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For Some College Students, the Cap and Gown Makes Graduation Day Too Costly

Columbia University is helping some students with crucial incidental costs

As her May 19 commencement date looms, Yana Dey has begun considering skipping her own graduation.

It’s not that she wants to miss it. She's proud of the work that went into fulfilling the requirements for a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College. What's holding her back is the $62 cost of the cap and gown she's required to wear to walk at graduation. “I started to worry, because I just don’t have any extra money to spend right now,” says Dey, who began posting on Facebook groups in May to try to borrow past graduates’ regalia. “I honestly thought about not going.”

Dey isn't alone. The issue garnered increasing attention on Facebook as students posted a flurry of requests—"Anyone have a 5'11" appropriate gown to loan out?"—to borrow garb from recent graduates. Last week, Columbia announced it would respond. Two of the colleges at the university, Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, will cover the cost of cap and gown for students who demonstrate financial need, starting this commencement season, according to Sydney Goss, director of communications for Columbia College. 

"Graduation is one of those culminating moments where you're celebrated for making it through four years," says Kareem Carryl, student president of Columbia's senior class. Carryl is one of the students who approached administrators to ask them to help cover the costs of cap and gown. "There shouldn't be any barriers to being able to participate," he added.

The price of graduation regalia may pale in comparison to tuition, room and board, and major costs incurred attending college, but those larger costs have shot up in recent years, leaving little for extras. The average private college charged $31,231 this year in tuition, according to data (PDF) from the College Board. That's 3.7 percent more than they charged in 2013-14 and 10 percent more than they did five years ago. 

While most schools offer aid packages that cover tuition for the neediest students, those grants don't free them from every financial constraint. Many of the scattered incidental costs of college can become daunting when one is stretching scholarships, or relying on loans, just to live and study at an elite campus. At Ivy League schools, where enough students wear high-end Canada Goose jackets to inspire Tumblr accounts about their ubiquity, moments such as graduation can bring class disparity into sharp relief. Plenty of small costs for optional events lead up to commencement: At Columbia, for example, students are invited to attend a senior ball ($95 a ticket), enjoy a cruise ($52 a ticket), and purchase yearbooks ($85 a copy). Other private schools offer similar extras. Yet missing graduation because of its cost is a particularly painful symbol of exclusion. 

"If I decide not to go to the cruise, that's fine," says Mandeep Singh, a Columbia senior who is the first in his family to attend college. "It's not the end of the world if low-income students don't go to these things. But graduation—the cap and gown—there's no choice there." By offering to pay for some students' cap and gowns, the school is taking an important step to help low-income students feel like they are part of Columbia's community, Singh says.

Still, the school administration is only covering the cost of caps and gowns for students at two of its colleges, leaving Dey, the graduate student at Teachers College, without help.

Dey is still unsure whether she'll be able to afford the regalia that would allow her to celebrate graduation with her peers. "Despite major financial stresses, I managed to qualify to receive my master of arts degree," she says. "I just wish the school would award our successes by gifting us the cap and gowns."

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