Community colleges must develop comprehensive transition programs to give GED students a chance to succeed in higher education.
Community colleges are at the forefront in providing accessible and affordable quality education to a growing population of students, many of whom are ethnic minorities. Depending on the data source, up to 46 percent of all new students entering higher education do so at the community college level, and that percentage breakdown is even more significant when considering race and ethnicity (46 percent Black, 55 percent Hispanic, 46 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 55 percent American Indian) as factors in the overall percentages of undergraduate students in community colleges.
Many ethnic minority students are either first-generation or first-time college students and thus face the challenge of not having a reference to navigate the higher education system. This situation becomes even more challenging when these same students left high school early and did not have sufficient opportunities to gain awareness or develop a level of confidence that could have resulted from continued interaction and participation in the educational setting. While community colleges serve a broad segment of the overall college student population, GED students clearly need special assistance in bridging the gap between completing the GED and entering either the work force or college.
It is not unusual for GED completers to view this accomplishment as an end in and of itself — i.e., culminating in entering the work force, rather than opening the doors to a college education. According to Julie Strawn, senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, acquiring the GED increases annual earnings by $1,700 over the earnings of a high school dropout. Annual earnings increase by $2,700 for a person entering the work force with a high school diploma. However, the GED is not sufficient to earn a living wage or to meet today’s economic challenges. We must encourage and assist students in acquiring more education or developing higher-level skills.
GED students come in all shapes, sizes, colors, economic backgrounds, aspirations, abilities and capabilities, ranging from being academically gifted to possessing skills below the level necessary for success in college-level courses. They have chosen the GED path for a variety of reasons: Some decided school was not for them and dropped out; others were embarrassed because of their poor academic performance and chose not to pursue a diploma; and others needed to take on more of the financial responsibility for the family and left school to seek employment.
GED students often face challenges that far exceed the challenges of students who complete high school. Often they have excessive financial burdens, a result of finding work only at more menial jobs; their academic skills are poorly developed, so academic success is more difficult to achieve.
To help GED completers succeed, community colleges must develop appropriate policies and support programs designed to provide academic and career counseling, assist with the transition to college, and guide students through course selection, registration and assessment testing, and a rigorous and mandatory orientation program. A counselor to assist with the “transition” must maintain regular contact, monitor academic progress and make referrals as appropriate for financial and community-based resources or other “wrap around services” such as assistance with childcare, transportation, housing, textbooks and tutorial assistance.
Recently, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the GED graduation at the Lone Star College System-North Harris College campus. I was excited and honored because in all of my years in higher education, and of attending many graduation ceremonies, I have never experienced the level of excitement and pride demonstrated by students graduating with their GED. It never fails that a voice rings out with “way to go, mom.” The graduates’ faces are wreathed in smiles, some have tears running down their faces and all are proud because they have persevered and accomplished a goal that seemed almost insurmountable at the beginning. One such student was a young lady, a scholarship recipient who was voted outstanding student, who dropped out of high school, became involved in drugs and for a while was homeless. After many false starts, she determined that she wanted to make something of herself. She enrolled in three GED programs before finally completing all course work, and she took the exam twice before making scores high enough to receive her GED. After working closely with a “transitions” counselor at the college, she is currently working in the school district food service department and is enrolled in prerequisite courses to study nursing. There are many other stories like hers.
These graduates proved themselves to be committed and persistent. They struggled, worked, overcame barriers, learned and succeeded. We must never forget that community colleges are positioned uniquely to provide that “bridge” to move students from GED completion to remedial or college-level courses.
— Dr. Donetta Goodall is vice chancellor for academic affairs and student success at the Lone Star College System in The Woodlands, Texas. The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.
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