Parents Are Going Back to School To Get Their High School Diplomas—How To Make It Work

Kids benefit when parents turn their tassels. Here's why it's never to late to get your diploma and how to go back to school.

adult mother play with the baby girl after the mother's graduation ceremony.
Photo: Getty Images

Aura Perez moved to Miami from Nicaragua when she was 11 years old. English was her second language, and she struggled with reading and language arts. Though she had the grades to pass high school, she did not pass the language arts portion of a standardized test required to graduate in Florida.

Perez left school without her high school diploma and became a single mother at 19. Needing to make ends meet for her daughter, she took a job as a dental assistant. Perez considered going back to school many times, but didn't know how she could manage to work and go to school. She also had two more children.

Then Perez lost her job as a dental assistant. That day, she decided it was time for a change. Perez enrolled in Lindsey Hopkins Technical College, an adult learning center in Florida, in 2018.

"I made the sacrifice to work Saturday and Sunday and clean houses after school," Perez says.

But stepping into a school building at the age of 30 felt like running through a brick wall. It seemed impossible when she arrived for her first day of classes.

"I didn't feel confident at all," Perez says. "I thought I wasn't going to retain information because of my age. That was my biggest fear."

But she did. Perez now has a high school diploma and is no longer part of this statistic: About 8.9% of adults 25 and older do not have their high school diploma or equivalency, which is about 34 million Americans, according to the latest Census Bureau data.

Ad Council and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation (DGLF) recently released a new PSA as part of their longstanding "Finish Your Diploma" campaign titled When You Graduate. It features parents, including Perez, and their children celebrating their graduations. The two organizations hope it inspires parents to take the leap Perez did and get their diplomas. Here's why that matters and how parents can go back to school.

Why People Leave School

Two million people ages 16 o 24 dropped out of high school in 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. There's a stereotype that people who drop out of high school are lazy. But that's often not the case, says Nadine Levitt, education expert and founder and CEO of WURRLYedu, a content platform for teachers.

According to research from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, some common reasons for dropping out include:

  • Lack of support and connection from the school community
  • Incarceration
  • Financial hardships that require a student to choose work over school to support their family
  • Being more advanced than one's grade level causing frustration or boredom
  • Falling so far behind and getting worn down by failure or feeling success isn't possible

Communities of color are disproportionately affected, particularly the Latinx community. According to the most recent Census Bureau report, 74.2% of the Hispanic population 25 and older have a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to 95.1% of non-Hispanic white population and 90.3% of Black population.

"Unfortunately, we still suffer from systemic racism, so regardless of exact causation, they are undoubtedly influenced by socio-economic circumstances, available resources, and support," Levitt says.

Research also shows systemic racism affects young students. For example, Black students are more likely to receive school discipline and lower academic expectations from educators than white students.

"[This] will cause limiting beliefs, as well as a low perceived value of traditional education in its entirety," Levitt says. And that, in turn, can cause kids of color to drop out at higher rates.

How Children Benefit When Parents Go Back to School

The latest Census Bureau data shows the overall high school completion rate for adults 25 and older went from 87.6% in 2011 to 91.1% in 2021. Though there are still racial and ethnic disparities, the graduation rate increased across all groups. That's good news—but it makes having a high school diploma even more critical. The new PSA from the Ad Council and DGLF isn't just for show. Children gain a leg up when a parent receives their high school diploma.

Higher wages

People without a high school diploma earn the lowest salaries based on education level—an average of $592 per week or $30,784 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. People whose highest level of education was a high school diploma earn an average of $746 per week or $38,792 per year.

The extra income can have a ripple effect and help parents afford necessities like food. For example, one 2019 study showed students are more likely to be food insecure in college if their parents have a high school degree or less. (Speaking of health, research indicates adults with high school diplomas typically live longer.)

"The positive impact is not only on their life but also on that of their children," says Vicki Greene, the President of the GED Testing Service. "We know that it can impact generations and entire communities."

Children may do better in school

The less education a parent has, the more likely the family will be considered low-income, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. Research shows poverty can affect a child's academic performance.

For Perez, just being able to help her children with their homework feels empowering.

"[Before I went back to school], I wouldn't know how to help with some of my kids' subjects," Perez said. "Now, I understand some of the material. It's a gift to you and your family."

Role modeling

And then there's the intangible factor—returning to school and trying again sets a positive example for children.

"Our research has shown that the number one reason for adult learners pursuing a GED is to make their families proud," Greene says.

Perez hopes she made her kids proud.

"I hope I showed them never to give up," she says. "Being in school, you feel powerful, you feel confident. Giving that example to them makes me feel very proud of myself. They know mommy graduated…they know they have to finish school."

How To Go Back to School

Going back to school can seem overwhelming—it certainly did for Perez. Experts say it may be difficult, but it is possible. Here are some tips if you're planning to return to school.

Create your village

Completing your degree takes time and sacrifice, Greene admits. Parents, in particular, may run into child care issues. Having a support system is essential.

"[A support system] includes access to mental health services and other services that help address what the learner is dealing with daily," Greene says.

Greene also suggests surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family members.

Learn, study, and practice

You'll want to find options for adult learning that work for you. Levitt suggests researching potential schools on the web. has a search tool to find and register for free adult learning classes in your area. If you're studying for your GED, Levitt says you can sign up for courses to help you pass the test. You can also take practice tests on, which Levitt recommends doing.

"Many of us are no longer used to sitting for tests, so take a practice test (or two) to give you a good idea of what to expect," Levitt says.

Once you're ready, you can view the price and rules by state for the GED and register online too.


Perez had to drop her three children off at different schools, regularly causing her to be late. Instead of giving up and not going to school at all, she communicated her issue with her teacher. Her teacher empathized and encouraged her to just get to school, even if she was going to be late. That encouragement and compassion took the pressure off Perez and motivated her to keep coming back.

"When it comes to developing confidence, it's often helpful to have a teacher...that you know is in your corner and supporting you through the setbacks that may happen," Greene says.

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