How to Get a High School Diploma Online

high school student on her computer

Once you leave high school, it’s hard to imagine ever going back. But a high school diploma opens the door to employment and education opportunities you might not have access to otherwise.

Thankfully, online high school completion programs mean that “going back to school” doesn’t have to involve cramming your stuff in a locker or sitting through hours of lectures. Finishing high school online still takes time and effort, but you can learn at your own pace from the comfort of your home, a coffee shop, or anywhere there’s Internet.

About 28 million Americans over 18 don’t have a high school diploma, and you don’t have to be one of them. Hundreds of thousands of high school students take advantage of digital education every year, and the trend is increasing.

Here’s how it works:

How to go to high school online

The hardest part about getting started is choosing a school. There are literally hundreds of online high schools for you to choose from. You don’t necessarily have to go to enroll in a school in your state (it is online, after all), but that’s a good way to narrow your options—and it’s usually cheaper, too.

Some high school completion programs may require you to supplement your online education with in-person classes (these are hybrid programs). Others may require you to take tests at an official test center. Obviously, for programs like that, you have to live in-state. But there are plenty of fully-online high schools, too.

You’ll also have to consider the type of high school education you’re looking for—public, private, or college-sponsored?

Online public or charter high schools

If a school is “public” that means it’s funded by state tax dollars. If you’re a minor, and you live within the state or district, you won’t have to pay tuition. (Although there may still be fees.) These schools are highly regulated and adhere to state standards.

Public schools typically don’t close up shop, even when they’re doing poorly. Charter schools may provide a wider selection of courses, but they’re also more fickle, and can lose funding.

When you get your diploma from one of these, it’ll be awarded by the state.

Online private high schools

Private schools are, you guessed it, privately funded. These schools often operate like a business. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you’ll probably have to pay a hefty tuition. If you’re looking into private schools, choose carefully. Some of these schools will provide you a great education, and some will be literally worthless.

Schools might also be private because their own standards are more important to them than a state’s standards. An online private Christian high school, for example, may be more focused on providing students with a Christian education.

Online college-sponsored high schools

If you’re especially motivated (and can afford it), some colleges provide programs that allow you to simultaneously finish high school and earn college credit. These programs are harder to get into and harder to complete, but you should be getting a higher quality education as well.

As long as you choose an actual school, you shouldn’t have to worry about whether it’s public or private. You’ll get a real diploma either way. But that doesn’t mean you should click the first ad you see for an online high school.

There’s an entire industry dedicated to preying on high school dropouts. Sleazy businesses pose as schools, and they will gladly take your money and hand you a worthless piece of paper. These are called diploma mills, and they’ve given online education a bad name.

So before we get into how to get an actual high school diploma online, let’s talk about how to avoid a fake one. This is the most important thing you need to learn before enrolling in an online program.

How to tell if an online high school is fake

The worst scams don’t look like scams. They do and say all the right things to avoid setting off any red flags. And they look like real schools. They might even look better than a lot of real schools.

But as you’re checking out online high schools, there are some dead giveaways that you’re dealing with a phony. You know a school is fake if:

They say you can get your degree for a fee

Some online high school programs do cost money, but you’re exchanging your money for an education, not a credential. You can’t buy a real diploma—you have to earn it.

They don’t require homework, tests, or interactions with teachers

Boy, doesn’t that sound nice? School without the most stressful, time-consuming, tedious parts? Fake schools know how appealing that offer is. But no legitimate school is going to give you a diploma without any work. You have to prove that you learned something. If a school advertises that it doesn’t take much effort, you should be very skeptical.

You can earn your diploma faster than at other schools

Some schools have accelerated programs and other ways to shave off some time—but there’s always a clear explanation for why the program is faster, and legitimate schools don’t cut corners. If you only need to finish a couple of classes, it makes sense that you could have your diploma in a semester or two. But if you have a year or more of high school left, there’s absolutely no way you can get a diploma in a few days.

They offer to give you a degree based on your experience

Some colleges will accept relevant work or life experience in exchange for some credits. But a high school completion program probably won’t. And a real school will never let you substitute experience for their entire program.

Basically, if a school looks too good to be true, it probably is. Like I said before though, the worst scams don’t look like scams. Some fake schools aren’t so obvious. But even if they don’t make any of the deceptive promises above, there’s still one thing that diploma mills can’t fake: accreditation.

What’s accreditation?

