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Dropouts who take the high school equivalency test earn barely 4 percent more than those who don't - and only if they use their substitute diploma to go on to further education, according to a study.

The average recipient of a general equivalency diploma earns $7.43 an hour nine years after getting the certificate. High school dropouts who do not receive a GED make $7.02. The difference is about 6 percent, but since GED recipients work slightly fewer hours while participating in training programs or looking for work, their total income is just 4 percent more than other dropouts'."Is it worth paying $30 and sitting for this exam? The answer is yes," said Richard Murnane, an economics professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the study's co-author. "But is this a useful strategy for getting low-income people out of poverty? The answer is no."

A million young Americans a year drop out of high school without receiving a diploma. An increasing number of them take the test called the General Educational Development exam.

Nearly 800,000 people took the GED in 1993, the last year for which the figures are available. That's up from 734,000 in 1988.

"Out in the world you need either a high school diploma or some further education," said 18-year-old Hector Hernandez, who dropped out of school when he was a junior but wants to get a degree in computer programming.

"I need to at least have a GED," said Hernandez, who works in a warehouse while he prepares to take the test this month.

The GED tests writing skills, social studies, science, interpretation of literature and the arts, and math, and includes a written essay.

In their study, to be released this summer, Harvard researchers looked at 892 men who left high school before graduation. Most dropped out when they were 16 or 17, after finishing the ninth grade. About a third obtained a GED, with virtually no immediate effect on their hourly pay and only a small gradual increase over time.