Can you really go to college without a high school diploma?

Bill Janklow thought so and probably wins the prize for the most creative way to get into college without a diploma or GED (General Education Development) certificate. As a high school dropout, he offered a deal to a state university: let him enroll in one semester of college and, if he passed, he could continue; if he failed, the school could boot him out.

Not only did Janklow ace his first semester, he finished college, got a law degree, became a state’s attorney general, and served as a four-term governor of South Dakota.

Like Janklow, many people today find themselves in an unenviable position: they want to go to college to advance or switch their careers, but they didn’t graduate from high school. Although it’s not likely you’ll be able to fast talk your way into a college the way Janklow did, if you’re one of the 31.4 million Americans who the U.S. Census Bureau, says did not finish high school and does not have a GED, there are still options available to you to advance your education.

Four options for the high school dropout to get an advanced degree.

We say, so what if you’re a high school dropout, if you want to go to college to get a post-secondary degree, you’re not stuck. Instead, you have four main options:

1. Enroll in a community college

If you find yourself identifying with Larry Crowne—the character in the latest Tom Hanks movie who lost his job, his wife, his house, and his SUV, yet who starts his life over by enrolling in a community college—you’re in luck. Most community colleges are very friendly to adult student who didn’t finish high school, and many have programs specifically designed to help the high-school dropout—even if you dropped out decades ago.

In addition, most community colleges have “Ability to Benefit” programs where people without high school diplomas or GED’s are admitted regardless of age. Under this program, you contact the admissions office, take a few placement tests and, if you pass them and prove that you could benefit greatly from a college program, you are admitted to the school under the Ability to Benefit program. You may also qualify for financial aid and other assistance.

2. Get a GED

Passing this high-school equivalency test proves to colleges that your knowledge of basic subjects is on par with today’s young ‘uns who are donning their caps and gowns to grab their diplomas. The test is five parts and covers reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as social studies and science.

The best way to get your GED is to get your hands on some test study materials. You can either buy your own, or join a study group. Study materials are available online, as well as at your state Department of Education and Centers for Workforce Education.

After you have studied the materials and feel confident that you know them, the next step is to take a practice test. Again, you can do this online, or visit a Workforce Center. A practice test is also included in your study materials.

Once you take a practice test and feel confident enough to take the real test, you can contact your state Department of Education or Center for Workforce Education to locate testing centers. A note of caution: You cannot take the GED test online. Any website claiming to offer a GED test (as opposed to a practice test) and a high-school diploma for a fee is a scam. Don’t fall for it.

If you pass the test, you will then have a powerful document for helping you get into a college or university.

3. Apply for non-traditional student status

Like Frank Sinatra, you’ve always done things your way—and getting your college education is no different. As someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for several years and has a few gray hairs on the average enrollee, you may qualify for “non-traditional” student status. Some schools will recognize your life experience and maturity, and waive the diploma and GED requirements.

4. Double dip and multitask

You’ve done it on the job, and now you can multitask to take online college courses at the same time you’re working on your high school credits. Just ask the college you want to attend if they offer concurrent enrollment programs that let you attend two schools at once—a high school and the college. And there’s an added benefit: many high schools allow you to earn double high school credits for taking college courses.

Reinvention is the new young-at-heart

It takes just one small step for you to alter the course of your life. And just like Bill Janklow or Hank’s Larry Crowne character, you never know the wonders that lie just beyond that first step. If going back to school is your first step, then evaluate the options listed in this article, find one that works for you and that you can be passionate about, and get started!

To you we say, welcome to your second chance!

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