OPINION: Graduates should not be required to purchase gowns

On Tuesday, Annenberg Media reported a change in the commencement dress code, effective for the class of 2018’s ceremony on May 18. In the article, an official from the Office of Cultural Relations and University Events said that graduating students are now required to wear officially branded gowns, and cannot borrow plain gowns or have them recreated by a third party as students have done in the past.

The required gowns for this year have an updated design and must be purchased from Herff Jones, an academic regalia vendor, through their website or the USC Bookstore. The cheapest package for renting the required cap and gown is $70. If a student wants to own it, the price jumps up to $169 for a “Basic Grad Pack” with the regalia plus graduation announcements, or $263 for a custom embroidered gown. USC also said that they are not sure what will be done if a student arrives in a gown that does not fit the dress code.

Without a doubt, commencement is a special day that should be treated with respect and dignity, but the requirement of another chunk of cash from students who have already given hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives to this institution feels like yet another example of the University putting its own branding before the needs  of actual students.

There is no available information on how prevalent the use of third party or borrowed gowns in previous years has been at USC, but on an intuitive level, it seems like it couldn’t have been that much of a problem. For the last 134 spring commencement ceremonies, those who could afford an official cap and gown bought one, and those who couldn’t afford it — maybe because they use their money for tuition — still walked across the stage, still got their diploma, still went into the working world as proud Trojans. The ceremony didn’t fall through because they had a plain or cheap-looking graduation gown, and photos of the graduating classes of 1881-2017 still radiated joy, regardless of some misplaced piping or not-quite-cardinal-red sleeves.

The most telling part of the Annenberg Media article was the fact that USC officials chose to require these gowns after the vendor approached them, stating that USC is the only school “at their level” that doesn’t require customized regalia. Ever since the Steven Sample’s presidency and USC’s ascension in academic circles, the University has had a compulsion to keep up with the Ivy League Joneses. Herff Jones seems to have picked up that there’s no better way to get USC to do something than to tell them that Stanford or Harvard is doing it better.

This sense of competition can be helpful when it inspires us to push into new areas of research, hire the best professors or improve student resources. But when it comes to the level of aesthetic choices that not only require student money but also might leave some students out of a commencement, it seems that the University has forgotten what commencement is really about.

Commencement is an important ceremony, and the robes and caps that graduates wear reflect a long history of academic excellence. But at the end of the day, it is about the students and their achievements, not the uniforms they wear or the perfect photos they take.

Putting aesthetics before accessibility is a clear blunder for a school that is actively trying to shed its reputation as the “University of Spoiled Children.” In the article, officials explained that the cash burden is put on students because USC doesn’t include the costs of caps and gowns in annual student fees like other schools do, but if uniform gowns are so important to the school, why don’t they reallocate student fees to include the gowns?

Most students can probably handle losing a few residential education events to get their cap and gown paid for at commencement. Further, an extra $70 just to walk across a stage is just another example of the incidental, hidden costs of college, analogous to $300 textbooks or $900 laptops, that are not included in the (already exorbitant) sticker price of the school, and can make low-income students feel unwelcome or deter them from attending USC.

Along with four years of hard work, the average undergraduate has already given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the University; graduate and doctoral students have dedicated even more than that. To then require a $70 rental of a gown that will only be worn for a few hours and used for a few photo ops is an eyeroll-worthy representation of our school’s obsession with its own branding, and it is evident that the University needs to reexamine its priorities.