in high school. Each state sets admission requirements and course options while also listing whether credits earned in a college environment count toward high school graduation. Some states and school districts even cover the cost of dual enrollment classes.

  • Early enrollment

    The term “early enrollment” is sometimes used interchangeably with “dual enrollment.” Early enrollment programs are typically college-run initiatives to admit high-performing students before they’ve graduated from high school, acting as recruiting tools to attract top students.

  • Early college high schools

    Early college high schools target students at risk of dropping out of high school (e.g., minorities, those from low-income households, or those who do not speak English) and enroll them in a high school located on a college campus. There, they complete a curriculum that integrates high school and college courses.

  • Home school

    Colleges all the way up to the Ivy League (e.g. Princeton) recruit home-schooled students. Home-schooled students without a GED or diploma can send in portfolios, curriculum outlines and reading lists in lieu of transcripts. They may also have to earn a minimum score on an aptitude test.

  • Test out

    It’s possible to accumulate college credits without actually taking the classes. Through the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement tests and, to a limited degree, the UExcel Excelsior College Examination Program, prospective students can earn credit for things they already know without necessarily enrolling in college first. Students who do plan to attend college, however, must be sure to choose a school that will accept these credits.

  • Community college enrollment

    The majority of community colleges use the Ability-to-Benefit (ATB) status to enroll adult students without high school credentials. Applicants must pass a test (e.g., Wonderlic or ACCUPLACER) to prove they’re fluent in the language of instruction and have enough basic language and arithmetic skills to benefit from college. Some students may have to take remedial courses to get up to speed. Although community and career colleges are the most likely to confer ATB status students, some four-year universities may as well.

  • Trade/career school

    With their more specialized focus on a particular profession or skill, trade/career schools have long been an option for students without a diploma or GED. Some schools do require it, but not all and some offer prep for GED testing to help get students up to speed. Others have established proficiency standards – students who meet them in their chosen area of study may be able to bypass the GED requirement.

FAQs

Is it a good idea for students to start a college education without a high school diploma or GED?

Pursuing a college education is always a positive, but not having a high school credential complicates the admissions process. Dave Kobzina, Assistant Director for Transfer Recruitment at Portland State University, says a high school diploma or GED can help students qualify for scholarships, but also points out that real world experience is valuable. “A student can have a strong educational background from life experience and real world work the same way a student would gain skills in a classroom,” he explains. If it’s feasible to get a GED first, make the effort, but if it isn’t, don’t dismiss the idea of going to college altogether. There are other ways to get there.

Can I get a college degree without a high school credential?

It depends. That’s because earning credits and graduating are two separate things. While some colleges require students to earn a GED or high school diploma to convert college credits into a degree, other colleges, like Portland State, are less concerned about this formality. “When students apply to graduate, the university does not look at how they enrolled at the university,” says Kobzina. “Instead, PSU makes sure students have fulfilled all of their college graduation requirements.” If you’re ever unsure about a school’s high school diploma or GED requirement, talk to an academic advisor.

If I’ve dropped out and want to return to high school, is the GED my only option?

No. Adults can attend an adult high school completion program or an accredited online high school to receive a diploma, options that have some advantages over a high school equivalency. Depending on their state, students may also take the HiSET or the TASC equivalency tests. Most communities have at least one educational center that can help students review options and choose the one that’s best for them.

Can I get financial aid if I don’t have a GED or high school diploma?

It depends. For a long while, ATB students were eligible for financial aid. But in July 2012, due to budget cuts, they became ineligible. Then, in 2015, the federal government changed its stance again, revising its guidelines so that ATB students could again receive Pell Grants and other Title IV aid, but only if they were enrolled in an eligible career pathway program, which limits their options. Complicating matters further, each state has its own policy for state funds.

As Kobzina notes, financial aid is highly variable. It can depend on the institution as well as students’ credit load and enrollment status. Because individual circumstances can be so different, Kobzina recommends talking to the financial aid office at the school you wish to attend to get more specific details.

What’s the best route for getting a bachelor’s degree?

Kobzina recommends students at his school start with a community college degree and then transfer into a four-year program. For one thing, it’s practical, since community colleges are designed to take in students of all levels. For another, it’s cheaper. “The biggest advantage of beginning at community college is cost savings.” He warns, however, that students have to be diligent to make it a good deal, and commit to staying on a schedule that doesn’t squander time between transferring from one institution to the other. “National data shows that students who start college at a four-year institution are more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within that four years, which means more cost savings over time.”

