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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

January 2018


What does the research say about the effectiveness of high school equivalency alternative programs on student outcomes (e.g., graduation rates, employment rates, and completion rates)?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the effectiveness of high school equivalency programs on student outcomes. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to completion of high school equivalency programs, high school graduation rates and employment rates. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Kemple, J. J. (2008). Career Academies: Long-term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the abstract: “Established more than 30 years ago, Career Academies have become a widely used high school reform initiative that aims to keep students engaged in school and prepare them for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. Typically serving between 150 and 200 students from grades 9 or 10 through grade 12, Career Academies are organized as small learning communities, combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, and establish partnerships with local employers to provide work-based learning opportunities. There are estimated to be more than 2,500 Career Academies operating around the country.

Since 1993, MDRC has been conducting a uniquely rigorous evaluation of the Career Academy approach that uses a random assignment research design in a diverse group of nine high schools across the United States. Located in medium- and large-sized school districts, the schools confront many of the educational challenges found in low-income urban settings. The participating Career Academies were able to implement and sustain the core features of the approach, and they served a cross-section of the student populations in their host schools. This report describes how Career Academies influenced students’ labor market prospects and postsecondary educational attainment in the eight years following their expected graduation. The results are based on the experiences of more than 1,400 young people, approximately 85 percent of whom are Hispanic or African-American.

Key Findings

  • The Career Academies produced sustained earnings gains that averaged 11 percent (or $2,088) more per year for Academy group members than for individuals in the non-Academy group—a $16,704 boost in total earnings over the eight years of follow-up (in 2006 dollars).
  • These labor market impacts were concentrated among young men, a group that has experienced a severe decline in real earnings in recent years. Through a combination of increased wages, hours worked, and employment stability, real earnings for young men in the Academy group increased by $3,731 (17 percent) per year—or nearly $30,000 over eight years.
  • Overall, the Career Academies served as viable pathways to a range of postsecondary education opportunities, but they do not appear to have been more effective than options available to the non-Academy group. More than 90 percent of both groups graduated from high school or received a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, and half completed a postsecondary credential.
  • The Career Academies produced an increase in the percentage of young people living independently with children and a spouse or partner. Young men also experienced positive impacts on marriage and being custodial parents.”

Manno, M. S., Yang, E., & Bangser, M. (2015). Engaging disconnected young people in education and work: Findings from the Project Rise implementation evaluation. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Educational attainment and early work experience provide a crucial foundation for future success. However, many young adults are disconnected from both school and the job market. Neglecting these young people can exact a heavy toll on not only the individuals but also society as a whole, for example, through lost productivity and tax contributions, increased dependence on public assistance, and higher rates of criminal activity. Project Rise served 18- to 24-year-olds who lacked a high school diploma or the equivalent and had been out of school, out of work, and not in any type of education or training program for at least six months. After enrolling as part of a group (or cohort) of 25 to 30 young people, Project Rise participants were to engage in a 12-month sequence of activities centered on case management, classroom education focused mostly on preparation for a high school equivalency certificate, and a paid part-time internship that was conditional on adequate attendance in the educational component. After the internship, participants were expected to enter unsubsidized employment, postsecondary education, or both. The program was operated by three organizations in New York City; one in Newark, New Jersey; and one in Kansas City, Missouri. This report describes how the Project Rise program operated at each local provider, including the extent to which the participants were engaged and achieved desired outcomes: (1) Participants were attracted to Project Rise more by the education component than by the internship opportunity; (2) More than 91 percent of program enrollees attended at least some high school equivalency preparation or, less commonly, high school classes. On average, those who attended class received almost 160 hours of instruction. About 72 percent of enrollees began internships; over half of the internship participants worked more than 120 hours; (3) Although participants received considerable case management and educational and internship programming, the instability in participants’ lives made it difficult to engage them continuously in the planned sequence of activities. Enrolling young people in cohorts with their peers, as well as support from case managers and other adult staff, seemed to help promote participant engagement. The education-conditioned internships appeared to have had a modest influence on encouraging engagement for some participants; (4) Within 12 months of enrolling in Project Rise, more than 25 percent of participants earned a high school equivalency credential or (much less commonly) a high school diploma; 45 percent of participants who entered with at least a ninth-grade reading level earned a credential or diploma. Further, about 25 percent entered unsubsidized employment in this timeframe; and (5) It may be important to consider intermediate (or perhaps nontraditional) outcome measures in programs for disconnected young people, since such measures may reflect progress that is not apparent when relying exclusively on more traditional ones.”

