Here’s a GED You Can Ride Into NYU

LaGuardia Community College is a GED machine, savvy to reaching out to high-school dropouts who are thirsty for practical and professional grant-funded classes.

NEW YORK - MAY 13: New York University students attend graduation ceremonies in Washington Square Park May 13, 2004 in New York City. Over 15,000 students graduated from the university's class of 2004. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

La­Guardia Com­munity Col­lege is a GED ma­chine. At this urb­an school, near the Long Is­land Ex­press­way in the New York City bor­ough of Queens, the prep courses for the state’s high school equi­val­ency ex­am aren’t just text­book re­views — they are pro­fes­sion­al-de­vel­op­ment classes. There is a course for would-be health work­ers, an­oth­er for busi­ness stu­dents, and yet an­oth­er for any­one in­ter­ested in tech­no­logy and en­gin­eer­ing.

La­Guardia’s free classes, fun­ded by state, city, and found­a­tion grants, have a months-long wait­ing list. Stu­dents will­ing to pay for courses (at about $3.50 per hour of in­struc­tion) can usu­ally get a spot in the next sched­uled class, al­though those fill up, too. Most stu­dents are black or Latino.

Gail Mel­low, La­Guardia’s pres­id­ent, says post­sec­ond­ary edu­cat­ors who don’t reach out to high school dro­pouts are ig­nor­ing many of the young people who most need their help. In big cit­ies such as New York, al­most 40 per­cent of stu­dents who enter high school don’t fin­ish. “To really edu­cate the Amer­ic­an popu­lace,” she says, “we can­not for­get people who did not gradu­ate from high school.”

But a Gen­er­al Edu­ca­tion­al De­vel­op­ment cer­ti­fic­ate alone won’t suf­fice for people who want to make a de­cent wage. So, three years ago, La­Guardia began tail­or­ing its GED-prep classes to­ward cer­tain pro­fes­sions. Read­ing ma­ter­i­al for as­pir­ing health pros in­cludes a book about three friends try­ing to be­come doc­tors. Math home­work for pro­spect­ive en­gin­eers in­volves in­ter­pret­ing charts and graphs. These pro­fes­sion­al-de­vel­op­ment ad­di­tions to GED classes were in­ten­ded to cre­ate a smooth trans­ition to col­lege classes or more job train­ing. The com­munity col­lege wound up in­her­it­ing a lot of its own suc­cess­ful GED stu­dents. Sev­en­teen per­cent of its col­lege stu­dents are from the GED pro­gram.

Lil­lian Ze­peda was one of them. She dropped out of high school after be­com­ing preg­nant with her second child. She de­cided to go for her GED cer­ti­fic­ate when she was 20. Col­lege courses at La­Guardia fol­lowed eas­ily after that. “I hadn’t already de­cided that’s what I was go­ing to do, but it was in that [GED] class that I said, ‘This is the next step,’ ” she says. It didn’t hurt that La­Guardia ap­plic­a­tions were wait­ing for her out­side the GED test­ing fa­cil­ity. She is now en­rolled at elite New York Uni­versity.

GED classes rel­ev­ant to a stu­dent’s de­sired pro­fes­sion are far more ef­fi­cient than a text­book-only class in get­ting people to pass the high school equi­val­ency ex­am, be­cause they spend more time in class and re­ceive col­lege-prep ad­vice from the staff. The pass rate for La­Guardia’s stu­dents in the “con­tex­tu­al­ized cur­riculum” courses is twice as high as for those who took La­Guardia’s reg­u­lar test-prep class un­til 2012, 53 per­cent versus 22 per­cent. Stu­dents who earn their GED cer­ti­fic­ate through a La­Guardia course are three times as likely to sign up for ad­di­tion­al col­lege study — 24 per­cent versus 7 per­cent.

The pres­ence of so many minor­ity stu­dents on cam­pus is also im­port­ant for de­mys­ti­fy­ing these first-timers’ ideas of col­lege. Jane MacK­il­lop, La­Guardia’s as­so­ci­ate dean of aca­dem­ic and ca­reer de­vel­op­ment, ex­plains, “They come here and they look around and say, ‘Every­one here looks like me. I could be­long here.’ “

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