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Who Values the GED? An Examination of the Paradox Underlying the Demand for the General Educational Development Credential


by Thomas M. Smith — 2003

The General Educational Development (GED) credential is the most widely recognized form of alternative secondary certification in the United States today. Unlike other educational credentials, however, GED certification does not require school attendance or mastery of any specific curriculum. Although the requirements for certification are notably different from traditional high school diplomas, the GED is widely viewed as the functional equivalent of the high school diploma. While surveys of employers have shown that they generally consider the GED equivalent to the traditional high school diploma in hiring decisions, much of the literature on the economic returns to GED attainment indicate that these returns are significantly below those of traditional high school graduates and not much higher than those of other dropouts. This article examines the paradox of strong individual demand and strong institutional support for this credential despite educational and economic returns markedly lower than those of traditional high school graduates. The literature on the history of the GED, as well as the cognitive, educational, and economic outcomes associated with it, is examined through the lenses of several economic and sociological paradigms. This article suggests that the GED's potential as a signal of a recipient's basic cognitive skills may be negated by the inability of a test-based credential to signal at least minimal internalization of institutional norms, particularly those most valued in the workplace. The analysis suggests that the GED serves as a systemic safety valve for a system with comparatively high dropout rates. The GED program is a low-cost way to integrate hundreds of thousands of off-track individuals back into the mainstream of society, while at the same time providing an efficient means for the educational system to appear to meet its goals of equality of educational opportunity.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 3, 2003, p. 375-415
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11110, Date Accessed: 12/17/2017 12:52:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Smith
    National Science Foundation
    E-mail Author
    THOMAS M. SMITH is Assistant Professor of public policy and education in the Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University. His current research focuses on cross-school variability in the incentives for teachers to participate in mentorship and professional development activities; the efficacy of grades for predicting earnings growth for non-college-bound youth; the economic and social consequences of GED attainment; and organizational predictors of cross-national variability in teachers’ instructional practice.
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