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The Nonequivalence of High School Equivalents

Stephen V. Cameron and James Heckman

No 3804, NBER Working Papers from National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc

Abstract: This paper analyzes the causes and consequences of the growing proportion of high-school-certified persons who achieve that status by exam certification rather than through high school graduation. Exam-certified high school equivalents are statistically indistinguishable from high school dropouts. Both dropouts and exam-certified equivalents have comparably poor wages, earnings, hours of work, unemployment experiences and job tenure. This is so whether or not ability measures are used to control for differences. Whatever differences are found among exam-certified equivalents, high school dropouts and high school graduates are accounted for by their years of schooling completed. There is no cheap substitute for schooling. The only payoff to exam certification arises from its value in opening post-secondary schooling and training opportunities. However, exam-certified equivalents receive lower returns to most forms of post-secondary education and training. We also discuss the political economy of the recent rapid growth of exam certification. There has been growth in direct government subsidies to adult basic education programs that feature exam certification as an output. In addition, there has been growth in government subsidies to post-secondary schooling programs that require certification in order to qualify for benefits. These sources account for the rapid growth in the use of exam certification in the face of the low economic returns to it.

Date: 1991-08
Note: LS
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Published as Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 11, no. 1 (January 1993): 1-47.

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