Learn about the differences and impact between obtaining a high school diploma and a GED.

The lack of a high school diploma, or its equivalent, precludes a college education and is a substantial barrier to compete successfully in the workforce. For students currently in high school, it is essential to see it through until graduation. Those who have already dropped out of high school need to obtain a GED in order to put their best foot forward in the workforce. This article compares high school diplomas and GEDs in terms of their acceptance by colleges and universities, the business world, and the military. The article also discusses how homeschooled high school graduates show that they have obtained a high school diploma or its equivalent.
Regular or Online High School Diplomas

A high school diploma from a traditional “bricks and mortar” or online school that requires attendance is the gold standard in demonstrating completion of high school and mastery of high school skills. A high school diploma signifies that the holder has attended and successfully completed all the courses required by the applicable school district. A transcript of the courses taken and grades issued, a common requirement for college and job applications, can be furnished upon request.

Acceptance: Colleges and universities, businesses, and each branch of the United States military accept a regular high school diploma. In order to attend college, a high school diploma or GED is required for admission. Students who have a high school diploma and have demonstrated good grades will often be able to get financial aid that individuals with a GED cannot get. In the business world, many entry-level positions require a high school diploma or GED. But again, those with an online or traditional diploma will often be hired before those who have a GED. For the military, potential recruits are categorized into three categories or tiers based on their education. Most enlistees are in Tier 1, which is for high school diplomas. High school equivalencies are in Tier 2, and non-high school graduates are in Tier 3. Thus, holders of regular or online high school diplomas, assuming that they pass the physical and other requirements for enlistment, are readily accepted for military service.

Certificate of Completion. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, a student who has completed the coursework necessary to graduate but has not passed a required exit examination by the end of 12th grade can be issued a certificate of completion or attendance. It is important to note that this is not a high school diploma or an equivalent to a diploma – it simply certifies attendance at a high school. According to the US Department of Education, these certificates are most often awarded to children who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Certificates of Completion are not considered by colleges to meet the necessary minimum requirements for admission. However, holders of Certificates of Completion can go back to high school and complete the requirements for a diploma and, upon completion, can apply to colleges or trade schools or request federal student aid. In some jurisdictions, a Certificate of Completion may prevent the holder from taking the GED test. Students who plan to take the GED test should check the local requirements before accepting a certificate of completion.


GED stands for General Equivalency Development. As the name implies, the GED was designed as a high school equivalency test for non-graduates. According to the GED Testing Service, the GED originated after World War II to allow veterans to complete their high school education and attend college. Subsequently, civilians were allowed to take the GED test as well. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the GED was taken primarily by individuals who were seeking to improve their credentials for work purposes. Since 1978, the GED test has been revised four times, the most recent of which was launched in January 2014. Today, the GED provides a second chance for those who have been unable to complete their studies in a traditional high school setting to demonstrate their mastery of high-school level coursework.

Eligibility. A person is eligible to take the GED test if they meet three criteria. First, a person cannot have graduated from an accredited high school or received a high school equivalency certificate or diploma. Second, the person cannot be currently enrolled in a regular high school. Lastly, individuals must be at least 16 years of age.

Subjects Tested. The GED test is designed to assess the educational and developmental levels of those who did not graduate from high school. The test covers five areas: writing skills, reading (interpreting literature and the arts), mathematics, science and social studies. The questions are all multiple choice with the exception of an essay given in the writing skills portion of the test. To pass the GED test, a person must attain a minimum score on each test and a minimum combined score on all tests. Those who pass the GED test receive a certificate acknowledging that state high school graduation requirements have been met.

Administration. The General Educational Development Testing Service administers the GED test in each state, which is a program of the American Council on Education. The test must be taken at an official testing center and cannot be taken online. In response to online programs offering GEDs, the American Council on Education issued a warning that a GED cannot be earned online or by correspondence programs. The warning further provides that a purported GED earned online may be of “dubious value” and may not be accepted by employers, colleges and universities, or the military. Hiring personnel, college admissions officers, and military enlistment personnel are encouraged to verify the authenticity of an individual’s GED credential by contacting the jurisdiction that administered the test.

Acceptance. In the academic and business sectors, holders of GEDs have almost the same opportunities as diploma holders, although the edge does go to those who graduated from high school. All community colleges and almost all four-year institutions accept GEDs, and most businesses that require high school graduation also accept the GED. There seems to be, however, a general impression that a high school diploma is a better credential than a GED. For example, if two applicants are otherwise equally qualified, the applicant with the high school diploma may be preferred to the holder of a GED.

For purposes of military service, a GED is regarded as Tier 2 education. The armed forces limit the percentage of Tier 2 candidates accepted in any enlistment year. In addition, GED holders must score higher on the ASVAB to qualify. The status of the GED is based on decades of statistics showing that high school graduates have a much lower attrition rate than other enlistees. The percentage of Tier 2 candidates accepted depends upon the particular branch of service. The Air Force accepts less than one percent, and the Navy and Marines accept less than ten percent.

There continues to be a stigma associated with the GED. The negative connotation seems to be related to the perception of high school dropouts rather than to the GED itself. A common assumption may be that students drop out of high school because of behavioral or academic problems, whereas in practice there are a range of circumstances that keep students from finishing high school from personal medical issues to family emergencies or other life circumstances that prevent an otherwise capable student from completing their studies. In addition, getting a GED may be associated with cutting corners or with a lack of perseverance. Most individuals spend less time preparing for the GED test than they would spend attending one year of high school. Educators assert that GED holders do not get the benefit of the breadth of subject matter and social interactions that are part of a high school education. Nevertheless, those who pass the GED test demonstrate that they have achieved a comparable level of knowledge as those in their state who graduated from high school.