If you didn't graduate from high school, going back and finishing it so you can finally get your high school diploma is a practical step. But if you're an adult well past your teenage years, the prospect of going back to high school can be pretty intimidating. Fortunately, there are alternative ways adults can earn a high school diploma.
Read on to learn more about what the general steps are for getting a high school diploma, how important having the physical diploma is, whether you can attend college without a high school diploma, and what your options are for legitimate adult high school diploma programs.
Do You Need to Graduate to Get a High School Diploma?
In general, to earn a high school diploma in the US, you need to have completed 12th grade and graduated high school. More specifically, you need to have met all of your state's graduation requirements and taken all required courses.
This is the most common path for getting a high school diploma. But what if you left high school before you had the chance to graduate?
In this case, you can get a high school diploma by taking the classes you need to fulfill your state's high school graduation and credit requirements.
For example, if you were one English course short of graduating, you could enroll in an adult high school diploma program, through which you'd take the English class you need to get the diploma.
If you need a lot of credits to finish high school (for instance, maybe you missed a whole grade of high school), another option is to take a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, HiSET, or TASC tests.
By passing one of these tests, you'll receive a diploma or certificate that's similar to a high school diploma and indicates that you've achieved US high school educational standards. This is called a high school equivalency diploma.
In most cases, a high school equivalency diploma is equivalent to a high school diploma; however, some universities and employers prefer a traditional high school diploma over one of these equivalents and, as a result, might look down on it.
If you're younger than your state's age for enrolling in high school, I strongly recommend going back to high school to earn your regular high school diploma instead of opting for one of these equivalents. This age limit varies by state but is usually around 21 years.
Unfortunately, your elementary school diploma won't help you on the job hunt.
How Important Is Having a Physical High School Diploma?
It's critical to keep your original high school diploma in a safe place. This is because potential employers and colleges might ask to see a copy of your diploma as proof that you completed high school and have the fundamental knowledge and skills needed for a particular job or educational program.
Online schools are especially likely to request or require a copy of your high school diploma for enrollment purposes.
Though it's possible you'll never have to show anyone your high school diploma (other than your proud parents), you should always have a copy of it on hand, just in case.
If you lost your high school diploma or don't remember getting a physical diploma, you can easily request a copy of yours by contacting your old high school (or, if your high school is no longer in operation, your former education department or school district).
Refer to our step-by-step guide to learn more about securing a copy of your high school diploma.
Can You Attend College Without a High School Diploma?
The short answer is no, not usually.
If you want to attend a four-year college or university with the goal of getting a bachelor's degree, you will not be able to unless you have a high school diploma or high school equivalency diploma, such as the GED. (Note that not all colleges accept a GED in lieu of a traditional diploma.)
That said, most community colleges allow students to enroll without a high school diploma. You usually just need to be at least 18 years old to enroll—that's it!
If you think you'll eventually want to transfer to a four-year college/university from a community college, know that you'll likely need to take the GED or an equivalent test before you can do so.
The majority of college applicants are high school seniors, and most of the college application advice out there is aimed at them. But what do you do if you don't fall into this narrow category? Our eBook on how to prepare for and apply to college as a nontraditional student will walk you through everything you need to know, from the coursework you should have under your belt to how to get letters of recommendation when you're not a high school senior.
How to Get a High School Diploma as an Adult: 2 Methods
If you're older than your state's maximum age limit for enrolling in high school or would prefer an alternative way of earning a high school diploma, you have the option of doing an in-person adult high school diploma program or attending an online high school.
Method 1: In-Person Adult High School Diploma Program
One way to get your high school diploma is to enroll in an adult high school diploma program.
These in-person classes are specifically geared toward adults looking to return to high school and get their diplomas (instead of, say, a GED). With these programs, you'll take only the courses you need to graduate.
For instance, if you're short a math and an English class, you'd take these two classes in your adult high school diploma program, allowing you to fulfill your state's graduation requirements and thus earn a high school diploma.
Most adult high school diploma programs are free or pretty cheap, and are offered on weekdays and weeknights.
The best way to find a legitimate adult high school diploma program near you is to contact a public university or community college in your area. These institutions should be able to tell you whom to contact about adult education programs.
You can also see what information your state's official website provides regarding adult education programs. Just search on Google for "[Your State] adult education site:.gov." For example, the Michigan state website offers a bunch of helpful information on free and low-cost adult education programs in counties all around Michigan.
Always beware of online scams that claim to give out high school diplomas. These "diploma mills," as they're called, will often charge you a high fee to take unaccredited courses, earning you a fake credential that's not recognized anywhere!
If you're not sure whether a program is legitimate, check with your state department of education.
Method 2: Online High School
The second way adults can earn a high school diploma is to enroll in an online high school. This option is considered more convenient than Method 1 as you can attend class and study from the comfort of your own home, allowing you to get your high school diploma online.
Many online private high schools require a fee to attend, which can be really high sometimes, especially if the program is offered through a prestigious college or university.
In addition, some online high schools have an age limit, so check that you're eligible to attend before you decide on a school.
Make sure that the school you're considering is legitimate. Many online high schools aren't accredited (even if they claim to be) and can't award you an authentic high school diploma.
If you're unsure whether an online high school is legitimate, contact your state's department of education. You can also get in touch with a local community college or public college/university, which will help you find online high schools that are accredited and accept adult learners.
Here are some well-known schools that allow you to get your high school diploma online:
- Stanford Online High School (no adult learners)
- BYU Independent Study High School (offers program for adult learners)
- UT Austin High School (no age restrictions)
- Texas Success Academy (offers program for adult learners)
- University of Nebraska High School (no age restrictions)
Recap: Do You Need a High School Diploma?
Most people earn their high school diplomas by completing 12th grade and meeting their state's high school graduation requirements. Even if you left school before you got a diploma, there are ways you can get one as an adult.
Your two main options are to enroll in an in-person adult high school diploma program or attend an accredited online high school. Many prefer the latter because it's more convenient and allows you to get your high school diploma online without having to go anywhere.
As with anything you pay for, be sure to vet any adult high school diploma programs (both in-person and online) you're considering attending. You don't want to lose money to a scam that awards you with a fake credential! Reach out to your state's department of education to get more information about legitimate (online) schools and programs for adult learners.
If you'd rather not go back and get your high school diploma, you can instead take a high school equivalency test, such as the GED.
While you don't need a high school diploma to apply for jobs or enroll at a community college, having one will allow you to go to a four-year college or university. A high school diploma also means you'll be making more money on average than if you didn't have one!
Don't feel as though there are no options available to you—you'll never be too old to go back and get that high school diploma!
Considering attending an online high school? Learn about how to avoid unaccredited schools and how an online education differs from a traditional one. We also maintain a list of 100+ free online high schools!
For a full review of a top-notch online high school, check out our in-depth guide to Stanford Online High School.
Not interested in getting a traditional high school diploma? Then consider getting a high school equivalency diploma. Our guide goes over what this diploma is and how to get one.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.