By Wade Henderson

NNPA Guest Columnist

As our economy steadily improves and we look ahead to the next four years, it’s time to turn our attention to solving the intractable problem of long-term unemployment. Reforming the General Educational Development exam – better known as the GED – is one of the most promising pathways to getting this done.

More than 5 million workers have been unemployed for more than six months, casting a long shadow on our country’s improving job numbers. Even worse, a growing segment of these individuals may never find a job, not because of any moral failing on their part but because they lack the necessary credentials for work in a post-industrial economy.

For those who have been unemployed for even longer, finding work, even in a growing economy means remains more dream than reality. According to the San Francisco Federal Reserve, those who are out of work for a year or longer have less than a 1-in-10 chance of finding employment in the next month.

Now consider that nearly 40 million adults in this country do not have a high school diploma or a GED. And that 54 percent of these adults are out of the workforce. Improving the GED, if made a national priority, would help reclaim this important segment of our prospective workforce. The White House can and should take the lead in examining this link between jobs, job readiness, and educational attainment.

Under our current education system, dropping out presents a double burden: once students stop pursuing education, the education system stops pursuing them. For all intents and purposes, nearly a million students disappear from our education system without a trace each year. Ignoring these potential students and workers is a gross moral miscalculation that also has significant economic consequences for the nation. Our system essentially relegates them to road-kill on life’s super-highway.

So what would education reform that included these individuals look like?

Such reform would need to significantly increase the number of people who pursue and pass the GED test. Each year, the number of GEDs awarded is less than half the number of high school dropouts, so the population without a secondary credential continues to grow.

Currently, having a GED has nearly as much stigma as dropping out. This perception is unfair and needs to be addressed. To transcend this, the GED test is being reformed into a more rigorous credential aligned with college-and career-ready standards – but this reform also comes with a steep price increase for test takers. This is a real problem; an improved GED is no use to those who cannot afford to take it.

Reform needs to also include improving GED preparation programs. This means an expansion of accessible sites for preparation and testing, including in the nation’s prisons, and a hard look at the quality of teaching available to students.

Finally, meaningful reform would further develop the GED exam as a pipeline program for workforce development and educational advancement. This would require coordination among school districts, the U.S. Department of Education, community colleges, workforce development programs, community-based organizations, and businesses to make sure that the GED is just the first step toward advancement – not the last.

No answer is simple, but if we want to build a solid economic foundation for our nation, we must ensure that no one is excluded from our national educational priorities.

Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States.