Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The GED Fallacy

This week's edition of Time Magazine ran an interesting article on its cover titled Dropout Nation, in which Time lifts the lid a bit on the dropout rate in the United States. According to the article, many juristictions in the United States have been covering up high dropout rates through creative reporting mechanisms, where a student who drops out of school but answers that he/she plans to take the General Educational Development (GED) tests are not counted in the statistics as dropouts. However, according to the Time article, when you add in those who leave saying they will take the GED, the overall dropout rate across the country is more than 30%.

Given the high education rate in the United States, coupled with the fact that most low-end jobs are either being shipped overseas or being done by low-paid illegal immigrants, dropping out of high school in 2006 in this country is economic suicide: a ticket to a lifetime of backbreaking hard work, low pay, and living paycheck to paycheck - or worse. Why would someone willingly put themselves in this situation?

...unless that person thinks he/she has an easy way out. Something like the GED.

For those unfamiliar with the GED, it is a series of five exams that evaluate a candidate's skills in Reading, Writing, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science. If a candidate passes the exams, he/she is given a diploma that is supposed to be the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Of course, one major problem with the GED is that concept of equality. A GED is not a high school diploma. Some people may treat it as one, but others may not.

As a hiring manager myself, I have screened over a thousand resumes and interviewed over a hundred candidates over the last several years, and I know what to look for. When people write a resume, they tend to embellish on the good stuff and leave out the bad stuff, so as a manager, I try to read between the lines, to look for things that suggest trouble. And for me, seeing a GED on someone's resume or job application is a huge red flag.

Why, you might ask. Here is the logic: a GED is something you get when you fail to finish high school the normal way. Perhaps the candidate was unmotivated and didn't push himself. Or, perhaps he was rebellious, had a poor sense of self-discipline and failed to succeed in school. Or, worse yet, perhaps he was a troublemaker and got expelled from school. In any case, all of these traits that can make a person fail to adapt to the structured environment at high school are just as likely to make a person fail to adapt to the even more structured environment in most companies. For me, if I see a GED on a resume, I am quite likely to toss the resume into my trash can unless I see some other redeeming qualities, and even then, the candidate can expect a grilling in the interview over why he/she did not finish high school the normal way.

Likewise, just as the GED does not adequately set a person up for improving his/her work prospects, it does not set that person up for success in college/university either. According to this report published a few years ago on the topic, 95% of GED recipients who go on to a four-year university program fail to complete it (probably by flunking out), as compared to 25% of those who enter the program with a regular high school diploma.

Given the poor prospects of a GED recipient, does it really make sense that the program continued to be promoted as an equivalent alternate path? Does it really make sense to give teenagers an option: either they can sit in class and do their homework for four years, or they can stop all that, study a bit, go write five tests, and spend their time hanging out with their friends instead? Should that really be a choice?

Personally, I think the GED may have outlived its usefulness. The program was originally created in the 1940s as a way for soldiers returning from World War II who had left before finishing high school to not have to go back to high school in their twenties. However, in today's society, the same situation that created the GED no longer exists, and the fact that we leave it on the table as an option only encourages some frustrated teenagers to look at it as a valid option.