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High School

How to Decide if a Diploma or a GED is Right for You

Not sure whether a GED or a high school diploma is right for you? Here’s what you need to know about each to make the decision that best fits your goals.
Desiree Sinkevich

Des Sinkevich

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If you want to go to college, you need to have a high school diploma or its equivalent – often referred to as a GED, even though there are a few different types of equivalency exams. Besides furthering your education, there are also many jobs that require, at minimum, a high school diploma or GED. But how do you decide which path is right for you?

What is a GED?

A General Educational Development, or GED, certificate is an alternative path to earning a high school diploma. The GED is an exam that measures your competency in standard high school subjects like math, social studies, science, and English. The GED is just one type of test; there are other, similar options out there that test your high school knowledge in place of a high school diploma.



  • Is a set of tests in standard high school subjects
  • Is not a program or class
  • Is considered equivalent to a high school diploma
  • Can help you qualify for jobs and college
  • Can take a short amount of time to complete


What is a high school diploma?

A high school diploma is earned after you complete all the requirements needed to graduate a high school program. Whether it’s a traditional, in-person high school or an online high school, you’ll need to pass standard classes and earn a set number of credits to graduate.


A high school diploma

  • Takes time to earn
  • Covers a broad range of subjects, including electives
  • Involves learning and studying vs. Just taking a test
  • Can help you qualify for jobs and college


Listen to stories from real high school graduates to learn more about earning yours


GED vs high school diploma

One isn’t a better path than the other, but there are differences between a high school diploma and getting a GED that can help you better decide which one is the right fit for you. A high school diploma involves studying, learning, and taking tests and completing assignments. You must earn passing grades in your classes to get your diploma.


A GED, on the other hand, is a set of four exams. There are no required classes you need to take the exams, but you must pass all four exams to earn your GED.


How long it takes to earn a diploma vs a GED

Earning a high school diploma takes longer than earning a GED. If you are enrolled in a traditional high school, it will take 4 years to finish. Online high school can take less time. The average time to earn a high school diploma online is about 6-14 months.* However, with an online school, the time it takes to graduate really depends on how much time you have to study. So while many do finish in a little over a year, some can finish even sooner or take up to 3 years to graduate.


A GED, on the other hand, is a set of exams. If you’ve been out of school for a while, it’s often recommended that you take a GED prep class before taking the test to increase your chances of passing. If you take a prep course, it can take around 3 months to prepare for and get your GED. If you just want to sit for the exams with no classes ahead of time, the entire exam can take about 7 hours to complete.


Who is eligible to take the GED vs obtain a high school diploma

To be eligible to take the GED, you must

  • Not be a current high school student.
  • Not have earned a high school diploma.
  • Be at least 16, though some states require you to be at least 18.


Meet state requirements. Some states have additional requirements that must be met to be eligible to take the exam. For example, in Pennsylvania, you must be a resident of the state to take the exam. In other states, like North Dakota or Arizona, you must pass a Constitution test as part of your GED exam. Some states also require you to take and pass a pre-test before taking the official GED to show you can probably pass with no additional help.


To be eligible to earn a high school diploma, you must

  • Have finished the 8th grade.
  • Take and pass required classes.
  • Earn the number of credits you need to graduate.
  • Be under 21 if you’re in a traditional high school.
  • In some states, you must also pass a state exam to graduate.


Read More: How a High School Diploma Can Help Your Career


Future earnings: GED vs high school diploma

On average, someone with a high school diploma is likely to earn more money over time than someone with a GED or equivalent. High school graduates tend to earn about $11,000 more than someone who didn’t complete high school, while someone with a GED earns, on average, about $9,000 more than someone who didn’t graduate. Overall, a person with a high school diploma is likely to make around $2,000 more per year than someone with a GED.


However, it’s important to mention that how much you earn per year really depends on several factors such as your specific job, where you live, and your work experience. Someone with a GED could qualify for the exact same jobs as someone with a high school diploma and earn the same amount of money if they live in the same state and have the same work experience.


Alex Thome, Vice President of Penn Foster High School, believes that getting your high school diploma can make a big difference.


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“There's not a whole lot that holds people back in the same way as not having a high school diploma does. Having a high school diploma definitely helps you get better jobs and make more. But to me, it's more about the doors that open into continued education or into different jobs or career training programs.”

