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Northwestern State University students wear purple robes for commencement. Graduates can donate their used gowns to future graduates the very same day.

Northwestern State University

It started with a casual conversation in a senior-level research methods class.

Jennifer Shaw, a research associate in the social work department at Northwestern State University, a public institution in Natchitoches, La., asked a group of seniors if they were looking forward to graduation. One young man’s answer surprised her.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t afford it. It’s a hundred bucks for something I’m going to wear once. I’ve got to buy groceries. I’ve got to buy gas,’” Shaw recalled. When she asked him if he would attend commencement if he could get the cap and gown for free, he said yes.

That conversation took place semesters ago, but it inspired Shaw to start a project that she has continued ever since: NSU’s Gowns for Grads closet.

The regalia closet features royal purple caps and gowns—which NSU switched to from plain black a few years ago—available for loan to graduating seniors who can’t afford to buy their own. In total, NSU’s graduation garb costs $125 from Jostens, a major distributor of regalia, class rings and yearbooks.

Over the years, Shaw has collected about 70 gowns—mostly by setting up a table every year at commencement so that graduates can donate their robes as soon as they’re done wearing them. (It doubles as a station for those who borrow regalia to return it). Organizations such as the Student Government Association have also run drives to provide robes to the program, and some donors have contributed by buying tassels in bulk for graduates to use.

In her first few semesters loaning out gowns, Shaw often didn’t have enough to meet demand; for this fall’s graduation, scheduled for next week, only 10 students have requested to borrow regalia, but she is unsure how much demand there will be come spring.

Shaw’s former student isn’t the only person who has had to skip out on graduation because of cost. Most colleges and universities require students to, at the very least, wear a generic black gown to the ceremony; some institutions require them to wear specialized attire featuring school colors, emblems or logos. These often cost $100 or more, while fancier regalia for doctoral students can cost as much as $1,000. Earlier this year, one Twitter user even noted that her doctoral ensemble cost more than her wedding dress.

Students have found their own workarounds, including borrowing robes from friends, asking their parents to cover the cost as a graduation gift, looking in local thrift stores or renting the gown at a fraction of the cost of purchasing it.

But universities are looking for solutions, too. Programs similar to NSU’s are springing up at institutions across the country in an effort to help more students celebrate their accomplishments on commencement day.

Assisting Low-Income Grads

The School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University at New Brunswick is launching a program called WeaR It Forward that will allow alumni to donate their robes to low-income, first-generation or transfer students who are graduating. The goal is to collect 50 robes in time for graduation this spring, according to Lynell James, senior program coordinator for the school’s Educational Opportunity Fund.

WeaR It Forward launched this fall with the unveiling of a donation box to collect gowns at the university’s homecoming football game. Since then, the alumni association has put out boxes around the university’s campuses so that visiting alumni can easily drop off donations.

James said students typically don’t know how much regalia will cost until they are approaching graduation, at which point the unexpected fee—approximately $85 for the full ensemble—can come as a shock.

“Attending school is a financial burden, especially for expenses [students] are not aware of,” she said. “We want them to be able to celebrate themselves and walk across that stage as proud as possible … Graduation is a right. It’s a milestone—everyone should be there with their family and wear their gown.”

Donated gowns are beneficial not just to students who can’t afford to buy them, Shaw noted; they have also saved students whose regalia doesn’t arrive in time or doesn’t fit, as well as those who realize they’re graduating too late in the semester to order the ensemble.

For many, though, it’s still a mystery why something most students wear exactly once is so expensive in the first place. Farbod Farzin, president of a low-priced regalia company called CAPGOWN, attributes the phenomenon to the number of “middlemen” who are involved in the process of delivering the product from the manufacturer to the student, including regional distributors and campus bookstores.

CAPGOWN itself sells directly to consumers for reduced costs; it doesn’t partner with universities but instead sells basic black caps and gowns, as well as Ph.D. regalia that uses the colors of a number of major universities. Doctoral ensembles cost about $425, or newly minted Ph.D.s can rent them from CAPGOWN for about $125.

“It’s a lot less expensive for someone to be able to wear their school’s colors for graduation without having to spend four or five hundred dollars,” Farzin said of the rental option.

Although some students are frustrated by having to shell out hundreds of dollars to walk at graduation, many are excited to don regalia that represents their institution rather than just wearing a generic black robe.

“I’ve heard students say they love the gowns. They think they’re beautiful,” Shaw said.

James, of Rutgers, concurred.

“Most students are excited to be that Scarlet Knight,” she said, referring to the university’s mascot.

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