What's a high school diploma worth? In terms of salary earnings, about $10,386 a year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.1 Yet, 32 percent of students who drop out of high school do so to find employment.2 Having a high school diploma not only presents opportunities for higher wages, but it also opens the door to a boosted socioeconomic status.

"A high school diploma is a necessity in today's job market," says Tucson, Arizona, Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, in an interview with eSchool News on how online education programs are helping lift graduation rates. "Without one, it's hard to get hired at a job that can support a family. The bottom line is that the way out of poverty is through education."3

It's never too late to go back, but the decision to return to school can be even more overwhelming than the decision to leave. Combining full-time employment, kids and family obligations, how does one even begin the journey back to high school?

For years, one thing bridged high school non-completers and post-secondary education: the GED. The famous test was once the only gateway to an academic second chance, but today's alternatives are created with the non-traditional student in mind. From self-paced online programs that fit your schedule, to college and employee-sponsored coursework that propels career success, the options are plentiful. Not sure where to start? Consider these options and get ready to increase your career opportunities and earning potential.

Online High School

Not into standardized tests or controlled learning environments? No problem. Whether you're 18 or 81, you can graduate high school on your terms. By thinking outside the classroom, you can not only earn a diploma but also the confidence to celebrate your accomplishment with pomp and circumstance. The online experience makes it easy for students of all ages to earn their high school diploma, and they won't be judged for being older than the rest of the class. The educational options for high school students 18 and over have increased greatly, thanks to accredited high school programs.4

Online courses enable you to attend school on your time. This means you can balance your school work around your priorities, such as job responsibilities and family matters, all while working toward your diploma. For example, Polk High School recently partnered with Penn Foster to offer students, both at-risk of leaving and those who have already left, an opportunity to engage in a blend of classroom learning and online coursework, giving them the flexibility they need to earn their high school diploma. The accredited and career-focused high school completion program helped students who were struggling in the traditional high school learning environment by offering options outside of the traditional setting.

High School Completion Programs

Whether you're seeking to enhance your skills in a specific trade or shift careers, career colleges provide excellent avenues for acquiring the necessary skills to jump-start the next stage in your life. However, a high diploma is an enrollment prerequisite. Going back to school shouldn't be an overwhelming task. When researching career colleges, look for schools that sponsor on-campus high school completion programs. College-sponsored programs directly fill requirements at a particular college, putting students on a fast track to getting accepted at that particular school.

Additionally, with a high school completion program you walk away with an actual diploma, not just a test score. You're also preparing yourself for the challenges of college coursework. Unlike the GED, high school coursework doubles as preparation for postsecondary academic endeavors like career college. In terms of workforce experience, graduating high school shows employers you've proven mastery in a wide range of subjects from math to English, giving you a competitive edge in the job market.

Employer-Sponsored Diploma Programs

With financial obligations and time constraints, continued education falls short on the list of priorities. But, going back to school can help catapult your career and increase your earnings potential. However, the reality today is that few students can afford to focus solely on school-most need to work at the same time, especially as need-based financial aid fails to keep pace with rising tuition rates and the cost of living. In addition, a competitive job market prompts students to build up their resumes with work experience before graduating.5

Fortunately, many employers are seeing the value of providing educational tools to retain their best employees for the long haul. Employers who promote from within spend less time and money on the hiring process and training. For adult learners already on a career path, employer-sponsored high school diplomas provide you with the means to move up within the company without sacrificing a steady paycheck.

The reasons for leaving school are as varied as each individual. But one thing is certain: For non-completers, leaving high school seemed to be the only valid solution for ending the struggles at hand. Luckily, past decisions don't have to determine the future. With the latest online and blended learning options, going back to school is only a click away.

Resources: (1) Census Table 231: Educational Attainment by Selected Characteristics: 2010 (2) The Silent Epidemic: Persepctives of High School Dropouts (3) Online Classes Target High School Dropouts (4) Returning to High School After Dropping Out (5) The Working Poor Families Project