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Can you go to college without a high school diploma or GED?

Find out how you can go to college without a high school diploma, what study options you have, and other paths you can pursue.
Written by Doug Wintemute, Contributor
College graduates celebrate outdoors, hugging and holding their phones in the air.
Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Ever wondered if you can go to college without a high school diploma? You can! 

To welcome nontraditional students, schools across the country have introduced specialized admission processes, programs, and high school equivalencies. 

Here, we examine the paths and opportunities available to you. We look at what you need to qualify for admission to a traditional college degree program and alternatives you can pursue. 

Can you go to college if you don't have either a high school diploma or GED?

Most colleges require a high school diploma or an HSE for admission, but students without these credentials have options. Some schools allow you to demonstrate your academic capabilities in other ways, such as taking an assessment or placement test. 

Schools may also accept students who plan to work toward their high school diploma or an HSE while enrolled. Admitted students without a high school diploma or HSE may be limited to specific programs. 

Your options: How to get into college without a high school diploma

Attend a college that doesn't require a high school diploma or HSE.

Not every school requires a high school diploma or HSE for admission. 

In some colleges, nontraditional applicants can receive admission by completing an academic skills assessment or a placement test. Candidates must receive adequate scores on these tests, demonstrating that they can thrive in a college program.

Choosing this route can save you time by not having to complete a GED or by leaving high school early. However, you can only qualify for federal financial aid under special circumstances without a diploma or GED. 

Enroll in community college.

Admission requirements vary among community colleges, but some schools accept applicants without a high school diploma or GED as long as they are over 18. 

Typically, you still need to pass a placement test to qualify for admission.

Community colleges may also offer career-pathway or vocational programs that accept applicants without a diploma or GED. Taking these routes can get you into the workforce more quickly. 

To qualify for federal financial aid, however, students usually need a high school diploma or GED. 

Enroll in adult high school.

Adult high schools allow learners to earn a high school diploma, which will help them qualify for college admission and federal financial aid. Program requirements vary but may include age minimums of 18 and a minimum number of high school credits. 

These programs are beneficial because they award approved high school diplomas quickly. Many schools offer low-cost or even free programs and flexible scheduling options, such as asynchronous online classes. 

Apply to a college as a non-degree-seeking student and take classes.

Students without a high school diploma or GED may be able to take classes as non-degree-seeking students. Many schools allow learners to take a certain number of courses without submitting transcripts. 

You can use this training for personal or professional enrichment or to qualify for a college certificate.

Typically, non-degree-seeking students do not qualify for federal financial aid. They may also be limited to courses with no mandatory prerequisites. 

Finally, schools tend to hold off on admitting non-degree-seeking students until all traditional students have enrolled, limiting the available class options.

Pursue dual/concurrent enrollment.

Colleges may offer dual or concurrent enrollment opportunities for current high school students or learners pursuing a GED. For admission, prospective students need proof of high school or GED program enrollment. Applicants may need to be within a certain number of credits or hours from graduation to qualify. 

Concurrent enrollment programs give you a head start on your college training. While students may not qualify for federal financial aid, many schools waive the cost of training or offer significantly reduced prices.  

Take and pass the GED exam.

One of the most popular ways for students without a high school diploma to qualify for college admission is to take and pass the GED exam. 

Candidates must be over 16 and not currently enrolled in high school. The GED includes four tests: Math, science, language arts reasoning, and social studies.

Before attempting the test, you can take GED courses and practice tests. Test-takers can complete the tests in parts or all at once at an approved testing center or online. Depending on your results, you may meet college readiness standards or even qualify for college credit.

Take and pass the HiSET exam.

Like the GED exam, the HiSET exam is a high school diploma equivalent that can qualify you for college admission. 

To take the test, candidates need to meet the age requirements for their state and not be enrolled in high school. 

The HiSET exam contains five sections: Language arts, math, writing, science, and social studies. The test takes approximately seven hours. You can take HiSET courses and practice exams before taking the test.

Can you get financial aid without having a high school diploma or GED?

The majority of online colleges accept FAFSA, and the majority of students make use of federal aid. According to Federal Student Aid, however, students only qualify if they have a high school diploma or GED, except under certain circumstances. 

You may, for example, qualify for aid if you attended an approved homeschool. You can also complete at least six credit hours in a career pathway program.

Alternatives to attending college — no high school diploma or GED needed.

College may not suit everyone. The alternatives below allow you to receive career and personal growth training without attending a traditional college. 

Enroll in a trade or vocational school.

Trade or vocational schools often feature flexible admission requirements, making them a quality alternative for applicants without a high school diploma or GED. 

These schools and programs focus on career-based training and practical preparation for trade school jobs, such as welding, cosmetology, and massage therapy. 

Trade schools offer quick and direct career access and lower student debts. On the other hand, programs and career flexibility can be limited. 

Earn certifications or certificates online.

While both certifications and certificates can be useful alternatives to a degree and lead to employment, the credentials are quite different. 

Certificates are condensed training programs from colleges and universities covering specializations. 

Certifications, conversely, recognize a professional's training and field expertise and may be required to practice. 

You qualify for many certificates and certifications without a high school diploma or GED. You might even be able to access free online courses with certificates, including IT and business courses.

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