Lisa Bentson has watched with disappointment as adult students in GED and High School Equivalency classes have left the programs, often due to poor testing skills.
“Once a student is ready to test, they’re successful,” said Bentson, the program director at Luna Community College’s College and Career Readiness Institute in
Las Vegas, N.M. However, she added, “if they don’t feel like they’re going to pass, they withdraw from my program.”
She also saw declines when Luna, like other schools, shuttered in-person classes and turned to remote learning at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Enrollment in her institute slipped to fewer than 30 students in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Students numbers have soared since then, with about 100 in five counties, thanks in part to increased online learning opportunities that developed during the pandemic. Bentson believes many of those students could benefit from a new pathway in the state for adults hoping to earn high school credentials.
When the New Mexico Higher Education Department announced the initiative Tuesday, she was ecstatic, noting the National External Diploma Program focuses on demonstration of practical skills, which could draw students who are reluctant to face the more traditional GED and HiSET tests.
“I’m hoping, basically, it’s an opportunity for our students who really [are] not high-stake testers,” she said. “They know the material, they can do the work, but when it comes to actually taking a test, it’s like night and day sometimes.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently approved $250,000 for adult education and literacy programs, including the diploma initiative offered by a California-based nonprofit, Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment Systems.
The Higher Education Department says 14 percent of adults in New Mexico lack a high school diploma or equivalent certificate; however, census data indicates the rate in Santa Fe is lower, at around 11 percent. There are financial benefits to obtaining such credentials. The state agency’s research shows students with a diploma or equivalent certificate see a $9,620 annual boost in earnings, and could see a 53 percent increase in income over 10 years.
Amber Gallup Rodriguez, director of the Adult Education Division at the Higher Education Department, said stakes are higher for people who have spent time in jail or prison: National research shows earning high school credentials can reduce recidivism among former inmates.
Taxpayers benefit, as well. According to the Higher Education Department, one year of adult education costs the state $655, compared to $42,250 for one year of jail time.
So, what’s the difference between a diploma and equivalency credentials earned through the GED and HiSET programs?
Bentson and Gallup Rodriguez noted the adult diploma program’s emphasis on life skills.
A financial literacy portion of the program, for instance, asks students to explain the differences between two credit card applications.
“In a competency-based assessment, you would actually have to show an assessor you can compare two credit cards … and explain why you might choose one credit card over the other,” Gallup Rodriguez said.
Mitch Rosin, a consultant for the National External Diploma Program said the difference is mostly the impression of the word “diploma.”
“It’s really intangible,” he said, “and more perception.”
Rosin said it’s easier for diploma recipients to enlist in the military and apply for financial aid than someone with a high school equivalency certificate — and it often means a job applicant will be taken more seriously.
The adult diploma program, pioneered in the 1970s, was used by eight states in 2017, according to a report by the Legislative Education Study Committee.
It’s been a long time coming in New Mexico.
Legislation for the initiative passed in 2019, but the implementation process was paused repeatedly by the pandemic, Gallup Rodriguez said.
The Higher Education Department will host a virtual meeting in May for schools in the state considering offering the program. Gallup Rodriguez hopes some will be in full swing by spring 2023.
“This NEDP is timely, I think, in New Mexico,” she said. “It’s going to create a third route for students who may have been displaced, whose studies may have been disrupted by the pandemic.”
Santa Fe Community College’s academic career education manager, Kristen Krell, said she’s not sure if the college will apply to provide the new diploma program.
“We already are so invested in the curriculum and resources we’re already using,” she said. “But at the same time, I want to be open to it.”
Gallup Rodriguez said “a lot of assumptions are made” about why so many New Mexico residents lack a high school diploma or credentials. “Often people assume the kids can’t hack it or they don’t care. … We find that is largely not the case at all.”
Some high school students drop out to care for sick parents, take on jobs to support family or struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities, she said.
Much like how the state tracks employment and income data for people with GED and HiSET certificates, the state will track the success of National External Diploma Program participants, she added.
The program is “rigorous,” Gallup Rodriguez said, and students must demonstrate “100 percent” mastery of each standard.
“This is not a breeze,” she said. “This is a challenging high school assessment program.”