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Types of High School Diplomas

When most people think about graduating from high school, they picture receiving a diploma after four years of study. But did you know there is more than one type of high school diploma? Some diplomas are much more common than others. The most common type, the standard high school diploma, requires students to earn credits in various subject areas, along with passing grades in all core courses. Another common type of diploma is the General Educational Development (GED) credential, which is earned by passing a series of tests covering four subjects: language arts, math, social studies, and science. While both credentials represent high school completion, there are some important differences between them.

Types of High School Diplomas

Earning a high school diploma is an important milestone in a student’s journey that requires a lot of time, hard work, and dedication. This certificate acknowledges that the student has met the necessary requirements for graduation and creates a pathway for a student to start their career, pursue a college degree, or apply for trade school. There are several types of high school diplomas students may complete as a steppingstone in their academic journey.

General Diploma

The most common type of high school diploma is the general diploma. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2019–2020 school year, approximately 82% of high school graduates in the United States received a general diploma. This type of diploma indicates that a student has met the basic high school graduation requirements established by their state's department of education, including at least three years of science, math, history, and English along with electives of the student’s choice. In addition to these academic requirements, students must often pass standardized tests. Students are advised to complete community service hours, join a high school sports team, or participate in extracurricular activities to make themselves more competitive when applying for higher education programs. 

Honors Diploma

An honors diploma signifies that a student has performed exceptionally well in their classes. Besides the requirements of the general diploma, honors students have taken and passed advanced placement (AP) courses. The specific diploma requirements for an honors student can differ in each state but generally include taking a foreign language and completing four years of the other core subjects while maintaining an excellent grade point average (GPA). An honors diploma is a particularly valuable asset when applying to colleges or for scholarships, as it highlights a student's academic achievements and commitment to challenging academic studies. To earn this type of diploma, students may need to complete additional, advanced courses, as well as extracurricular activities or a senior project. In turn, students can set themselves apart when looking to take the next step in their academic career. 

Occupational Diploma

An occupational diploma is awarded to students who complete a specialized, career-focused program. Unlike a general diploma or an honors diploma, the occupational diploma is earned through a program that focuses on developing the skills that students need to enter the workforce. An occupational diploma is designed for students who are interested in pursuing a career in a specific field such as automotive technology, cosmetology, or culinary arts.

In addition to career-specific coursework, occupational diplomas require classes in English, math, science, and history. The courses are typically a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on training or internships to gain practical experience in their field. Many skilled trade jobs accept an occupational diploma as proof that the graduate has the skills to obtain an entry-level position in the field. This diploma is ideal for students who know what they want to do professionally because it allows them to enter the workforce right away, rather than needing to pursue a bachelor’s degree. 

Certificate of Attendance 

A certificate of attendance is a type of diploma earned by students who, due to a recognized disability, are unable to complete the standard program requirements to earn a general diploma. This type of diploma is commonly awarded to students in special education programs.

The requirements for earning a certificate of attendance vary from student to student and depend largely upon the student's level of functioning and academic abilities. While the prerequisites are different than a traditional high school diploma, this diploma is designed to recognize a student's academic achievements and provide a credential that can be used to apply for jobs or further education. While a certificate of attendance may not be as common or well recognized as a traditional high school diploma, it is still an important signifier of a student's hard work and dedication. 

What Is a General Education Development Credential (GED)?

General Education Development Credential (GED) is a certificate earned by people who didn’t complete high school. To earn a GED, students must take a course and pass a state-approved exam that covers language arts, math, social studies, and science. The GED exam assesses the person's knowledge and skills in these areas and determines whether they possess the same level of knowledge as someone who completed a traditional high school program. Each section of the GED test costs $37.50, and the whole test is $150.

The GED certificate is considered equivalent to a high school diploma by most employers, colleges, and universities and can be used to apply for entry-level jobs and college programs. In the U.S., the GED is offered in both English and Spanish. It’s also available in other formats such as large print, audio, and braille, making the GED accessible to a wide range of individuals. Many colleges and universities require GED graduates to take the SAT or ACT college entrance exam to determine their college readiness level. In fact, it is often even required.

Differences Between a GED and a Diploma

GED certificates and high school diplomas both signify that a student has met the necessary requirements and demonstrated adequate knowledge to pursue further education or a career in their chosen field.

A high school diploma is given to a student that attended and passed all the required classes in a traditional high school setting, which typically involves four years of coursework. A GED, on the other hand, shows that a student has passed four high school equivalency tests, demonstrating that they have the same aptitude for the core subjects as a traditional high school graduate. 

Despite these differences, the two credentials are very much alike in practice. Both allow students to join the workforce, launch a career, or attend college. 

One of the main differences between a traditional diploma and a GED is the time it takes to earn them. Traditional high school students must complete four years of school in order to graduate, while the GED is a seven-hour test that most can prep for in less than a year. This makes the GED a popular, accessible option for people who did not complete high school but want the same career opportunities as a high school graduate. 

After High School

Upon earning a high school diploma or GED, students have a variety of promising opportunities. Many students will go on to pursue further education or begin their careers. There are countless degree programs at many different types of schools, traditional four-year colleges, community colleges, vocational schools, and online universities. By pursuing further education, individuals can gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in their career path, achieve their personal and professional goals, and earn a competitive salary.

One option for individuals who have earned their high school diploma or GED is to seek a college degree at WGU. WGU offers a wide range of degrees in business, education, healthcare, and IT. Each WGU degree program is designed with input from industry experts to be affordable, flexible, and entirely online, making it an ideal choice for individuals who want to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree while working or taking care of other responsibilities.  

Higher education is a valuable investment in your future, and a WGU degree will equip you with the essential skills and knowledge needed to succeed in today's competitive job market.

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