Can You Go to College Without a High School Diploma?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the options you have to continue your education without a high school diploma.

[Featured Image] A curly-haired female student with a backpack holds books and notebooks in her hand and walks on a college campus.

Colleges typically expect and require you to have a high school diploma or an equivalent like the General Educational Development (GED) test to enroll. However, some colleges allow you to enroll in individual courses even if you do not have a high school diploma. These courses help you learn a new skill or prove that you are ready for college education while you work to obtain a GED. Some community colleges bypass a high school diploma requirement by having standardized test scores like the SAT or ACT as one of their only requirements for admission. 

This article examines how you can go to college without a high school diploma through a series of steps by looking at the usefulness of a GED, pathways to attending college without a high school diploma, and how to decide which pathway is right for you. 

Read more: 9 Alternatives to College

Why is a high school diploma or equivalent important?

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) demonstrates that having a high school diploma or its equivalent leads to higher weekly earnings and lower unemployment rates compared to workers without a diploma or GED. 

Additionally, having a high school diploma is an important factor in showing you are ready for the challenge of a college education. Having one may give you a competitive edge when you apply for jobs. However, even if you did not graduate college or do not have an equivalent like the GED, you will find pathways available to attend college. 

The typical learner’s journey to college begins in their junior year of high school, which is when learners usually start visiting campuses and begin the application process. You will also take the ACT or SAT to demonstrate your college readiness during that year. From there, you will narrow down your options and choose a school you were accepted to. Many learners opt to begin college in the fall after high school graduation, while others decide to take some time off or a “gap year” to work or explore the world around them. 

Pathways to higher education without a high school diploma

The pathway to higher education without a high school diploma is possible. Some of the routes that people take include the following: 

  • Adult education courses

  • General Educational Development (GED) test

  • High School Equivalency Test (HiSET)

  • Community college

  • Trade school

Let’s take a closer look at how each can help you find your way to attending college. 

1. Adult education courses

Adult education courses at a community college help prepare you for tests like the GED and give you an idea of what a college course feels like. Other alternatives like adult high school allow you to obtain a high school diploma. Some of these institutions are private and follow a schedule that mirrors the typical one you find at high schools. Others do not charge a fee and are on nights and weekends for residents in the area. Once you complete the required coursework, you will receive a high school diploma. From there, you can apply to college. 

2. General Educational Development (GED) test

A standard alternative equivalency to a high school diploma is to pass the GED. Colleges typically accept a GED in place of a high school diploma. The GED tests the essential knowledge you learn in high school through four separate tests in the following subjects:

  • Mathematics

  • Language arts 

  • Science

  • Social studies 

Learners usually take about three months to study for the test, but it’s important to know that you can take each test individually. The cost for the GED varies from state to state, as does the price for the test, so be sure to check with your state testing policies using this source from the GED website. 

GED vs. high school diploma

While a GED and high school diploma have an equivalency, high school diplomas hold slightly more weight when finding a job. A GED is simply an exam that tests the knowledge you learn in high school. A high school diploma is a credential received after completing and passing all classes in high school. 

However, certain life circumstances like medical issues, family care, or having to join the workforce make obtaining a GED the better option for some learners. Before taking the GED, consider whether your pathway and circumstances would be better suited by receiving your high school diploma through adult education courses. 

3. HiSET

The High School Equivalency Test (HiSET) is similar to the GED in that it is a credential with the equivalency of a high school diploma. The HiSET is another pathway to college, trade school, or a job requiring a high school diploma or equivalent. The US Department of Education accredits it in the same way as the GED. The test is made up of five sections:

  • Reading

  • Writing

  • Mathematics

  • Science

  • Social studies

Like the GED, you can take all five sections on the same day or separate days in an order that best suits you. Only some states offer the HiSET as an equivalency. Check the HiSET website to see your state-specific policies and if your state offers the test. 

HiSET vs. GED

The HiSET and GED provide credentials equivalent to a high school diploma. However, each test has some differences. Let’s take a look at how the two compare. 

HiSETGED
Not yet offered in all 50 US statesOffered in all 50 US States
Has five sections; splits language arts into two sections: reading and writingHas four sections; keeps language arts as one unique section
Has both a computer and paper option for the testOnly has a computer option for the test
Allows only three attempts in one calendar yearAs many attempts as necessary in a year, with a waiting period after the fourth attempt

The choice to take the HiSET or GED is entirely up to you, as both tests offer the same equivalency to a high school diploma. Study the format of each test to see which one better suits your skills and knowledge to ensure you pass the test in as few attempts as possible. 

4. Vocational schools

Other options if you do not have a high school diploma include vocational or trade schools. Requirements for vocational schools vary from school to school, requiring you to check your list of schools to see which ones need a high school diploma or GED and which do not. 

Trade school is a good option if you already have hands-on experience in a field and want to advance in your career or learn new skills. A few common vocations and trades that do not require a high school diploma include the following:

  • Welding

  • Carpentry

  • Plumbing

  • Cosmetology

  • Massage therapist

  • Certified nursing assistant

In trade school, you build skills for a hands-on job in the workforce. Some schools sponsor GED preparation, allowing you to obtain your GED while building your skill set. 

Read more: 10 Technical Careers to Study at Night (or Any Time)

5. Community college

Although traditional colleges and universities require a high school diploma or GED, you can often apply to community colleges without one. You use application aspects like essays and work experience to leverage your admission. Community colleges allow you to gain academic credit and transfer to a four-year degree program. Some community colleges require you to take high school level courses in college to test your aptitude or courses to take the GED at the same time. However, some schools recommend you obtain a GED or HiSET before applying. 

How to determine the right path for you

Even if you do not have a high school diploma, you still have multiple educational options available. Everyone has their own path to take, whether that leads to vocational school, college, or entering the workforce. When determining how you want to move forward with your education, consider your life circumstances, family, if you need to work, your career goals, and what kinds of financial aid you are eligible for if you decide to pursue college. 

Learn more with Coursera.

Begin your path as a lifelong learner with Coursera. For example, if you are looking to gain in-demand skills to start a career, consider the Google IT Support Professional Certificate, which has no degree or experience requirements and provides you with IT skills for an entry-level job. 

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.