Cortland Johnson was only 15 when, because of family difficulties, he dropped out of high school and left home. In his late teens, he and a friend moved from his native Mississippi to Minnesota. He got a job with a Minneapolis landscaping company, where his supervisor encouraged him to get a GED (General Education Development Diploma).

In December 2009, Johnson enrolled in GED classes at the Minnesota Literacy Council's Northside Learning Center in Minneapolis. "It was different from high school," he says. "The classes were small, and students got a lot of individual help."

After two months of preparation, he passed the test and earned a GED. This fall, Johnson, now 23, began working on a two-year degree in criminal justice at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "I never expected to be in college, but earning the GED really built my confidence," he says.

Why get a GED?

Without a high school diploma, it's often hard to get a job. In fact, "unemployment is over 15 percent higher for people without a diploma," says Eric Neshheim, executive director of the Minnesota Literacy Council.

Those who do find work often earn low wages. In 2008, workers with a high school diploma or GED averaged $10,000 more in annual earnings than those without, according to figures compiled by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

The GED can also open the door to higher education. According to the College Board, 95 percent of U.S. colleges and universities accept GED graduates who also meet their other qualifications for admission.

How does it work?

The GED consists of five separate tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies. "The tests are fairly hard, and most people need to brush up," Nesheim says. Preparation is available through Minnesota's Adult Basic Education program (ABE).

Because there are more than 400 ABE centers around the state, people can usually find help close to home. Students first take a placement test to determine what skills and knowledge they need to pass the GED. The program offers classes and one-on-one tutoring. "We also focus on test-taking skills," says Cathy Grady, the Literacy Council's director of adult programming.

Adults who can't attend class because of job responsibilities, child care or lack of transportation can enroll in GED-i, which allows students to work online with a teacher from their local ABE program.

Who is eligible?

Individuals may take the GED test if they:

Do not have a high school diploma and are not currently enrolled in high school.

Are at least 19 years old (or at least 16 with a special waiver).

Are Minnesota residents.

Have a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license.

Pay the required fee, usually between $75 and $125, depending on the test site.

Learn more

To find local ABE and GED-i providers, call the Minnesota Adult Literacy Hotline at 1-800-222-1990, or visit For information about the test itself, visit