Alex Thome

Vice President, High School

Future education: GED vs high school diploma

If you’re considering going to college, that can factor into whether you decide to get a GED or finish your high school diploma. One big question you may be thinking about – do colleges accept GEDs?


Colleges can all have different admissions requirements. About 98% of colleges in the United States accept the GED for enrollment. However, depending on the type of program you want to enroll in or the school’s requirements, you may need to take additional steps to qualify for enrollment. For example, some schools may require you to take additional placement tests to ensure you can pass your college level courses. Certain college programs, like nursing schools, may require you to have a certain GED score and even some college credits before accepting your application.


Those who’ve earned a high school diploma may have an easier time being accepted by some colleges, but they still need to meet certain requirements for enrollment. Most colleges will look at your grades, test scores, extracurriculars, and other factors when determining whether or not you’re a good fit.


Read more: How to Apply to College


What you learn: GED vs high school diploma

In a high school diploma program, you’ll learn a variety of subjects and skills, from how to write an essay to basic math to learning a language. You’ll also pick up life skills that can help you later, such as time management and organization.


A GED, on the other hand, is a set of tests that measures your knowledge versus teaching you knowledge. You may learn through GED prep classes that are focused on passing the exams – you may learn math skills, English basics, social studies, and science – but those classes aren’t necessarily required to take the tests.


Similarities between a GED and a high school diploma

The similarities between a GED and a high school diploma include the following:

  • Both can show you have the knowledge and skills of someone who completed 12th grade
  • Both can help you get into college or a technical school
  • Both can help you qualify for jobs that require a diploma or its equivalent


Earnings by education by state

State Less Than 9th Grade High School Graduate Overall (all)
Alabama $23,001 $30,545 $37,574
Alaska $26,100 $36,386 $47,999
Arkansas $25,068 $30,142 $35,727
Arizona $24,791 $31,185 $40,039
California $25,253 $32,560 $44,077
Colorado $29,258 $35,143 $45,559
Connecticut $25,926 $37,365 $51,280
Delaware $27,279 $34,023 $43,124
Florida $22,932 $29,014 $36,150
Georgia $24,855 $30,927 $40,346
Hawaii $28,883 $35,311 $43,619
Iowa $30,147 $33,483 $41,504
Idaho $26,630 $31,007 $36,300
Illinois $26,397 $32,612 $44,669
Indiana $26,230 $32,629 $40,002
Kansas $26,813 $31,702 $41,052
Kentucky $23,105 $30,986 $37,620
Louisiana $23,191 $31,111 $38,716
Massachusetts $28,479 $37,929 $52,993
Maryland $28,423 $37,045 $52,749
Maine $25,363 $31,398 $39,230
Michigan $23,129 $30,900 $40,538
Minnesota $27,458 $34,586 $46,597
Missouri $25,089 $31,391 $39,535
Mississippi $21,638 $28,512 $34,427
Montana $24,029 $29,874 $36,309
North Carolina $23,842 $30,106 $38,450
North Dakota $30,834 $36,719 $44,051
Nebraska $28,150 $32,260 $41,351
New Hampshire $30,578 $37,919 $47,425
New Jersey $26,118 $35,468 $52,149
New Mexico $21,428 $27,893 $35,029
Nevada $28,422 $32,823 $38,831
New York $24,652 $33,263 $47,089
Ohio $24,237 $32,046 $40,661
Oklahoma $25,084 $31,100 $37,480
Oregon $26,426 $31,685 $40,789
Pennsylvania $26,296 $32,856 $42,786
Rhode Island $28,970 $34,579 $28,970
South Carolina $22,277 $29,819 $37,119
South Dakota $26,760 $31,896 $38,887
Tennessee $23,955 $30,517 $37,786
Texas $24,886 $31,204 $40,969
Utah $28,511 $33,905 $41,881
Virginia $26,070 $32,819 $47,318
Vermont $29,020 $34,153 $41,629
Washington $29,047 $36,702 $48,182
Wisconsin $28,265 $33,769 $42,382
West Virginia $21,681 $30,727 $35,792
Wyoming $27,406 $35,417 $41,650


Source: World Population Review


Which is harder, a high school diploma or a GED?

It can really depend on you. A high school diploma takes longer to complete and involves more projects, assignments, tests, and studying. However, one grade on one test doesn’t determine whether or not you graduate. A GED takes less time but if you fail one of the four subject tests, you won’t get your certificate; you need to pass each test. However, you can retake tests you fail.