McFarland, J., Stark, P., & Cui, J. (2016). Trends in high school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2013. Compendium Report. NCES 2016-117. Jessup, MD: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Dropping out of high school is related to a number of negative outcomes. For example, the median income of persons ages 18 through 67 who had not completed high school was roughly $26,000 in 2013. By comparison, the median income of persons ages 18 through 67 who completed their education with at least a high school credential (i.e., a regular credential or an alternative high school credential such as a General Educational Development [GED] certificate) was approximately $46,000. Over a person's lifetime, this translates to a loss of approximately $680,000 in income for a person who did not have a high school credential compared to a person who had at least a high school credential (Rouse 2007). Among adults age 25 and older, the percentage of dropouts who are in the labor force is lower than the percentage of high school credential earners who are in the labor force. Similarly, among adults in the labor force, the percentage of dropouts who are unemployed is higher than the percentage of high school credential earners who are unemployed (U.S. Department of Labor 2014). In addition, dropouts age 25 and older reported being in worse health than adults who are not dropouts, regardless of income (Pleis, Ward, and Lucas 2010). Dropouts also make up disproportionately higher percentages of the nation’s institutionalized population. In a comparison of those who drop out of high school and those who complete high school, the average high school dropout costs the economy approximately $260,000 over his or her lifetime in terms of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity, and higher reliance on welfare (Levin and Belfield 2007). This report builds upon a series of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports on high school dropout and completion rates that began in 1988. It presents estimates of rates in 2013, provides data on long-term trends in dropout and completion rates, and examines the characteristics of high school dropouts and completers. Five rates are presented to provide a broad perspective on high school dropouts and completers in the United States: the event dropout rate, the status dropout rate, the status completion rate, the adjusted cohort graduation rate, and the averaged freshman graduation rate. Each rate contributes unique information. Information about individuals who pass the GED exam is provided to place the different rates into context relative to this widely used alternative high school credential.”

Millenky, M., Bloom, D., Muller-Ravett, S., & Broadus, J. (2011). Staying on course: Three-year results of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe evaluation. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “High school dropouts face an uphill battle in a labor market that increasingly rewards skills and postsecondary credentials: they are more likely than their peers to need public assistance, be arrested or incarcerated, and less likely to marry. This report presents results from a rigorous evaluation of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, an intensive residential program that aims to ‘reclaim the lives of at-risk youth’ who have dropped out. More than 100,000 young people have completed the program since it was launched in the early 1990s. MDRC is conducting the evaluation in collaboration with the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. Key findings from the survey include: (1) Members of the program group were much more likely than those in the control group to have obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate or a high school diploma and to have earned college credits; (2) Members of the program group were more likely to be employed at the time of the survey, and they earned about 20 percent more than their control group counterparts in the year before the survey; and (3) There were few statistically significant differences between groups on measures of crime, delinquency, health, or lifestyle outcomes. These results are impressive; few programs for dropouts have produced sustained positive impacts. Appended are: (1) Analyses of Survey Response Bias; (2) Life Skills and Civic Engagement Outcomes; and (3) Unweighted Outcomes. And yet, both the survey and a series of in-depth telephone interviews with ChalleNGe graduates suggest that many young people struggled to maintain momentum after leaving the residential program and returning home, where they had relatively few supports and also faced unusually challenging labor market conditions. ChalleNGe may want to experiment with ways to bolster its postresidential services to provide more support during this difficult transition.”

Miller, C., Millenky, M., Schwartz, L., Goble, L., & Stein, J. (2016). Building a future: Interim impact findings from the YouthBuild evaluation. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Young people have been hit especially hard by changes in the labor market over the past decades. Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds increased the most of any age group during the recent recession, and remains more than double that among older adults. The unemployment rate is especially high for young people without high school diplomas. YouthBuild is one program that attempts to help this group, serving over 10,000 of them each year at over 250 organizations nationwide. Each organization provides construction-related or other vocational training, educational services, counseling, and leadership-development opportunities to low-income young people ages 16 to 24 who did not complete high school. YouthBuild is being evaluated using a randomized controlled trial, in which eligible young people at participating programs were assigned either to a program group, invited to enroll in YouthBuild, or to a control group, referred to other services in the community. The evaluation includes 75 programs across the country funded by the U.S. Department of Labor or the Corporation for National and Community Service and nearly 4,000 young people who enrolled in the study between 2011 and 2013. This report, the second in the evaluation, presents the program’s effects on young people through two and a half years. About 75 percent of the young people assigned to the program group participated in YouthBuild, and about half of these participants reported that they graduated from the program within 12 months. YouthBuild led to a number of positive effects on young people, most consistently in the area of education and training. Main findings include: (1) YouthBuild increased participation in education and training, even though a high percentage of the young people in the control group also sought out and participated in education and training. Overall, participants rated their experiences in YouthBuild favorably, although some program components were rated more highly than others; (2) YouthBuild increased the rate at which participants earned high school equivalency credentials, enrolled in college, and participated in vocational training; (3) YouthBuild led to a small increase in wages and earnings at 30 months; (4) YouthBuild increased civic engagement, particularly volunteering, but had few effects on other measures of youth development or attitudes; and (5) YouthBuild had few effects on involvement in the criminal justice system. The program's interim effects on education and training are encouraging. A later report, measuring effects through four years, will examine whether these interim effects lead to longer-term gains in work and earnings.”

