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A man in a yellow-orange shirt holds up a blue button-down shirt while shopping in a clothing store.

The cost of professional attire can be a significant burden on students who are already paying for tuition, housing and textbooks.

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A new professional attire initiative at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., aims to sidestep some of the challenges of traditional career closets, a model in which students can acquire professional clothing, free, directly on campus from a collection of donated outfits. Officials sought a way for students to easily access professional clothes for job interviews, campus jobs and internships, but they didn’t have physical space to house the garments. Another worry was that they wouldn’t have enough sizes and styles to accommodate the needs of their student body.

Thus, the Professional Attire Program was born. The fund provides students with money, sent directly to their student accounts, to go out and buy their own attire. It will launch next month—prime interview season—with nearly $20,000 available for students to use to build their professional wardrobes.

What’s the need: The concept for the Professional Attire Program first emerged during a conversation between students and an alumnus at Babson’s combined homecoming celebration and family weekend, Back to Babson, according to Gerri Randlett, assistant vice president for alumni engagement and annual giving.

“One of the things they talked about was that there are kids on campus, some of their friends, who didn’t have [the clothes] they needed to go … to the internship fair or, actually, for a job interview,” she explains. “So they were borrowing from their friends.”

Dressing professionally can be vital for a successful job interview; research has indicated that, for better or for worse, 30 percent of interviewers make up their minds about a candidate within the first five minutes of their conversation, meaning that first impressions can have outsize significance.

But business-casual wardrobes can be pricey, and that cost can be a significant burden for students who are already paying high sums—or taking out loans—for tuition, housing and textbooks. Initiatives like the Professional Attire Program seek to give students a chance to buy clothes that will help them feel confident and comfortable in professional settings.

This has become especially important at Babson as more low-income students have enrolled, Randlett notes.

“Babson has always been an incredibly diverse school; we’ve always had a lot of international students, we’ve always had many cultures and languages and religions on our campus. But we’ve become much more economically diverse, I would say, in the last 10 years,” she says. “Like every business and every school, you have to iterate and move with what your community is.”

How it works: Students interested in accessing Professional Attire Program funds will send in a short application explaining why they need support, says Ann McAdam Griffin, director of the Hoffman Family Undergraduate Center for Career Development. Those applications will be reviewed every two weeks. From there, the student will be given a stipend—the amount of which has not been confirmed, Griffin says, but it will be somewhere in the ballpark of $200—to spend on whatever professional clothing they want.

The career center has also partnered with Hyde, a menswear clothing subscription box company, that offers professional clothing rentals for all genders to its campus partners through the MyCareerCloset service. However, Babson administrators did not want to go the rental route, preferring to let students keep the clothes. Hyde will instead offer participants in the Professional Attire Program an optional 15-minute virtual session with a stylist, who will teach students about professional clothing and help them select the appropriate wardrobe for their industry.

From there, students can purchase from Hyde’s selection of garments or go shopping elsewhere. Participants are asked to sign an agreement with the career center stating that they will spend the funds on their intended use.

They must also write a brief reflection on their career goals. This, Griffin says, is an attempt to connect with participants who may not have otherwise engaged with the career center.

“We know that our students are in very different stages in terms of their career readiness,” she says, so the career center is constantly on the lookout for “creative ways to get them into the door of our office and expose them to our services.”

How it was funded: To raise the funds, Randlett sought out donors who might have a specific interest in helping students upgrade their wardrobes. That search led her to Rick Blackshaw, a Babson alum and the president of the shoe brand HEYDUDE, a division of Crocs, who made the initial significant gift.

After Blackshaw’s gift, Randlett moved to crowdfunding, asking for donations during Make Your Mark, Babson’s annual day of giving, in October of last year (a permanent link to donate to the fund is also available). About 80 donations in total have been made to date.

Many of those who donated explained that, when they were students, they, too, were in need of an affordable way to get professional clothing.

“It just was very rewarding to hear from our alums that this is something that hit close to home for them,” Randlett says.

The fund is not endowed, so when the current sum runs out, Randlett’s team will have to find more sources of funding to keep the initiative alive. Her ultimate goal is to find a major donor who can contribute enough for the account to be endowed.

“It’s definitely on our vision board to make sure that happens,” she says.

As students begin to use the fund, Randlett is hopeful that potential donors will be moved by their success stories.

“Then you can go to a funder and say, ‘Hey, we have these 20 students and here’s their testimonial,’” she says. “That really gets right to the donor’s heart.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Hyde, when working with its campus partners, offers clothing for all genders.

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