Scary. Exhilarating. Overwhelming.
Those are the words Melinda McIntosh, a 2021 graduate of the HiSET program at Southwestern Community College who received her high school diploma in March at 48 years old.
“You get all these emotions. It’s like, ‘Wow. I did this,” she said. “I never thought I could accomplish it, but I did.”
McIntosh is one of 1,003 Iowans who passed the HiSET, a high school equivalency exam. It’s a successful program across the nation, with Iowa ranking the highest for the percent of individuals who pass the test. Last year, 95.9% of Iowans seeking a high school equivalency diploma passed the exam compared to 80.5% nationally.
SWCC has one of the highest passing rates of the HiSET program in the state year after year.
“SWCC contributed to the high state pass rate by maintaining a 100% pass rate this past year,” said Darla Helm, director of adult literacy. “SWCC [Adult Education and Literacy] averages 30-35 HiSET graduates a year, but numbers have been lower in the past few years due to COVID-19.”
There are many reasons why people don’t finish high school. McIntosh chose to enroll in the program after he employer, Ferrara Candy Company closed its doors in Creston in December 2017. Without work or an immediate interest in current openings in the community, she decided to accomplish the goal of obtaining her high school diploma.
“In this day and age it’s important because you basically can’t get a good paying job without having one,” she said.
McIntosh left school at 14 years of age. She said her parents told her to bring up her grades or drop out. So she took what she thought was “the easy road.” It was not. She started waitressing at a cafe in Clarion before having her first child at 17. From there she’d have two more and worked odd jobs to raise her growing family. School was suddenly off the table.
“Then I had to work to support my kids,” she said. “I grew up pretty fast.”
McIntosh moved to Creston when her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. In Creston, she found work in nursing homes and traveling as a certified nurses’ aid before going to work in the candy factory. Now, with her diploma, she’s on her third year of working at the college she credits with helping her achieve her goal.
“I never thought I could accomplish it, but I did,” McIntosh said.
About HiSET at SWCC
SWCC Adult Education and Literacy program serves adults who are 16 years of age or older, who are not enrolled in secondary school, and are looking to achieve mastery of basic educational skills.
“Many SWCC AEL students are seeking a high school equivalency diploma, wish to upgrade skills, or need English as a Second Language classes to enable them to function effectively on the job, in the family and in society,” said Helm. “Students complete the HiSET for a variety of reasons, but most often it is for job advancement, post-secondary education or personal reasons.”
The program provides face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses, with the HiSET program taking, on average, eight weeks to complete. The program consists of five subsections including reading, writing, math, social studies and science. Classes are offered free of charge and available at various locations throughout the counties SWCC serves.
“SWCC has wonderful AEL instructors who are dedicated to teaching students, assisting with eliminating barriers, and striving to promote career pathways,” said Helm. “SWCC instructors work with students to set an individual learning plan to fit students’ needs and schedules. SWCC has a technology lend program for students who are interested in online options, but do not have computer access.”
McIntosh said it was the hybrid of in-person and distance learning paired with the encouragement and support of staff that helped her succeed as a HiSET student. She often doubted herself, but the instructors and staff kept her engaged when the going got tough. As she delivered her commencement speech before the audience in June.
“Achieving the highest passing rate on the HiSET is a testament to these hard-working Iowans and the quality of adult education and literacy programming provided through Iowa’s 15 community colleges. I commend these students for their hard work and the commitment of the adult education and literacy coordinators and instructors who are helping them take the next steps to post-secondary education, training and careers,” said Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo.
McIntosh said, “To succeed or be successful, please, please continue your education.”
“You’re never too old to achieve a goal or to get your high school diploma,” she said. “You’re never too old.”
For more information about the HiSET program at Southwestern Community College, visit tinyurl.com/swcchiset.