For years, adults who had dropped out of high school had only one venue to prove that they’d mastered the same skills that a diploma reflects: passing the general educational development (GED) test. While it’s better than nothing, though, in practice, a GED is not a complete replacement for a diploma, since it’s treated as a lesser substitute by colleges and employers. Now, Gale Cengage Learning is partnering with the country’s first accredited online school district, Smart Horizons Career Online Education (SHCOE), to offer a way for adults to earn a full high school diploma through libraries across the nation: Career Online High School (COHS).
To illustrate the need for such a program, the 2010 census found that GED holders make an average of $2,922 per month, as opposed to the $3,222 earned monthly by the average high school graduate. With more education, that wage gap actually widens: GED holders who go on to get their BA earn an average of $4,852 monthly, while BA holders with a diploma make an average of $6,305. While those wages are still much better than the $2,400 a month that those with no diploma or GED can expect to take home, the GED is still an imperfect replacement for a high school diploma.
For students who want to finish their high school education but are too old to return to traditional school, the GED has long been the only game in town, though as the exam becomes privatized and moves to online-only testing, some new competitors have begun to spring up. Gale, still, isn’t looking to provide the equivalent of a diploma. It wants to offer the real thing, in partnership with COHS and libraries.
The program is launching in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) has purchased 150 scholarships. Each scholarship will allow one returning student to earn his or her diploma from COHS. Gale executives gave a ballpark cost of $1,000 to $1,200 per scholarship but stressed that that costs would vary depending on a number of factors, including the need in a given community and how many scholarships a library system is interested in purchasing. Libraries considering the program will also be responsible for some fees involved with program recruitment and assessment. Students looking to enroll will have to take an assessment test first to ensure they’re good candidates for the program, demonstrating that their skill levels and goals are in keeping with the curricula.
“We follow a very training-based model,” Howard Liebman, CEO at SHCOE. “When students enroll, they declare a major and that determines the courses they take.” While there is a curriculum for those who intend to pursue a liberal arts BA, majors are usually career-focused programs, with tracks like child care, office management, and homeland security. Students take those classes first to drive home the applicability of the program to their future lives before they begin the science, math, and language courses that will make up their accredited diploma.
“The career track gives students a goal,” said Nader Qaimari, vice president of sales and marketing for Gale. “That makes them more likely to complete the program.”
Other factors involved in successful course completion include the elimination of the grading progress letting students digest the material at their own pace and retake exams as many times as necessary. There is no homework; all exercises are completed during the program itself. Diploma seekers will also have access to academic coaches for guidance and support.
If prospective students wash out of the program despite these support systems, libraries can recoup their scholarship funds if they act within the first 30 days of enrollment. And scholarships don’t expire, so libraries can afford to get off to a slow start while they learn how best to administer the program and not risk losing money they’ve invested. There is no minimum number of scholarships that a library must purchase to participate, and they can add more if they run out. Gale says it is open to working with consortia and state libraries as well as individual systems.
With 45 million American adults lacking a high school diploma, 150 scholarships may not sound like a lot, and John Szabo, director of LAPL, said that he and his staff are anticipating a high level of demand for the limited scholarships. “Our internal conversations are about making certain we do a great job of promoting the program while understanding the demand will be enormous,” Szabo said. He added that LAPL staff will be trained in what the program offers so they can be on the lookout for good fits. “Our literacy coordinators are knowledgeable and in touch with the people who are good candidates for this.”
Those providing these online diplomas say that libraries are a perfect venue as a place to administer the courses, and not just because participants may not have reliable Internet access at home. “Libraries are at the center of their communities,” said Liebman. “That’s important, as we’re serving a population that doesn’t have a lot of trust in the educational system to date.”
Gale’s Qaimari said that while participating in the program does incur some new costs for libraries, it could also provide a way for libraries to protect their budgets by expanding their roles as educational centers. Szabo concurred, saying that while it could look like mission creep, being involved in education is a core principle of LAPL’s mandate. “We’re about learning, education, and workforce development,” Szabo told LJ. “This is an area where we can have a huge impact.”
It’s also a place Szabo anticipates working with other nonprofits and government agencies to help identify candidates and defray the expenses associated with the program. “We have incredibly successful citizenship and literacy programs,” Szabo said. “So we have many nonprofits interested in partnering with us, and I can see them being incredibly helpful in spreading the word about this.”