Song, W. (2011). Labor market impacts of the GED test credential on high school dropouts: Longitudinal evidence from NLSY97. GED Testing Service Research Studies, 2011-2. Washington, DC: GED Testing Service. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Ever since achieving a high school credential by passing the GED test became widely institutionalized through adult education programs in the United States, outcomes for GED test credential recipients have continued to be of great interest to the adult education community and the general public. Very few studies of GED test credential recipients have examined the impacts of the credential from a national and longitudinal perspective; even fewer have provided information on their occupational changes after obtaining a GED test credential. This study utilizes a new wave of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), a national longitudinal study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, to examine the impacts of the GED test credential on the labor market outcomes of high school dropouts. The analyses take advantage of 12 years of data to explicitly model the impacts of the acquisition of a GED test credential on the hourly wages and work hours of youth who did not complete a high school education and to explore the immediate impact on occupational change upon obtaining a GED test credential.”

Song, W., & Hsu, Y.-C. (2008). Economic and noneconomic outcomes for GED credential recipients. GED Testing Service Research Studies, 2008-2. Washington, DC: GED Testing Service. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The GED (General Educational Development) Tests are widely used to certify a high school level of academic knowledge and skills. The popularity and profound influence of the GED Tests have solicited numerous studies on the outcomes of obtaining a GED credential. Most studies on labor market outcomes for GED credential recipients have targeted specific groups for comparisons across age, gender, or geographic areas. Depending on the samples used and the research methodologies applied, the studies have yielded mixed results. Furthermore, scholars have noticed a scarcity of research on the noneconomic outcomes of GED credential recipients, such as their social participation, health, and parenting skills. This study provides evidence through a recently released nationally representative sample of adults, the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), on the economic outcomes as well as the noneconomic outcomes for GED credential recipients. On the economic outcomes, this study examines labor force participation, work history, weekly wage, and personal income. On the noneconomic outcomes, this study looks into political and social participation, family literacy, and health.”

Tyler, J. H. (2003). Economic benefits of the GED: Lessons from recent research. Review of Educational Research, 73(3), 369–403. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In 1998, the U.S. Department of Education published a comprehensive synthesis of the General Educational Development certificate (GED). Since that time, additional research has shed light on the economic benefits of the GED. This review of that research highlights four lessons. First, the presence of the GED option may encourage some students to drop out of school. Second, economic benefits associated with a GED accrue only to dropouts who leave school with very low skills. Third, economic benefits associated with a GED appear over time rather than immediately upon receipt of the credential. Fourth, the returns to postsecondary education and training are as large for GED holders as for regular high school graduates, but GED holders obtain very little postsecondary education or on-the-job training.”

Tyler, J. H., & Lofstrom, M. (2009). Finishing high school: Alternative pathways and dropout recovery. The Future of Children, 19(1), 77–103. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “John Tyler and Magnus Lofstrom take a close look at the problems posed when students do not complete high school. The authors begin by discussing the ongoing, sometimes heated, debate over how prevalent the dropout problem is. They note that one important reason for discrepancies in reported dropout rates is whether holders of the General Educational Development (GED) credential are counted as high school graduates. The authors also consider the availability of appropriate student data. The overall national dropout rate appears to be between 22 and 25 percent, but the rate is higher among black and Hispanic students, and it has not changed much in recent decades. Tyler and Lofstrom conclude that schools are apparently doing about as well now as they were forty years ago in terms of graduating students. But the increasingly competitive pressures associated with a global economy make education ever more important in determining personal and national well-being. A student’s decision to drop out of school, say the authors, is affected by a number of complex factors and is often the culmination of a long process of disengagement from school. That decision, not surprisingly, carries great cost to both the student and society. Individual costs include lower earnings, higher likelihood of unemployment, and greater likelihood of health problems. Because minority and low-income students are significantly more likely than well-to-do white students to drop out of school, the individual costs fall unevenly across groups. Societal costs include loss of tax revenue, higher spending on public assistance, and higher crime rates. Tyler and Lofstrom go on to survey research on programs designed to reduce the chances of students’ dropping out. Although the research base on this question is not strong, they say, close mentoring and monitoring of students appear to be critical components of successful programs. Other dropout-prevention approaches associated with success are family outreach and attention to students’ out-of-school problems, as well as curricular reforms. The authors close with a discussion of second-chance programs, including the largest such program, the GED credential.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • descriptor:“high school equivalency programs”

  • dropout prevention

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.