Several major national companies are giving employees free access to prep classes and tests to earn their high-school equivalency degrees.

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State community college leader Marty Brown is praising a new program offered by KFC, Walmart,  Taco Bell and Southeastern Grocers that gives their employees free access to online and community college programs that can help them earn their GED, a high-school equivalency degree.

“These companies have sent a clear message that they value education and the opportunities it brings to their employees,” said Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, in a statement. “They are setting a great example for other employers to do the same.”

Employees can participate in an online prep program, or take classes in person at a community college or one of the community-based organizations that offer the courses, said Lou Sager, Washington state’s GED administrator.

The programs cover the full cost of preparing for, and taking, the four-part GED tests. Employees will get access to a GED advisor, online GED study material, connections to local adult education programs and practice tests. They’ll tackle one of the four GED subjects at a time in order to keep the work focused. (The parts are math, science and social studies, plus a section combining reading and writing.)

In January 2014, the GED test became a new, more difficult exam that incorporated the Common Core learning standards that Washington and most other states have adopted. It was redesigned to better gauge the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills many employers are seeking. And having a GED became more important, because without it, high-school dropouts are no longer eligible for the federal aid many need to earn a job-training certificate or college degree.

After the new tests went into effect, there was a sharp drop in the number of people who took the GED and passed it. But Sager said adult education enrollments and GED testing always drops when the unemployment rate drops. He said the community colleges are hoping that the new program will bring in some people who don’t have have the money, or time, to attend classes.

In a release announcing the program, GED Testing Service — which is partnering with the four employers to offer the program — said it was the first time national employers have banded together to support a program aimed solely at decreasing the number of adults without a high school diploma. They described it as “an important step in improving the country’s economic competitiveness.”