'We Cannot Forget People Who Did Not Graduate From High School'

A community college in New York City offers GED classes tailored to specific careers—with great results.
J.D. Pooley/AP Photo

LaGuardia Community College is a GED machine. At this urban school, near the Long Island Expressway in the New York City borough of Queens, the prep courses for the state's high school equivalency exam aren't just textbook reviews—they are professional-development classes. There is a course for would-be health workers, another for business students, and yet another for anyone interested in technology and engineering.

LaGuardia's free classes, funded by state, city, and foundation grants, have a months-long waiting list. Students willing to pay for courses (at about $3.50 per hour of instruction) can usually get a spot in the next scheduled class, although those fill up, too. Most students are black or Latino.

Gail Mellow, LaGuardia's president, says postsecondary educators who don't reach out to high school dropouts are ignoring many of the young people who most need their help. In big cities such as New York, almost 40 percent of students who enter high school don't finish. "To really educate the American populace," she says, "we cannot forget people who did not graduate from high school."

But a General Educational Development certificate alone won't suffice for people who want to make a decent wage. So, three years ago, LaGuardia began tailoring its GED-prep classes toward certain professions. Reading material for aspiring health pros includes a book about three friends trying to become doctors. Math homework for prospective engineers involves interpreting charts and graphs. These professional-development additions to GED classes were intended to create a smooth transition to college classes or more job training. The community college wound up inheriting a lot of its own successful GED students. Seventeen percent of its college students are from the GED program.

Lillian Zepeda was one of them. She dropped out of high school after becoming pregnant with her second child. She decided to go for her GED certificate when she was 20. College courses at LaGuardia followed easily after that. "I hadn't already decided that's what I was going to do, but it was in that [GED] class that I said, 'This is the next step,' " she says. It didn't hurt that LaGuardia applications were waiting for her outside the GED testing facility. She is now enrolled at New York University.

GED classes relevant to a student's desired profession are far more efficient than a textbook-only class in getting people to pass the high school equivalency exam, because they spend more time in class and receive college-prep advice from the staff. The pass rate for LaGuardia's students in the "contextualized curriculum" courses is twice as high as for those who took LaGuardia's regular test-prep class until 2012, 53 percent versus 22 percent. Students who earn their GED certificate through a LaGuardia course are three times as likely to sign up for additional college study—24 percent versus 7 percent.

The presence of so many minority students on campus is also important for demystifying these first-timers' ideas of college. Jane MacKillop, LaGuardia's associate dean of academic and career development, explains, "They come here and they look around and say, 'Everyone here looks like me. I could belong here.' "

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Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal.

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