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Student Loans

Can You Get Student Loans Without a High School Diploma or GED?

Getting student loans when you haven’t earned a high school diploma or completed a GED can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. How to qualify depends on whether you’re applying for federal or private student loans. 

Federal loans generally require a diploma or GED to demonstrate college readiness. Private lenders may need to see that you’ve completed high school to qualify. If you’re hoping to get student loans without a high school diploma, it’s important to know your options.

Can you get federal student loans without a high school diploma or GED?

The Department of Education grants federal student loans to eligible borrowers, and you may be one of them even without a diploma or GED. Due to their low, fixed interest rates and flexible repayment options, these loans can be an attractive option for covering college costs. 

To apply for federal student loans, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The Department of Education outlines basic eligibility requirements borrowers must meet.

You must:

  • Have a demonstrated financial need (for need-based federal student aid)
  • Be a U.S. citizen or eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number (unless an exception applies)
  • Be enrolled or accepted in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Be enrolled or plan to enroll at least half-time
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college
  • Not be in default on any federal student loans
  • Show that you’re qualified to obtain a college degree or career school education

That last requirement might complicate matters if you don’t have a high school diploma or GED. But a complication doesn’t mean an impossibility.

How to show you’re qualified for federal student loans

You have three options to demonstrate you’re qualified for federal student loans: 

  1. Provide proof of a high school diploma or state-recognized equivalent (meaning a GED).
  2. Complete a high school education in a state-approved home-school setting.
  3. Enroll in an eligible career pathway program and meet one of two ability-to-benefit (ATB) alternatives.

“Ability to benefit” means you can benefit from a college education even if you don’t have a high school diploma or GED. You might meet the ATB standard if you enrolled in college before July 1, 2012, or are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program. 

Eligible career pathway programs include:

  • Medical assisting
  • Veterinary assisting
  • Automotive technology
  • Welding technology

Enrolling in one of these programs allows students without a diploma to work toward a degree while earning a GED.

How to demonstrate ability to benefit

Pass an approved ATB test, which usually takes around two hours to complete, to demonstrate your ability to benefit from postsecondary education. 

You may also complete one of the following toward a degree or certificate:

  • Six credit hours: Most college courses are worth two to four credit hours, with three credit hours being the most common. Expect to complete one to three courses to fulfill the credit hour requirement.
  • 225 clock hours: Clock hours refer to instructional time. To earn 225 clock hours, you’d need to complete 225 hours of class lectures or supervised training. Internships also count toward this requirement.

Not sure which to choose? Contact your school’s financial aid office and testing center to discuss options and to schedule your ATB test if you decide to take it. 

Note that you aren’t eligible for federal financial aid until you’ve satisfied one of the three ATB requirements. As you choose which ATB pathway to pursue, consider not only how long each one will take to complete but also how much it will cost.

Can you get private student loans without a high school diploma or GED?

Individual lenders—rather than the federal government—offer private student loans. You can get private student loans from banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Each lender decides its eligibility requirements and whether you need a GED to qualify.

The criteria they may consider include:

  • Enrollment status (i.e., half-time, full-time, or part-time)
  • Which school you’re attending
  • Your choice of degree program
  • Credit scores and credit history
  • Income and debt
  • Career plans
  • Citizenship status

A high school diploma or GED may be on the list, depending on the lender. 

That’s an advantage if you can’t obtain federal student loans because you don’t meet the college readiness requirement. If you’re considering private student loans, it’s essential to shop around to compare loan terms, rates, fees, and qualification criteria. 

Here’s how eligibility requirements compare at seven top private student loan lenders:

LenderDiploma or GED required?Other reqs
Ascent2 years of credit history, $24,000 annual income
Citizens BankMust attend 4-year school 
College AveCredit score in the mid-600s
CredibleMay need cosigner
Earnest❌ Min. 650 credit score, $35,000 annual income
Sallie MaeLikely need cosigner
SoFiMust attend 4-year school

Keep in mind: With private lenders, your credit history tends to carry more weight than any other factor. You may need to apply for loans with a cosigner if you have a limited credit history or if you’re not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. 

Getting student loans with a cosigner could help your chances of approval and result in lower interest rates. However, it’s important to remember that you and the cosigner are equally responsible for the debt in the lender’s eyes. 

Some private student loan lenders offer cosigner release if you meet certain repayment and credit requirements. Before you apply, check with each lender to see whether cosigner release is available.

Next steps to get student loans if you don’t have a high school diploma or GED

If you don’t have a high school diploma or GED and think you’ll need student loans to pay for college, contact your school first to determine what options you might have. 

You may need to apply to a college that’s likely to accept you without a diploma or GED if you’re not yet enrolled anywhere.

The next step is evaluating which type of loans you want to apply for. Federal loans are an excellent place to start because they have low interest rates and include built-in protections you don’t get with private student loans. 

You could qualify for federal loans by:

  • Earning a diploma or GED
  • Obtaining a high school equivalency certification from your home school, if applicable
  • Exploring the ability-to-benefit path

A GED might be the easiest solution if you can invest the time and money. 

Cost of a GED

The cost of the test ranges from $4 to $50 per subject, with four subjects total (math, language arts, social studies, and science). How much you pay depends on your state and whether you opt to take the test at a testing center in person or online from home. 

Arkansas is among the most affordable states for in-person testing, at just $4 per subject. And in Connecticut, New York, and West Virginia, you can take the GED for free.


You aren’t required to be a West Virginia resident to take the GED there. If you live in a neighboring state, compare GED pricing and research travel costs. You might save money by taking the GED one state over.

Your employer might also offer free GED preparation and testing through GEDWorks. To determine whether your employer participates, you can create an account at

If you’re paying for test prep, a course or practice test might cost anywhere from $5 to $300, and study guides can run anywhere from $15 to $130. When you’re ready to take your GED, schedule your test online.

How long does it take to get a GED?

Each subject test should take around two hours. You don’t need to take all four subject tests at once, but if you do, the test should take seven to eight hours. 

How much study time you dedicate can depend on your schedule and how well you think you know the subject areas. It’s not uncommon for students to spend two to three months preparing.