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Can You Get a High School Diploma as an Adult?

Written by Nicole Dalbo on Friday, 06 January 2023. Posted in Helpful Tips

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Life leads us all down very different paths, and sometimes that means some of us have had to leave high school before it’s finished. And that’s okay! Dropping out of high school may have been the right choice for you or a loved one at one point in time, but that doesn’t have to be the end of your educational journey. You may not have even realized it, but it is definitely possible to get a high school diploma after 21. Learners ready to take on the challenge do it all the time, and you can, too! But you may even be wondering, “is going back to school worth it?” We broke down your options for you so that you can make an informed, educated decision for your own education.

How to finish high school

You may be wondering how to finish your high school diploma as an adult. After all, you can't necessarily go back to your former high school to finish up your classes. But there are several options that can help you earn your diploma and reach your goals.

1. Finish high school online

In today’s world, online high school is a popular option to earn a high school diploma. While each online school tends to be different, one thing many have in common is that you can earn your credits anywhere you go. Whether you choose to work on your lessons in a public place like the library or the comfort of your own home, you can have the freedom to work in an environment that works best for you.

2. Get your GED or high school equivalency

The GED is a series of four subject tests a person can take to demonstrate their high school academic knowledge. Learners that choose this option don’t actually get a high school diploma, but it is definitely a way to show employers and colleges that you have a high school level knowledge base. Those that pursue a GED can either study for the math, language arts, science, and social studies tests on their own or attend GED prep classes for a more supported approach. Additionally, GED is the name of just one test – there are several high school equivalency exam options available depending on the state you live in.

3. Attend an in-person night school for adults

Although many public day schools are limited to students under 21, there are still in-person classes for adult learners. These classes tend to be at night to support learners working during the daytime. These classes may or may not be available in your area, and spots may be limited.

How to get your high school diploma as an adult

If you’re ready to finish your high school diploma, it’s important to make sure you choose the option and school that’s right for you. Before enrolling in an online high school program, you should

  • Do your research
  • Find out about accreditation
  • Ask questions
  • Learn how to enroll and get started

1. Research online high school diplomas

Not every school is a perfect fit for everyone, so take your time and find the perfect school for you. Consider if you want flexible class times versus set times, what classes the school offers and if it’s a common core curriculum, affordability and pricing options, and other qualifiers that may be specific to you or your needs.

2. Make sure your school is accredited

An accredited high school may be the difference between your diploma being accepted by a college or an employer, or not. Accreditation ensures that your school has met educational standards so that you can earn a recognized diploma. According to the DEAC, the accreditor for James Madison High School, accreditation is the primary way that students, families, the public, and government officials know that an institution provides a quality education.

3. Contact an admissions representative with any questions or concerns.

Once you have your choices narrowed down to a few different options, it’s a smart idea to contact someone on the admissions team with any questions. Whether you’re wondering about the price, if there’s open enrollment, the flexibility, or even just need to verify that they are accredited, your admissions specialist is a knowledgeable asset for you on your journey to find the perfect fit. Don’t be shy about asking the questions that matter to you, because you’re the one enrolling, after all!

4. Get enrolled and get to work!

You’ve already put in so much time and effort, but the only thing you have left to complete are the credits necessary to graduate! Remember to not just breeze through your lessons, as failing a class might result in more time needed to complete high school. Study hard and get that degree!

What is the oldest age you can attend high school?

There doesn’t have to be a limit! Online high school makes it possible for anyone to earn their diploma. James Madison graduate, Coretta Wilson, dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with her son. She watched him graduate high school, college, and move on to his bachelor’s degree before she decided that it was time to finish high school. Coretta accomplished her goal of graduating and advises others, “Don’t give up…because anything is accomplishable.”

Hear Coretta’s full story here.

How to get a high school diploma if you dropped out

Enroll in a new high school program. So you did the research and found a high school program that works for you and your needs. That’s great! Getting started and committing to a program can feel scary at first, but your admissions specialist can help address any of your fears. Once you enroll, you’ll have successfully completed the first step toward earning your high school diploma.

Request your transcripts from your previous school. If you have credits already under your belt, you may not need to start your high school journey from the beginning! Once enrolled, you’ll want to send your new school your transcripts right away. This is important to look into because if your credits transfer into your new school, it may cut a significant number of classes out from what you need to complete.

