The conventional wisdom is that high school dropouts can restore their status in labor markets by passing high school equivalency tests to earn such certificates as the General Education Degree (GED). But it's not that easy, says a new study by University of Chicago economists James J. Heckman and Stephen V. Cameron.
The study finds that exam-certified people actually fare significantly worse in job markets than comparably skilled high school graduates. In fact, they do about as badly in terms of wages, hours of work, unemployment experience, and job tenure as high school dropouts.
The researchers do find a difference, however, if exam-certified people opt for further schooling. In general, the more additional years of vocational or academic schooling such students complete, the better their future wages and economic performance. Even those who go on to college, however, do less well economically than high school graduates who enter college.
The clear lesson, say Heckman and Cameron, is that high school equivalency certificates are not really equivalent to high school diplomas. "The only value to exam certification," they write, "arises from its value in opening postsecondary schooling and training opportunities. There is no cheap substitute for classroom instruction."