Going to College Without a High School Diploma or GED

While you don't usually need a high school or GED diploma to attend nondegree classes or community colleges, you'll need one for four-year schools.

Updated April 11, 2023

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Many nontraditional students without a high school diploma attend college successfully. They enroll in a two- or four-year school by earning a GED diploma. A GED diploma shows that learners mastered the same college-preparation skills as high school graduates. Passing the GED test may involve creating a study plan and taking the test more than once.

The following sections discuss colleges that don't require a diploma, and financial aid options. Other information breaks down the GED test and its scoring system. Please review the embedded links in the final section. Many links help prospective learners explore colleges that don't require a diploma or a GED test.

Can I Go to College Without a High School Diploma?

Although colleges that don't require a GED certificate offer educational opportunities, there are more options for learners who pass the test. The seven-hour test covers core academic subjects that U.S. high schools emphasize. The internet features many free resources to prepare for the test.

Passing the GED test may bring more benefits. Some professionals with a GED diploma qualify for a promotion or a raise. Workers should speak with their supervisor to determine how the GED test may benefit them.

If I've Dropped Out and Want to Return to High School, Is the GED Exam My Only Option?

People under 18 should check if their public school district offers reenrollment. District policies vary, so prospective students should contact their district office for more information. Other options include exploring adult high school programs. Many school districts offer them to residents at little or no cost.

People not interested in the GED exam should consider the HiSET test. This test differs from the GED exam, which may appeal to some test-takers. Please note that the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, another GED alternative, has been discontinued as of Dec. 31, 2022.

Can I Get Financial Aid If I Don't Have a GED Certificate or High School Diploma?

Colleges that don't require a GED certificate help learners get financial aid through the federal government's Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision. ATB only applies to Title IV programs, such as students preparing for a career. GED-preparation and high school-completion programs fall under this provision. Prospective and new students interested in ATB take one or more tests to qualify.

Some schools offer unique ATB programs. Eligibility criteria may include meeting an income threshold.

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Options for Students Without a GED or High School Diploma

Colleges that don't require a diploma may use one or more enrollment pathways. Options include nontraditional or non-degree-seeking student status and dual/concurrent enrollment. Some schools offer a test-out option. Many community colleges feature programs for learners without a high school diploma or GED certificate. Colleges' admissions websites cover these pathways and their application steps.

  1. 1

    Nontraditional Student Status

    Nontraditional students include military veterans, parents, married students, and learners who left college in the past. Some schools include other groups in this category. Financial aid opportunities vary by state, college, and learners' academic histories. Students without a high school or GED diploma may qualify for federal or school ATB financial aid.

  2. 2

    Apply as a Non-Degree-Seeking Student

    Some non-degree-seeking students take classes for personal enrichment or professional development. Others do so to pass the GED test or build academic skills. Enrolling takes fewer steps. Federal financial aid programs help nontraditional learners in a GED-preparation course and those earning a certificate. Some schools also offer these students institutional financial aid. Prospective learners should also explore private loan opportunities.

  3. 3

    Dual/Concurrent Enrollment

    Dual/concurrent enrollment students earn college credit while completing their high school education. Unfortunately, they do not qualify for federal financial aid programs. However, these learners may receive state, institutional, and private financial aid. Prospective students contact a college's financial aid department to review their options and apply.

  4. 4

    Test Out

    Some schools allow nontraditional students to test out of classes. Tests vary by school, since individual departments develop them. Taking a test involves paying a fee and meeting with an academic advisor. Learners who pass an exam receive credit. Some colleges offer other ways to earn credit, such as a portfolio.

  5. 5

    Community College Enrollment

    Many community colleges that don't require a GED diploma enroll students who did not graduate high school. These schools offer specialized programs, such as remedial and GED-preparation classes. Learners who pass the GED test and earn an associate transfer to a bachelor's-completion program at a four-year school.

How and Where to Take the GED Test

The official GED website helps visitors search for local test centers and preparation programs. The programs run at adult education schools and community colleges. The age requirement for the GED exam varies by state. As of Jan. 2022, most states use a 16 or 18 year age requirement. Many states let test-takers do the GED test online with a virtual proctor.

Test-takers may attempt the GED test in one or multiple sessions. Students scheduling their test session or sessions should give themselves enough time to study. Doing so helps them pass the test on their first attempt and save money.

Earning a GED Certificate

The GED test covers four subjects: language arts, math, science, and social studies. These sections last 70-150 minutes and assess test-takers' reasoning, analytical, and comprehension skills. Test-takers who fail a section may retake it for an extra fee. People who pass a section but want a higher score may also retake it. All GED sections cost the same.

Reasoning Through Language Arts (150 Minutes)

Reasoning through language arts assesses many skills, such as grammar and language basics. Test-takers analyze texts' meanings and identify arguments. Questions use a multiple-choice or drag-and-drop format. The section also includes a written essay lasting 45 minutes. Test-takers receive a 10-minute break between sections two and three.

Students preparing for the essay section should ask another person to grade their practice test. Doing so provides valuable feedback.

Mathematical Reasoning (115 Minutes)

The mathematical reasoning section includes two parts with a three-minute break between them. Topics cover basic math, geometry, basic algebra, graphs, and functions. Questions use different formats, including multiple choice, fill in the blank, and drop down. Many questions and question sets use real-life examples.

The section provides helpful resources, such as an on-screen calculator and a formula sheet. Test-takers may also bring an approved calculator to the testing center.

Science (90 minutes)

The science section includes one part and uses different questions types. Earning a passing score does not require memorizing scientific concepts or theories. Instead, test-takers analyze scientific data, charts, and graphs. Some questions ask test-takers to read for meaning and review numbers and graphics. The section features question sets focused on experiments' results. As with the mathematical reasoning section, test-takers may use an on-screen or physical calculator.

Social Studies (70 minutes)

The one-part social studies section does not include a break and uses multiple question types. Like the language arts and science sections, the questions assess test-takers' abilities to read for meaning and analyze texts. Some questions involve comparing a text and its companion charts.

Those preparing for this section do not need to memorize historical dates and figures. Although the social studies section lets test-takers use the on-screen calculator, no question requires its use.

Understanding the GED Score

Test-takers receive their GED results within a few hours of finishing a section or sections. People should contact the GED Testing Service if they do not receive their results within 24 hours.

As of Jan. 2022, test-takers must earn a minimum 145 score on each section to pass the GED test. A 165-174 indicates college readiness. Some online colleges that accept GEDs let students with scores in this range skip some first-year classes. Learners with scores in the 175-200 range may qualify for up to 10 undergraduate credits.

Programs and Organizations for College Students

NACAC features a nationwide directory of college success and access programs. This resource helps prospective nontraditional students research colleges that don't require a diploma. The advanced search feature allows visitors to filter results by service. Gateway to College helps young people graduate from high school and earn college credit. The program targets high school students with poor grades and people who recently dropped out. NDPC trains high school teachers on the latest best practices in high school retention. Resources include in-person and virtual professional development programs, newsletters, and research papers. NDPC offers educators an affordable membership fee. Job Corps helps young people receive career training. The process involves making a plan for career development, mastering industry skills, and starting a job search. Participants receive personalized mentoring services throughout the program. Learners unsure where to start with the GED test should use Finish Your Diploma. Visitors enter their ZIP code to find a local test-preparation center. Other resources help learners create a success plan. Test Prep Toolkit offers resources covering many standardized tests, including the GED exam. Visitors receive a free study guide and practice questions. Test Prep Toolkit also helps users find a local GED-preparation class.

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