Programs & Organizations Helping High School Dropouts

Organizations such as Diplomas Now, Communities in Schools and Jobs for the Future work directly with specific schools or communities to prevent high schoolers from dropping out, or to increase educational and job opportunities for those who already have. But it’s not always clear how students can take advantage of these programs, either before or after dropping out. Here are some national organizations dedicated to helping high school dropouts get back on track and into college:

  • Gateway to College

    Gateway to College takes students who have dropped out of high school or who are at risk of doing so (e.g., learners with a sub-2.0 GPA) and transfers them to a college campus to continue their education. The dual credit program, in place at 40+ community colleges throughout the U.S., allows them to earn a high school diploma while also chipping away at their college degree. Courses, counseling and textbooks are all free to admitted students.

  • National Dropout Prevention Center/Network

    The NDPC/N is a clearinghouse for dropout prevention programs, and gathers and disseminates information on ways to boost graduation rates. Its “Model Programs Database” is a good resource for educators to find out what strategies work. Students can also use it to evaluate the strength of any program they find in NACAC’s directory.

  • Job Corps

    Job Corps is a government program that provides career training to 16- to 24-year olds who have little income. It not only pays for participants’ living expenses during the program, but also helps them earn a GED or diploma if they don’t have one. The program also partners with colleges around the country to prepare all participants for postsecondary education.

  • National Guard Youth ChalleNGe

    ChalleNGe is a 17-month program for 16- to 18-year-old high school dropouts. For the first five months, participants live at one of 40 academies across the U.S., where they go to class, learn job and life skills, complete physical fitness activities and perform community service. During the final 12 months, students have a mentor who helps them work toward a GED and, potentially, postsecondary education.

Getting Your GED After Dropping Out

The most common way for high school dropouts to get into college is by passing the GED exam, although some states offer other options. (To see what you’ll need, consult your state’s Board of Education.) The remainder of this guide covers everything you need to know about the GED.

What’s on the GED?

The GED test is made up of four subjects:

  • Reasoning Through Language Arts (150 minutes)

    This subtest covers reading comprehension as well as the abilities to clearly write and edit information. The reading comprehension asks students to read passages from fiction and nonfiction sources, then answer questions about what they mean. The writing section involves composing an essay.

  • Mathematical Reasoning (115 minutes)

    Roughly half of this test covers quantitative problem solving, including number operations (i.e., the different ways they can be added, subtracted, multiplied or divided) and geometry (shapes, sizes and positions). The other half involves algebraic problem solving.

  • Science (90 minutes)

    The questions on the science test are broken down as follows:

    • 40% to life sciences (biology)
    • 40% to physical sciences (physics and chemistry)
    • 20% to earth and space science

    Most questions come with a graph, illustration or text to provide context.

  • Social Studies (70 minutes)

    Half the social studies test covers civics and government, and the remainder is divided between U.S. history, economics and geography. Each question provides a document, such as a map or graph, and asks the test taker to interpret it. Studying for this test, therefore, does not require memorizing names or dates.

How & Where to Take the Test

  • STEP 1

    Find out if you’re eligible to take the GED in your state. The easiest way to do this is to find your state’s adult education agency on the state contacts page of the U.S. Department of Education.

  • STEP 2

    Create an account at GED.com.

  • STEP 3

    Before you can confirm the test date and location, you’ll have to pay. Some states offer vouchers that reduce the cost. You’ll likely need to contact your local test center to get the voucher number.

  • STEP 4

    Schedule the first test at GED.com. The GED has four subtests, so start with the one you feel most comfortable with. Select “schedule the test” from your account and choose when and where.

  • STEP 5

    Schedule the remaining three tests in whatever order you’d like.

Study Tips

Studying for a test can feel daunting, especially for those who have been out of the classroom for a while. Here are some big picture tips to help get you started:

  • Schedule dedicated study times

    The GED is a rigorous test that anyone would need to study for. Take it seriously, but also don’t panic about it. Millions of teenagers learn this material each year, and adult learners are just as capable; it just requires some dedicated study time.

  • Take the official GED practice test (and other practice tests)

    Those committed to the process should spend the $24 and 4.5 hours to take the official practice test. First, it gives a good sense of what the actual test will be like, easing some of the apprehension testers may feel. Second, the results can provide a benchmark from which to measure future improvement and motivate learners, and can serve as a springboard to develop an individualized study plan. Students looking for quicker and/or more affordable options can find other practice tests in the GED Prep Resources section.

  • But don’t overdo it

    Practice tests are great for spotting weaknesses and measuring improvement. But to get the most out of them, students must leave sufficient study time in between. Taking a practice test every day or even every week doesn’t allow enough time to study the concepts that will lead to thorough understanding and mastery. Regardless of whether you’re a “good” or “bad” test taker, allow yourself ample time to actually learn.

  • Develop a strategy

    A good study guide will lay out multiple strategies for answering test questions. It may suggest keeping time after every question, skipping questions you’re unsure of so you can return to them later, or reading the question thoroughly before scanning the answers. The resource section below lists several good online study guides and companies, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, that publish an updated guide each year.

