By Alexandra Cline
While Brittany Price won’t be walking across a high school graduation stage when she receives her diploma this spring, it doesn’t mean she’s any less proud of the work she’s done to earn it.
After about a year and four months of online learning and homework, the 31-year-old single mother will finally have her cap and gown moment—even if it’s only symbolic.
“It’s a 360 [degree] turn around for your life to know that you did it,” she said. “There isn’t anywhere you can’t go or anything you can’t do. You’re never too old.”
Price will complete the National External Diploma Program, which has about 3,000 adults participating nationally each year. The program, recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, grants adults a traditional high school diploma.
The program was created in 1975 in response to a national study conducted by the Syracuse Research Corporation, a not-for-profit research and development company. The study determined that many adults over 25 weren’t earning a high school diploma or equivalency through existing programs because they wanted to learn subjects with real world applications, needed a flexible class schedule and disliked standardized tests.
Now, at a time when the workforce across the country is growing more educated and the jobs more technical, higher educational attainment is becoming a necessity. From 1992 to 2016, the proportion of adults nationally with less than a high school diploma decreased by 5 percent, while the share of those with bachelor’s degrees rose 7 percent.
Through the external diploma program, students like Price can close that gap and improve their prospects, all while working at their own pace using an online module. Though the program allows students to complete most assignments independently, all participants must also be affiliated with a local, accredited agency and meet face-to-face with an instructor.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do this [without the program],” Price said. “It’s great that you can have more one-on-one time, and you have that flexibility and the hours to do it as well.”
In the Rockbridge area, students work with the Rockbridge Regional Adult Basic Education Program. Students must meet with an instructor every two weeks. Tutoring sessions are offered for free, courtesy of grants the agency receives from the state.
The home stretch
Rockbridge’s basic education program started offering the external degree program about two years ago, but Price will be one of the first two students to finish it. The other is 51-year-old Carla Lavelle.
“I basically had a sixth-grade education,” Lavelle said. “I’ve always been a community service worker, which didn’t require a diploma. I was never able to have an actual job making money.”
Both Lavelle and Price are in the final stages of completing their web-based courses, which test competency of high school level skills through a practical, applied curriculum designed specifically for adults.
To complete the external diploma program, students must demonstrate their knowledge in 10 content areas, including financial literacy, consumer awareness and health literacy.
After Lavelle and Price finish the online module, they will officially be 2018 graduates of Rockbridge County Adult High School, the official school name that will appear on their diplomas.
“It’s fail proof,” said Price, who dropped out of Parry McCluer High School to support her mother and sister. “You’re guaranteed to leave with a diploma. I’ve never been so excited about education in my life.”
The local adult education program is part of the Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE), a public education organization of five programs throughout the region, including Rockbridge, Harrisonburg and Waynesboro. All programs share the common goal of preparing adults for the 21st century workforce.
Aside from the online diploma program, the organization also offers classes on the GED test and has an adult credit completion program, which is designed for adults missing only a few high school classes.
It’s not just the GED anymore
Though most local residents are initially interested in enrolling in GED test preparation classes, the test isn’t the best option for everyone, says Lindsay Brooks, Rockbridge’s program coordinator. For older people in particular, she said the test prep program might not be the right fit, especially since the exam is timed and is now entirely computer-based.
“Some people think it’s so easy and it’s not,” she said. “They don’t know if they’ll be able to type an entire essay in the time frame.”
Another reason why Brooks encourages adults to explore other programs is the time commitment and uncertainty involved in the GED test-taking process, since some students may take longer than others to master the material.
“It’s very hard to tell a student getting a GED that you’re going to finish in a certain number of weeks,” she said. “There’s no attendance requirement [for classes]. If they don’t show up and put in the work, they don’t get it. That’s the hardest thing for us to get through to some people.”
Debbie Fox, a program instructor, said the online external diploma program is especially useful in those situations. Unlike the GED, the web-based module doesn’t require any standardized testing. Instead, students have to complete a checklist for each of the competency areas by meeting nationally-determined criteria.
“A lot of clients are attracted to it because there’s no standardized test,” she said. “Math is everyday practical math, not college calculus. That’s what makes [the program] so much better in that sense.”
Traditional subjects with a modern twist
For Price, the online diploma program’s applications to life skills have made all the difference. Before the program, Price said she often relied on her fiancé for help with basic math.
But the math she is learning now is easier to remember than math taught in a traditional classroom because it’s useful, she said. “I’m so glad I did this. You can go through high school math and forget it, but not when you’re learning budgeting and credit cards.”
Though the subject areas tested in the program differ from traditional high school courses, Lavelle said, they’re still applicable to the skills teenagers learn in the classroom today.
“I was able to actually help my daughter with her homework,” she said. “Before, I could only dream that I would be able to accomplish all this.”
Lavelle said her primary goal after finishing the online diploma program is to find gainful employment—an opportunity she doesn’t think would be possible without the program.
“You can’t even get a job at Walmart without a degree now,” she said.
Price says she wants to continue her education in the medical sciences field at either Dabney Lancaster Community College or Jefferson College of Health Sciences at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, which requires a high school diploma or GED equivalency.
For now, Price said she’s thrilled knowing she can set a positive example for her son, who is still in elementary school.
“My son pulled his grades up,” she said. “He’s really excited. He told me, ‘Mom, I want to graduate just like you.’”