David R. Henderson  

Generally Educationally Deficient (GED)

Natural Libertarians?... The Ethics and Etiquette of St...
The General Educational Development (GED) credential is issued on the basis of an eight hour subject-based test. The test claims to establish equivalence between dropouts and traditional high school graduates, opening the door to college and positions in the labor market. In 2008 alone, almost 500,000 dropouts passed the test, amounting to 12% of all high school credentials issued in that year. This chapter reviews the academic literature on the GED, which finds minimal value of the certificate in terms of labor market outcomes and that only a few individuals successfully use it as a path to obtain post-secondary credentials. Although the GED establishes cognitive equivalence on one measure of scholastic aptitude, recipients still face limited opportunity due to deficits in noncognitive skills such as persistence, motivation and reliability. The literature finds that the GED testing program distorts social statistics on high school completion rates, minority graduation gaps, and sources of wage growth. Recent work demonstrates that, through its availability and low cost, the GED also induces some students to drop out of school.
This is from the abstract of "The GED" by James J. Heckman, John Eric Humphries, and Nicholas S. Mader, NBER Working Paper #16064, June 2010. Screening, anyone?

A few excerpts from the study:

Controlling for their greater scholastic ability, GEDs are equivalent to uncredentialed dropouts in terms of their labor market outcomes and their general performance in society. On average, obtaining a GED does not increase the wages of dropouts. While GEDs go to college at higher rates than dropouts, few finish more than one semester. The same traits that lead them to drop out of school also lead them to leave from jobs early, to divorce more frequently, and to fail in the military.
A primary cause [of growth in the GED program] is the growth of government programs that promote the GED as a quick fix for addressing the high school dropout problem.
None of this would matter if the GED were harmless, like wearing a broken watch and knowing that it is broken. But the GED is not harmless. Treating it as equivalent to a high school degree distorts social statistics and gives false signals that America is making progress when it is not. A substantial part of the measured convergence of black and white high school attainment is fueled by prison-issued GEDs.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
david writes:

Like any sticky standard, there is always the temptation to exploit stickiness by inflating its value. I don't think the GED is government-set, even, although I suppose there is considerable influence on its use.

Anecdotally I've observed that exams get easier in the US and Europe, but harder over time in East Asia. I'm not sure what sort of dynamic might drive the latter, though.

Matt C writes:

Hey, put me down as one of those crazy libertarians who is against compulsory schooling, period.

I like it that kids who can't do school, for whatever reason, have another rung left on the ladder to get a better job or maybe go on to college.

Maybe the statistically-measured difference in outcomes for GED holders is small. On the other hand, maybe the folks who end up getting GEDs would do even worse if the option was denied them.

People who choose a GED do it for reasons, even if they aren't ones that social statisticians would appreciate. Getting out of school early has a value for the people who choose it. Sometimes it includes earned wages, which can be measured. Does any of the literature attempt to measure these earned wages or other other non-financial benefits to the GED recipient? I bet not.

Part of the idea above seems to be that we should get rid of the GED because it creates inconveniences for social planners in their statistics. This argument, if I am reading it right, sickens me.

We need more educational options, not fewer, especially for lower class kids, and less reverence for the lousy school system (which is especially lousy for lower class kids).

Noah Yetter writes:

Goodhart's Law wins again

Daniel Klein writes:

I have a GED. My story is probably very idiosyncratic, but it might be of some relevance.

I dropped out of high school after December of my senior year, and started college at Rutgers-Newark in January of what would have still been my senior year of h.s. This situation was unusual, in that Rutgers-Newark was willing to admit me with neither a h.s. degree nor a GED. I was joining Rich Fink's libertarian economics program, and Fink presumably finagled something with admissions.

When that circle relocated to GMU, beginning the following September, GMU required that I get a GED, so I did.

This example raises the question of whether the GED can be a way to bypass a year or two of h.s. But I've never known of anyone with a similar story.

There could be procedural restrictions that block such bypassing.

But it could also be simple lack of mutual coordination between college admissions offices and capable students who would like to bypass a year of h.s. If neither side of the bypass is confident in the other side, the bypassing won't happen. That is, if admissions offices frown quite indiscriminately on GEDs, then such students will not attempt the bypass. And if such students never attempt the bypass, then it may make sense for admissions offices to frown quite indiscriminately on GEDs.

It is like jitneys not plying the route because people don't congregate along it, and people not congregating along it because jitneys do not ply the route.

Phil writes:

The GED replicates only the academic content of high school. So whatever it is about high school that leads to desired outcomes is something other than academics -- persistence, motivation, and reliability, to quote the abstract.

So why not come up with alternative ways to let teenagers demonstrate persistence, motivation, and reliability, ways that would send the same signals to employers?

scott clark writes:

Prof. Klein,

Coordination is a problem, but my experience shows there is a link in the chain of education that could smooth out some of those coordination problems. I spent my senior year of high school at my local community college and, in fact, it was the admissions officer there that first turned me on to GMU. I bet its easier for a capable student and their high school to coordinate with their local community college and let the community colleges coordinate with 4yr colleges and universities if need be. My curriculum and progress was monitored by a teacher from my high school. I imagine this level of coordination goes on somewhat regularly and as long as the student's pursuit is academic in nature, it probably obviates the need to get a GED. I graduated with t he rest of my high school class. The only drawback was that even years after I graduated from Mason, I would still have dreams that I had to go back and finish high school.

MikeP writes:

Mr. Klein,

I know of a number of people with similar stories to you. They dropped out of high school, took the GED and were admitted to community college, then on the basis of doing well there, were able to transfer to a four year university.

They go a college education at a cost substantially lower than they would have if they'd gone straight to the four year school and entered the work force a couple of yeas earlier than their peers.

liberty writes:

I got a GED for similar reasons to Daniel Klein (it was required to graduate from Eugene Lang college where I first went, so around year 2 of college I took the test), although I never actually needed it in the end (because I dropped out of their and ended up in another program, and then finally at GMU, where I also never graduated because I was going to need several more years of entry level courses in addition to the many years of coursework I'd already done).

I fit into the statistical category of "once a dropout, always a dropout" I guess. Anyway: did you notice (at least when I took it, in the late 1990s), the GED is at about the 5th grade level? How it supposed to test anything when the hardest question is simple multiplication or basic basic algebra, like X + 4 = 10, what is X? I remember being really nervous that I'd rushed so much I might have gotten one wrong, and how embarrasing that would be - but despite finishing in about 20 minutes, I got them all right. And I was a just a dumb kid with a mohawk.

liberty writes:

grr... "dropped out of there"

Ella writes:

I don't know that the GED has anything to do with compulsory education. (Which I'm also against.) The government doesn't mandate it and employers obviously don't care about it, so it's pretty much a wash. I think the GED is an entirely different exercise in signaling, the way that famous people go to rehab to get out of PR trouble.

The interesting part to me is that most of those GEDs are prison-issued. Based on one screw-up cousin, I'm betting that the ONLY reason the majority of those prisoners are getting GEDs is to get into some early-release program.

The GED may be the same thing, a way to say "hey, I'm not a deadbeat!" on the cheap.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top