  • Study for one subject at a time

    Since the GED is divided into four subtests, each of which is taken separately, students should focus on one at a time. Try studying one section one day and moving on to another the next.

  • Rest and sleep well

    Sleep and overall health are just as important as hitting the books. Many students spend late nights cramming when they should be sleeping instead. After a successful study session, rest and get a good night’s sleep. It gives the brain time to recover and increases memory recall and concentration — two things essential for learning and scoring high on the GED.

Understanding Your Score

You won’t have to wait long to find out how you did—scores are available within 24 hours of finishing the test. Test takers will receive an email notification, then can log on to their GED.com account to view their scores. A score of 145 or higher is needed for each of the four subtests to receive high school equivalency.

A score of 165 to 174 earns a student the GED College Ready designation, signifying he or she is ready for college-level coursework. Colleges may use this to waive remedial course requirements for incoming students. A score of 175 or higher earns the GED College Ready + Credit designation. Students who achieve this score can receive ten hours of college credit at participating colleges.

Test takers who don’t pass one of the subtests on their first try can retest at any time. If they don’t pass again, they can retest once more. The GED waives its portion of fees for the first two retests of any module, but individual states may still charge their own fees. Students who fail any module three times must wait 60 days before trying again, and must pay the original rate.

GED Prep Resources: Practice Tests, Study Apps & More

Searching for anything related to the GED on the web results in a dizzying array of sites. The problem is not too little information, but too much. Avoid feeling overwhelmed before starting by sticking to some of our recommended websites for practice tests, courses, study guides, apps and other helpful info.

  • Finish Your Diploma

    Although the GED website is the most comprehensive resource for finding test prep locations, test takers need an account to access it. Finish Your Diploma has an easy-to-use tool for locating free test prep centers and adult education classes.

  • GED

    Every GED test taker must have an account on the GED website. In addition to being the testing portal, it has the most comprehensive practice test around, complete with a score report detailing strengths and weaknesses to focus on. It also links students to free test prep centers in their area.

  • GED Publisher Program

    There are loads of books and software tools released each year, all claiming to help students tackle the GED. Fortunately, the GED verifies which ones align with the test itself. Use this source to learn about verified products and see which ones provide direct access to the official GED Ready practice test.

  • Kaplan Test Prep

    At $129, Kaplan’s self-paced GED prep course requires some financial investment. But its “passing score guarantee” may comfort learners worried about getting results. The benefits include online instructional videos, 24/7 faculty support, practice tests and score reports.

  • Khan Academy

    Need to brush up on your math skills? Khan Academy offers several free math videos to help you review and practice key concepts. These videos may not be labelled specifically for the GED, but concepts still apply. You can browse by subject or use the search box to find a specific type of math exercise or video.

  • Magoosh

    Magoosh is a test prep company that maintains a GED blog. Several times a month, Magoosh writers provide example problems from particular sections, and then walk through the answers in detail. Other posts review the essentials on general test areas such as life science.

  • Mometrix Test Preparation

    Mometrix takes each of the four GED subtests and breaks them down into their smallest components. So instead of studying for “math” students can drill down on their weaknesses and get individual lessons on, for example, decimals and fractions. Each lesson is delivered as a short video. Students can also take free practice tests in each subject.

  • Pocket Prep GED

    Pocket Prep’s basic app, available on both iPhone and Android, is free to download, and users can buy premium versions with more questions and features for an extra $4 to $10. App users can choose how many questions they want to practice each study session, and receive explanations of each answer. Another great feature is the analytics, which shows test scores over time.

  • Queen’s University Student Academic Success Services

    The online resources here are designed to get students ready for a university education, but they also transfer well to GED prep. The site details specific strategies and provides accompanying worksheets for students, covering topics such as quantitative problem solving, exam prep, focus and concentration, and memory strategy.

  • Study Guide Zone

    Prospective GED test takers should download or print the free GED Test Study Guide, which provides dozens of strategies for scoring well on each section. For example, it goes over how to use context clues in the social studies section, and how to spot and disregard irrelevant information in the science section. Test takers can also benefit from skill-building exercises that teach them how to tackle individual questions.

  • Test Prep Toolkit

    As the name implies, Test Prep Toolkit is designed as an all-in-one website for practice tests, video lessons, practice exams and test tips. Its study guide takes users through each step so they hit it all. Unlike Study Guide Zone, it’s best experienced online.

  • Union Test Prep

    Another place for free practice tests and a study guide is Union Test Prep. An added bonus is free flashcards. Union Test Prep is able to support these free tools by referring test takers to Wyzant, a network of online and in-person tutors.