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Beyond the GED: Preparing for College and a Career in the 21st Century

January 28, 2014 11:00 AM

The GED is a common pathway for many students to transition into postsecondary education and ultimately, the workforce. Past studies have indicated that in practice, many GED prep programs fall short of this goal. A 2009 report by the GED Testing Service showed that only one-in-three GED holders enrolled in at least one postsecondary institution five years after attaining their GED. After one semester, 77 percent of those individuals dropped out; only 17 percent earned a postsecondary credential. For the GED to live up to its potential as a viable alternative for youth to use to progress to and through postsecondary education, GED programs must re-evaluate the supports and services provided to students.

On January 24, the American Youth Policy Forum held the panel session Beyond the GED: Preparing for College and a Career in the 21st Century on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC that explored the history of the GED and highlighted the best practices at LaGuardia Community College’s GED Bridge Program. The forum was co-sponsored by MDRC and included Richard J. Murnane, Professor of Education and Society at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Gail O. Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, Vanessa Martin, Senior Associate at MDRC, and Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Research Associate at MDRC.

Murnane gave an overview of the historic trends and value of GED attainment to participating youth. The program, begun in the 1940s, was started as a way to provide returning World War II veterans with a high school completion credential. By 1974, all states provided open access to the GED. In 2011, 12 percent of all high school completion credentials were awarded to GED recipients.

“Recipients of such alternative high school completion credentials do not fare as well in labor markets or in postsecondary education and training as conventional high school graduates,” said Murnane. “Its increasing availability, especially to 16 and 17 year-olds, induces some struggling students to drop out of high school.” He outlined several reasons as to why GED recipients do not fare well: the credential symbolizes a history of inconsistent attendance and lack of reliability to employers; it does not measure attributes employers seek in entry-level hires; programs are test-prep oriented, and do not develop critical soft skills such as honesty, work ethic, motivation, and attitude; and most recipients fail to complete any type of a postsecondary program within six years of reception. “Today, one in five U.S. students leave high school without a diploma,” said Murnane. “There is a pressing need for second-chance programs that develop the skills needed for success in postsecondary education and training that also signal acquisition of necessary skills to employers.”

Mellow discussed the development and implementation of the GED Bridge Program at LaGuardia Community College. She shared the success stories of several students who went through the program, addressing LaGuardia’s more contextually based structure. The school’s GED Bridge Program represents a promising approach to GED instruction, aiming to better prepare students to not just pass the GED exam, but also to continue their education through additional college and training programs. The Bridge Program has two broad goals, said Mellow. “First, we want to build the skills tested on the GED exam through use of content specific to a field of interest. Second, we aim to develop general academic habits and skills that prepare students to succeed in college or training programs.”

Martin presented the results of MDRC’s GED Bridge Program evaluation and highlighted opportunities for future research. Their analysis covered the first four cohorts, from Fall 2010 through Spring 2012. “Compared with students who went through a more traditional GED Prep course, LaGuardia students were much more likely to complete the course,” said Martin. They were also more likely to pass the exam. “We also saw that these students enrolled in college at much higher rates than students in the traditional prep course.” Martin indicated that Bridge Program students were in fact three times as likely to enroll in a City University of New York community college as GED Prep students.

Rutschow discussed the policy implications and highlighted future opportunities within current federal policy that can support successful programs such as LaGuardia’s. “Currently, the most promising alternative high school credentialing programs contextualize learning through careers, provide enhanced transition support, and offer direct connections to postsecondary education,” she said. The research indicated that new programs should accelerate instruction and create better milestones. “Leaders should ask what outcomes are most important for student success in college and career?” Rutschow pointed out that some alternative credentialing programs offer concurrent learning, where students in a GED program also earn college credits. “Further analysis is needed to determine if these concurrent enrollment programs provide more success for students in the postsecondary education environment.” Challenges identified in the study included recent changes to Federal financial aid policies and targeting the 75 percent of adults with below a ninth grade reading level—a current requirement necessary to succeed at the GED exam.

Nonetheless, LaGuardia’s GED Bridge Program has had dramatic impacts on the GED pass rate and college enrollment. The model holds considerable promise for strengthening the links between low-income students who need to complete their secondary education and college or skills programs. Continued studies of this and similar models will provide a clearer picture of how to strengthen GED and adult education for low-income people.

 

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