Accreditation is like quality control for schools. When a school promises to give you a good education, your first response should be, “Oh yeah, says who?”

The answer is: whoever accredited the school.

Real schools will be upfront about who they’re accredited by, because it’s a clear signal of their legitimacy. Fake schools will either avoid talking about accreditation or use a fake accrediting body. How do you know it’s fake? Google it. Poke around on their website (do they even have one?) and see if you can find any articles or forum threads about them. If you can’t find the accrediting body on the Internet, or they’re only mentioned on their own website, it’s probably fake.

But it’s even better if you know which accrediting bodies are good. Unlike online colleges and universities, the federal government doesn’t provide a list of legitimate accrediting organizations. Still, there are hundreds of online high schools that are regionally accredited, which is the best stamp of approval a school can get. Check out all these schools that are accredited by AdvancEd.

It’s also worth verifying that a school meets a state’s standards. Even if it’s not your state, a legitimate school has to give you a diploma from a state, and to do that, they have to meet that state’s standards.

After all this talk about fake diplomas, you might be wondering: should I even bother?

Is getting my diploma online really worth it?

You can still get a good job without a high school diploma. (A lot of community colleges don’t require you to have one, by the way.) But you probably won’t be landing one of the highest paying careers in the U.S. any time soon. And your options are definitely more limited.

Plus, according to the most recent data from the US Census Bureau, the poverty rate for high school dropouts is almost twice the rate for high school graduates. And the median annual income for those with a diploma is almost $8,000 higher.

You might beat the odds on your own, but if you can take the time and put in the work to earn this basic credential, it could put you in a better position to live the kind of life you want.

And if higher education is something you’re thinking about, you’ll have a hard time getting in the door without a diploma. A high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) is usually the minimum you need to get into a university, even if you apply to schools with low standards.

Is an online high school diploma better than a GED?

High school typically takes four years to finish. A GED takes 7.5 hours of testing. Even if you count the hours of studying it take to prepare for a day-long test, you can earn a GED significantly faster than a diploma.

So is a GED just as good?

A GED only provides the academic equivalent of a high school diploma. Colleges, universities, and employers will accept it as a sign of your competence, but there are other things a diploma shows them that a GED can’t.

Like high school, college comes with assignments, tests, and regular interactions with teachers. Even if you’re going to school online, you have to consistently produce work that demonstrates you are working through the material and learning from it. You can’t earn a high school diploma without doing these things.

A GED is also naturally going to carry a bit of a stigma. About 40% of people who drop out of high school do so because they think getting a GED will be easier. That’s no secret to college admissions offices. And while you may have had good reason for dropping out, it doesn’t help convince admissions officers that you have what it takes to succeed in college, which is substantially harder than high school (assuming, you know, that you choose a good school).

If you get your high school diploma online though, no one will probably even know you dropped out. But since you can only take the GED if you don’t have a diploma and you’re not enrolled in a high school, and it has a separate application process, it’s basically a big red flag that says “DIDN’T PASS HIGH SCHOOL.”

Still, it’s hard to say if one is really better than the other. The GED Testing Service says 97% of employers and colleges accept GEDs, and 60% of GED recipients are enrolled in college. Which choice is right for you really depends on how you learn best, and which path will do a better job preparing you for the kind of educational environment you’ll have later.

If you dream of being on a college campus working towards a bachelor’s degree someday, finishing your high school diploma online is probably a better fit, since it more closely parallels the experience of going to classes, taking tests, and turning in assignments. That takes discipline, and earning your diploma will help you develop that discipline.

But if you’d prefer to go to college online someday, earning a GED reflects the same kind of self-directed learning you’ll likely experience in an online degree program.

Your first online homework assignment

Now that you know a little more about the process, it’s time to do some research into what’s available in your state. AdvancED has a database with hundreds of online schools you can narrow by state, county, or city, and you can also choose to look at private or public schools. It’s also worth looking into colleges near you to see if they have high school diploma programs.

As you start looking at specific schools, here are a few things you’ll want to compare:

  • The graduation rate: how likely are you to finish?
  • Class schedule: is it fixed, or flexible?
  • Extracurriculars: does the school offer anything besides classes?
  • Staff: how hard is it to talk to a real person? Will you be able to communicate with your teachers?

Now get out there are do some research!

(Or, if you’re still on the fence about all this, here’s everything you need to know about the GED.)

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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