Funding for GED Drops, but More Need Diplomas

It’s known as the “Good Enough Diploma,” born in 1942 to help out GIs in World War II, but the high school equivalency test known as the General Education Diploma, or GED, is heading into a perfect storm — with adult literacy providers trying to ride it out.

In January, the cost of taking the newly revised GED will double. The test also will be computerized, and it will be harder — aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, as agreed to by 47 states, which emphasizes more critical thinking and writing.

All this is coming together as funding for adult literacy providers has plummeted by more than half in Pennsylvania alone since 2007-08, even as demand for GED instruction has risen by 11 percent in the past five years at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Anisia Williams, 18, of Homewood signed up with the literacy council in February to take GED classes, but as she whiled away months on a waiting list, she found her motivation faltering.

“I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t really qualified to get a high school diploma and should try something else,” said Ms. Williams, whose family had moved to Georgia when she was in ninth grade. When she changed high schools, the second school refused to accept the first school’s credits.

“They told me I’d have to retake two years of high school, so I talked to my mom and grandmother, and when we came back to Pittsburgh we decided I should try for a GED instead. My grandmother kept giving me speeches telling me not to give up.”

Finally, Ms. Williams got a spot May 6 in a GED class at the literacy council, but now she and other current students face a new challenge — passing the current five-part GED test before the Jan. 1 deadline. Otherwise students who have taken portions of the current test will be forced to take — and pay for — the entire new test.

“The clock is ticking,” said Don Block, executive director of the literacy council, which is trying to get out the word about the new test, scrambling to get the council’s current students — who average about 1,000 a month — through the pipeline.

“If you work in a library or in social services, share this information with your clients or patrons. If you have a relative or friend who didn’t complete high school, share this information with that person.”

Otherwise, he added, those affected “may become discouraged and give up on their dreams.”

In Pennsylvania, the number of literacy providers runs the gamut. Publicly funded GED instruction programs in Allegheny County include Goodwill Industries, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Community College of Allegheny County.

Then there are literacy councils that rely on private and public funds — Pittsburgh’s literacy council gets 48 percent of its funding from government sources — and who employ volunteers along with paid staff, although since 2009 the council has had to eliminate five teaching positions — three full-time and two part-time — and reduce the number of classes it offered by almost half, from 61 to 36 classes.

In Pennsylvania, 40,000 people are registered to take the $60 GED test, according to figures from the state Department of Education. But it’s not clear how many of these people know about the deadline or the price increase.

“Losing that resolve is one of the biggest things we’re worried about,” added Colleen Duran, transition manager at the literacy council who helps guide students into post-secondary education, job training or the workforce after they obtain their GED.

Streamlining for success

So, Ms. Duran has swung into action. To more efficiently handle learners who are at different levels, she’s started putting higher-scoring students into one group, so instructors can give more one-on-one time to those who might be struggling.

“I fast-track them, run the class myself, and boom, get them into a GED test and out,” she said. “The people who come in with pretty high scores, they’ve proven they already know a lot, most of the skills they would have learned already. If we wait too long, they’ll have to start all over again.”

These days, the council, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, isn’t just about helping the illiterate middle-aged student — or, as it’s known more respectfully in the field, the “adult learner” — learn to read and write after spending years of hiding it.

And the stereotype of the unemployed, hapless loser isn’t true either.

“I don’t hang around losers,” declared Lewis McCullough, 58, who dropped out of Peabody High School roughly 40 years ago but went on to become a successful electrician, managing five people. “I’ve always been a go-getter, but if I could do it over I would have stayed in school.”

Last year, he went back to the literacy council to get his GED.

“I could read what I needed to read, but this makes me more comfortable getting through the day,” Mr. McCullough said.

If he were starting out today, it would be much harder to make it without a high school diploma, with employers demanding a more skilled workforce. While the 2008 recession has created high unemployment, more than 3.8 million skilled jobs are going unfilled as of the end of March, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s up from 3.5 million a year ago.

President Barack Obama has said he wants to increase the number of post-secondary degree holders in this country to 60 percent, and add 5 million new college degrees, noted Armando Diaz, a spokesman for the GED Testing Service in Washington, D.C.

“That’s not possible when you have 40 million people in this country without a high school diploma,” he said.

But funding cuts in the past decade have left literacy providers no choice but to consolidate services, so enrollment has declined from 3 million to 1.8 million nationally. Congress hasn’t reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act since 2002, when federal funding under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act was at its highest, at around $600 million. That money was channeled to states which then distributed grants to local providers to help low-skilled adults improve their basic skills and English language proficiency. In the past, considerable state matching funds were provided.

“Nationally, the picture for adult literacy funding has always been dire, but recently it’s been getting more so,” added Marcie Foster, a policy analyst with the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success in Washington, D.C., noting that while adult education’s funding has remained flat in the past decade, when adjusted for inflation that means a 25 percent cut in purchasing power for providers.

Locally, nothing illustrates the shift in priorities more than the decision in 2004 by the Pittsburgh Public Schools to close Connelley Technical Institute and Adult Learning Center Vocational School after losing $2.4 million in state funds, so the district could aim its attention on K-12.

“There is this perception, these adults had their chance,” said Sharon Darling, head of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky. “The thinking goes, ‘We paid to educate them already.’ And yet, with more and more people in this bad economy in the pipeline to get retraining, it’s assumed their literacy levels are a lot higher than they are.”

Adult literacy is nonetheless inextricably linked to poverty in the United States, Mr. Block said.

“In low-income homes, survival is the priority, not education. So many of our students have no role model in their lives for a good education. One of our students told me she was the first in her family to get a high school diploma — think of that,” he said.

Ms. Duran sees this every day.

“Guess what, when a young woman gets pregnant, she’s the one who has the baby, has to drop out of school and take care of the child. It makes sense for us to educate her, help her get a job and get off welfare and become a taxpaying citizen.”

One of those women is Rachelle Walch, who dropped out of Highlands in Natrona Heights when she became pregnant at 16. Now she’s 21, her son is in preschool, and after a series of odd jobs — at a carwash and a movie theater — she got her GED at the literacy council and is now enrolled at the Empire Beauty School in Monroeville.

Ms. Walch’s work schedule is challenging, to say the least: She cares for senior citizens in a home care program, sometimes working the overnight shift, then works a half-day shift before heading to beauty school in the evening.

“You do whatever you need to do,” she said, when asked when she had time to sleep.

“I needed to make a better life for me and my child. Everybody deserves a second chance. I passed my GED with flying colors, and now I’m where I want to be in my life. I make enough to pay my bills and make ends meet.”