While earning a high school takes longer and involves more work, it is also done over an extended period of time so you don’t have to learn everything at once. With a GED, you take the tests and may do some prep classes beforehand.


What is the hardest part of a high school diploma? 

The hardest part of a high school diploma for many students can be how much you have to learn and juggling information from a variety of subjects all at once. In traditional high school, you’ll study several subjects at one time and have different classes throughout the day, which can be a lot for some students. However, a traditional public school isn’t your only option. Many students enrolled in an online high school like Penn Foster, which offers self-paced courses, find it easier to focus on one subject at a time.


Syndey Zaremba-Woodward, Penn Foster’s 2023 Graduate of the Year, never really liked how traditional school was set up or how things were being taught. “I learn a different way,” she said. “Through Penn Foster, I could learn at my own pace and it’s so much easier for me.”


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“In traditional school, you have every subject at once. In Penn Foster, you have one subject at a time. I can focus on each subject in itself. I learned better and more from [doing it that way] than focusing just on tests.”

Sydney Zaremba-Woodward

Penn Foster Graduate of the Year 2023

How to choose between getting a GED and earning a high school diploma

Choosing between getting a GED and a high school diploma isn’t always easy. It can help to consider a few things before making a final decision, including thinking about

  • Your future goals. Do you want to go to college? Do you want to enroll in a specific program? If so, take some time to research the schools and programs you’re interested in. Do they often accept people with a GED? Do they have any additional requirements for those who earned a GED to apply?
  • Your time. How quickly do you need a high school diploma or GED? Do you have time to do GED prep classes? Do you need something that can work around your life? An online high school diploma can offer you the ability to learn at your own pace, around your schedule, with no set timeline to complete. With a GED, you’ll be able to finish it faster, but may need to take time out of your day to take prep classes or sit for the exam.
  • How you learn. Are you someone who can retain a lot of information by studying? Or do you like to learn in small doses? For a GED, you’ll need to study and learn in a shorter span of time, while a high school diploma program can give you more extended periods to absorb and retain information.


Joining the military with a GED vs joining the military with a high school diploma

Having a GED or high school diploma can make the most difference if you’re interested in enlisting in the military. While colleges and jobs may see a GED and diploma as essentially the same thing, having a GED over a diploma can impact your enlistment and what steps you need to take to qualify for most branches of the U.S. military.


The military requires recruits to have either a GED or high school diploma to qualify. However, there are fewer spots available to those who have a GED versus those who have a high school diploma. If you do decide to go the GED route, you may need to take a few additional steps to boost your chances of being accepted, such as earning some college credits or getting a higher score on the ASVAB, a test that is a requirement for joining the armed forces.


Getting a job with a GED vs getting a job with a high school diploma

There are also some instances in which someone with a high school diploma could make more than someone with a GED. It can very much depend on the employer and what they consider most important when hiring new employees. Again, for many, a GED and a diploma are essentially the same. However, for some, a GED may seem less important.


But it’s important to remember that success is what you make it. Whether you decide to finish high school or think that just getting a GED and moving on is your best bet, you determine the path you take forward and the opportunities that are open to you. If you have a GED, you can still go to college, you can still find a job you love.


The same is true for deciding where to finish your high school diploma. An online high school, for example, is a great option for many – especially busy adults – but people still worry it will be taken less seriously than going to a “real” high school. However, when it comes time to apply for jobs, employers aren’t looking at the name of the school you graduated from; they just want to know you graduated! As more and more jobs look for skills over degrees, whether you got a GED or diploma will be less important than the fact that you completed something that shows you have the knowledge you need.


Make a decision that works best for you

An online high school diploma may be the perfect fit for you. Finishing high school may not be the right fit for everyone, and that’s okay! That’s why the GED and similar exams exist, to make sure everyone has the opportunity for economic advancement and chances. In the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not your decision allows you to meet your goals. When you’re deciding on the best route for you, consider all your options, do your research, and learn as much as you can before signing up.


Leaning toward finishing your high school diploma online but not sure if it’s the right fit? Check out more information about Penn Foster and online school in general on our Student Life Blog or listen to stories from real graduates to get an idea of what online high school is really like in our podcast!


* The estimated completion time for this program is based on completion times for learners enrolled in this program from November 2019 - October 2020, excluding withdrawals.

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