GEDs for Free: One State’s Plan to Help Homeless Teens Succeed

Less than 25 percent of homeless youths graduate from high school.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 8, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Spending nearly eight hours taking a computerized exam might sound pretty painful, but for some students, the price tag on high school equivalency exams is more troubling than a 120-minute math section packed with problems that are unsolvable.

The cost of GED exams varies by state, and in Illinois they cost about $120—a fee that youths struggling to feed and clothe themselves might find difficult to afford. That’s why Illinois state Sen. Ira Silverstein is pushing to make high school equivalency exams, or GEDs, free for homeless people under 25.

“Homelessness makes it difficult for children to attend school, and if a young homeless person seeks to further their education by getting a GED, we need to help make that goal accessible,” Silverstein said in a statement. The measure unanimously passed the state Senate’s education committee this week and now heads to the full Illinois Senate for further consideration.

Less than a quarter of homeless students graduate from high school, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. That makes equivalency exams a vital alternative for helping homeless students break the cycle of poverty. Roughly 88 percent of jobs require a high school diploma or an equivalency certificate, according to a study from Georgetown University.

Some states, such as Connecticut, don’t charge to take the test, but elsewhere the price varies. The same test costs $16 in Arkansas and $45 in Maryland. Under Silverstein’s plan, school districts would foot the bill for the exams.

Although the national Point-in-Time homeless count—in which officials count the number of people who are homeless on a single night each year—found that homelessness has declined in Illinois, reports from the state’s education board say child homelessness has increased. More than 54,000 students were identified as homeless during part of the 2014–15 school year, according to December figures from the Illinois Board of Education. That’s more than double the number just six years earlier—the school districts reported less than 27,000 homeless students during the 2008–2009 school year.

As the nation as a whole has seen a steady incline in child homelessness—from 1 million students experiencing homelessness in the 2010–11 school year to 1.3 million in the 2013–14 academic year—other states have also considered waiving the GED fee for students in need. Legislators in Maryland introduced a similar bill in February, and California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans the Department of Education and other testing companies from charging homeless students a fee for GEDs in September 2015.

Not only will a GED make a difference for each individual who earns one, but higher earnings can help fund local economies.

“If we help [homeless youths] overcome this obstacle, we put them in a better place to get jobs that pay well enough to afford housing,” Silverstein said. “A bigger pool of qualified job seekers and a smaller population of homeless people can contribute to a better economy and quality of life in Illinois.”

Workers with high school diplomas or GEDs earn about $200,000 more over their lifetimes than high school dropouts. College graduates make about $1 million more over their lifetimes than those who haven’t completed high school. Using a modest estimation of homeless students in Illinois currently of high school age and calculating their total missed earnings, the National Center on Family Homelessness determined that the state of Illinois also misses out on $460 million in contributions to society.