How to transfer credits to online high school

  1. Look into how your high online school accepts transcripts. You may be wondering how to transfer credits to your new, online school. Well, every school’s transcript acceptance policy is different. Some schools may have a transcript request form that you can either email or hand to your previous school with all of the information needed, or you may need to send the transcripts to the new school itself when you get them from your previous school. If it’s the second option, make sure you collect the right contact details for your new online school so that they can properly evaluate your transcripts.
  2. Request your transcripts from your previous school. Whether it’s been decades or just a few months since you last attended high school, more often than not your school will still have your records ready to go. A quick call to the school’s office can help you secure your transcripts. If you have a transcript request form, this is your time to send it to your previous school.
  3. Keep those transcripts sealed! Let your new school do the opening, or you may need to request the transcripts again. This is a safety measure to prevent tampering so that your new online school knows that your grades are legit. If you’re curious what your grades were, you can always request an unofficial set of transcripts to be sent to you directly.
  4. Send in your transcripts and wait for your evaluation. Whether you or your previous school are sending in your transcripts, after this is done, you’ll just have to wait. Once received by your new school, your transcripts will be evaluated by a transcript expert, and if your credits match up close enough to your new school’s curriculum you may be awarded credit. A lot of different criteria goes into awarding credits, so just remember you may not be awarded credit for every class!
  5. Create a study plan and stay dedicated. Signing up for high school is the easy part. The part where you’ll really have to put effort into is committing yourself to getting it done. Luckily, once you get in the habit, this will become super easy! Create a realistic schedule for yourself, so you can dedicate time to your lessons, even if it’s only ten minutes a day. Each step you take is a step toward your diploma in hand, so keep to it!

How long does it take to get a high school diploma for adults?

It all depends! Between online high school, the GED, and in-person night school there are many different factors that can contribute to the length of your high school completion. Here’s a quick look at how long it is to finish high school for these three options.

  • Online High School: If your online high school is self-paced, this means it’s totally up to you on how quickly you can receive your diploma! Going at your own pace means moving on to the next subject when you’re ready, but also having the ability to focus on a subject a little longer if you need it. A self-paced environment can also be handy in the case of a family emergency, or if your schedule tends to not be consistent. Transferring credits can also be a huge advantage in shortening the time needed to complete the program. With a self-paced school, no one is going to push you to complete your lessons except yourself so staying motivated and dedicating time toward your lessons is crucial for a timely graduation.
  • GED or high school equivalency: To earn the GED, all you technically need to do is pass the 4 subject tests. This means that if you need absolutely no studying, it may be a really quick option. But realistically studying will be needed to pass. The GED effectively condenses all of high school into tests, so it would definitely be in your best interest to prepare by studying, taking practice tests, and possibly even GED prep classes. Taking the tests before you’re ready may mean you may need to retake it in the future. Depending on where you’re at, it may take months or years to be a place where you can confidently pass.
  • In-person night school for adults: If you really value in-person learning, this is probably the best option for you. However, your night school will have set times and attendance necessary in order to earn your diploma. You may have to adjust your work schedule or miss out on social gatherings during class times ranging from evenings to weekends. With this option, you’re also bound to the speed of the teacher and possibly others in the class if they’re not grasping the lessons. Most adult night-time learners are part time students, which can greatly add to the amount of time needed in order to graduate.

Is going back to school worth it?

While everyone’s circumstances are different, we think that completing your high school diploma is totally worth it! Why? Well, high school diploma holders earn nearly $10,000 more per year, have over three times the number of jobs available to them, and even report a healthier lifestyle compared to those without. Not to mention the benefits of being eligible to join the military, qualifying for college and financial aid, and just being an example for your kids as well.

Before going back, consider your own reasons why you might want to do so, and which option clicks best for you and your lifestyle. If you’re looking for an accredited, self-paced, online high school, JMHS may be the perfect fit for you! For more information on enrolling in James Madison, reach out to our Admissions Specialist at and start owning your high school journey as early as today.

About the Author

Nicole Dalbo

Nicole Dalbo

Nicole Dalbo studied English Literature with a minor in Women’s Studies from the University of Scranton and is currently working toward her MS in Marketing. When she isn’t writing, Nicole can be found watching the newest Marvel movie, baking something sweet, or jamming out to live music.