The case for GEDs and community colleges—from an astrobiophysicist who did both

You’ve got the world in your hands.
You’ve got the world in your hands.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Munoz
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It is often said that knowledge is power. This motto could be held no higher than in the world of higher education.

It’s no secret that academia in the United States is crawling with elitism, especially in science. Pursuing a career in the sciences has long been associated with natural inclinations for topics like math, or with being born a kind of genius. Although it is true that there have been, and certainly are, geniuses out there who fall into the bracket of “natural brilliance,” the reality is that a lot of intelligent and highly educated people in science fall outside of this spectrum.

We need to rethink a lot of the notions sustained in academia today: what mold to fit, which path one should take, and how anything that deviates from the linear paths in education can mean automatic failure from the vantage point of the academic ivory tower. A very good example of false academic equivalence is the many stigmas suffered by people who earn a GED in the US.

I should know, because I’m one of them.

Getting your GED vs. your high-school diploma

The General Educational Development (GED) is a general education equivalency test resulting in a diploma for students who do not complete traditional high school. I came to live in the US permanently from the Dominican Republic when I was in my teens, and I had finished what we consider high school back in my motherland. But once here, I was told I would be held back three years because I did not speak English. I decided to leave high school and ended up earning a GED—to the absolute horror of everyone I knew.

One of the very few lessons I learned—none of them academic—while attending high school in the US was that earning a GED instead of a high-school diploma made you an irrevocable failure. Unflattering views on the GED are not only elitist opinions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, high-school diploma holders earn about $1,600 more a month than GED recipients. Less than 5% of GED holders go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, versus 33% of people with high school diplomas. It doesn’t stop there. An American Council of Education study claims that as much as 77% of GED holders do not complete more than their first semester of college.

I started to wonder just how many people out there have a GED, and how far it has taken them. Eventually, I came across a post on Twitter by TheDapperDean, the nom de plume of Rolundus R. Rice, the first GED holder from Auburn University to earn a PhD, who now works at Alabama State University.

He inspired me to show people how wrong certain stereotypes can be when it comes to different paths people take in the pursuit of knowledge.

For example, I’ve always loved education, but the system has consistently failed me. I ended up in an abusive domestic partnership during high school and walked away from both my partner and school—because of my desire to pursue higher education. I became homeless as a result. Every night I slept in train stations, cleaned myself in public restrooms, and showed up for training I had thankfully found as a home health aide. The fact that we had to wear scrubs—which were paid for by the organization—meant I had something to wear every day. I worked 12 hours shifts, six days a week for $7.25 an hour until I saved enough to get off the streets and into a room.

I still dreamed of studying science. I decided to change tack so that I could earn more money and maybe finance my way through college. First, I got my GED, and then I earned an associate’s degree in applied sciences with a focus in medical assisting. Unfortunately, the pay wasn’t much better, and I was now in debt from student loans. But I didn’t give up.

I kept searching for affordable education. When I finally found a public institution in New York City within my budget, I decided to go for it. Even though I was told I wasn’t a “traditional student” in the US, I didn’t listen and enrolled anyway. I am now continuing my studies in physics at SUNY Empire State College in order to move on to graduate studies in space biophysics—as well as advocating for more accessible and inclusive education. I’ve also been told that I’m the only known Dominican to attempt to train as an astronaut candidate.

I decided to talk about it on Twitter, along with many others who continued the dialogue Rice started.

My absolute favorite of all the replies, and perhaps the most surprising to me, was definitely from Jacquelyn Gill. She is a prominent Ice Age ecologist and professor at the University of Maine, cohost of the Warm Regards podcast, and a very well-known science communicator in the “science Twitter” universe, where she helps facilitate a public understanding of climate science and conservation.

The experience of sharing personal GED stories was so uplifting and empowering, and it makes me wonder how, with all of these brilliant GED holders out there, the stereotypes are still running strong. We need more of these personal stories to continue to bust these myths.

Community colleges vs. universities

But unfortunately, elitism in academia doesn’t stop there. Academia is not above bias; in fact, one could argue that bias thrives within academic culture, where the common act of attending a community college can be seen as incompetence.

As many people from non-traditional backgrounds and minority groups can tell you, they constantly need to prove that they belong in the academic environment. This becomes all the more true in highly selective institutions—the elite universities that cater to the notion that academia was created to protect the privileged, which is a group that does not fully represent the demographic of the United States.

According to statistics by the American Institute of Physics from 2010 to 2012, the total number of physics PhD awarded was 1,669. Of this number, only 2% were Asian American, 2% Hispanics, and 1% African American. That’s not at all representative of America, where 5.8% of people are of Asian descent, 18.1% are Latino, and 13.4% are African American.

The idea that the more elite your institution is, the better educated and more valuable you are has prevailed for years. To this end, community colleges tend to be overlooked as proper places to receive the kind of education that can carry you through to a successful career.

American community colleges started in the 20th century and were originally referred to as junior colleges: stepping stones to four-year institutions, as well as places to learn technical skills that can be used for jobs like medical assistants, nurses, technicians, and paralegals. According to Adela Soliz, an assistant professor of higher education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, there is an economic benefit for those who earn credentials from public community colleges.

There are many factors that can influence someone’s decision to go to a community college first and not chase the more accepted four-year university degree. Money is one. Time is another.

Students who hold full-time jobs or have families to support are some of the best examples. Some individuals have to choose between full-time education or full-time work in order to feed themselves and keep a  roof over their heads, and financial aid substantial enough to cover tuition and fees can’t be obtained unless a student is enrolled full time. In these cases, enrolling part-time in community college is much more feasible financially, and can provide a student with credentials that can enable them to earn more income through practical training in a shorter period of time. Other students will choose to attend community college to improve their chances at getting into a four-year institution and further graduate studies if they did not do so well in high school.

Knowledge can come from literally anywhere, and who can say there is only one definition of success? It has many faces. It has endless meanings. And it shouldn’t be about the prestige of your institution.

Knowledge isn’t about a high-school diploma versus a GED, or community college versus an Ivy League university—it all comes down to what you do with it.