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Is Graduation Regalia Priceless Or Just Overpriced?

A man with glasses holds up a celebratory fist while clad in a black and red graduation gown. He also wears a black tam and light blue hood. A semi-empty stadium can be seen in the background.
Ángel González, dressed in doctoral regalia, at his San Diego State University commencement ceremony.
Courtesy of San Diego State University)
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At a banquet hall in Downey last spring, Ángel González and his family convened for a rapturous night of banda.

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Is Graduation Regalia Priceless Or Just Overpriced?

Clad in his graduation regalia, González and his loved ones danced to the beat of brass and percussion for hours. He’d just earned a doctorate from San Diego State University, and González — whose parents hail from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Guanajuato — was the first in the history of his family to do so.

At one point in the long night, González took off his heavy black-and-red gown and wrapped it around his father. Then, one of his sisters put on his tam, the beret-like hat professors wear at graduation ceremonies, while another sister put on his hood. The youngest one donned his stole.

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“Everybody had a piece of the regalia,” said González. He thought it was fitting. “I did this for us,” he said.

For undergraduates in Southern California, a cap and gown generally costs about $50. For students earning master’s degrees, graduation regalia also includes hoods specific to their major, so the price jumps to approximately $100. Custom-made regalia for doctoral candidates hovers around the $1,000 range. What’s perhaps most striking is that, even among UCs and CSUs, prices can vary widely.

Graduation regalia can be pricey, González noted. But for him, the attire has been priceless.

A Family Degree

González captured why that is in a video he posted on social media. In it, his father dances joyously, clad in his son’s gown and a tejana, a traditional cowboy hat. In an accompanying caption, González wrote: “Dad only went 3rd grade, but it’s OK I got him and brought home the doctorate.”

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As the night unfolded, González and his family kept paying the band for another hour, then another. “And then the venue was, like, ‘That's it, y’all. You’re done,’” he said.

Leading up to the event, González also had a photoshoot. “Vamos a hacer un recorrido” (We’re going to go on a tour), he told his parents. Then, he instructed them to wear the graduation regalia he’d given them over the years.

It had been on a Mother’s Day when González earned his bachelor’s degree from Whittier College. And so, he presented his first cap and gown to her as a gift. “Aquí lo tiene” (I present this to you), he told her, using the formal second person usted in Spanish. “Feliz día de las madres.”

When González was earning his master’s degree, also at San Diego State, his father became gravely ill and was hospitalized for nearly a year. Because his father was the main breadwinner, González took a leave of absence to help his family. But as soon as his father recovered, he resumed his studies.

“He gave me the strength to finish,” said González, who’s now a postdoctoral scholar in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC. After his second graduation ceremony, he gave his father his master’s regalia.

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For the photoshoot, González and his parents wore their regalia and posed for pictures at all the schools that have nurtured him, starting with 28th Street Elementary School in South LA and Stanford Avenue Elementary School in South Gate. Then, they made their way over to South Gate Middle School and Bell Gardens High School, before heading to the universities.

Holding hands and clad in graduation regalia, three people stand before a gated school. There are several palm trees  in the background.
Ángel González and his parents stand before his elementary school in South LA.
(Jenna Isabel
/
Courtesy of Ángel González )

To Pay For Regalia, Grads Get Creative

Let it be known that Dr. Ángel de Jesús González did not pay for the entirety of his doctoral regalia.

He didn't have that kind of money. But he does have a family who loves him.

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Just like quinceañeras, in which family members become padrinos (godparents) after signing up to cover the cost of anything from the birthday girl’s dress to the DJ at her party, González created a spreadsheet and invited his family to pitch in.

“So we had padrinos de tam, padrinos de stole, padrinos of everything, ” he said laughing.

For Sandra Portocarrero, regalia cost relief was a matter of luck.

She began her postsecondary career at Berkeley City College, then transferred to UC Berkeley, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology. This spring, she’s slated to graduate from Columbia University with a doctorate in the same field. It’s an accomplishment she’s proud of.

“You know, not a lot of people like me graduate from Columbia,” said Portocarrero, who’s a formerly undocumented immigrant from Peru and a mother.

Still, she was taken aback by the cost of the graduation regalia — this on top of all the other things she’s had to pay for this year, including the copyright for her dissertation.

But whether seen as frivolous or meaningful, regalia is an expectation to participate in commencement ceremonies. Jostens and Herff Jones, the companies that supply this attire for the bulk of universities in Southern California, did not respond to requests for comment about how pricing is determined.

A smiling woman with shoulder-length hair wears a commencement tam and hold up a light blue and black gown.
Sandra Portocarrero shows off Briana Ronan's gift.
Courtesy of Sandra Portocarrero)

To express her distress, Portocarrero took to Twitter, where she got a response from Briana Ronan, an associate professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Ronan reached out to Portocarrero and offered up her old Columbia regalia. Because professors are required to wear it at commencement ceremonies, she explained, her employer purchased a new set for her, so she had one to spare.

Portocarrero accepted the gift, promising to start a regalia tradition à la “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Moving forward, Ronan’s tam and gown will be made available to other first gen students in need.

“I already have a few people in mind,” said Portocarrero.

“I think it's a lovely idea to pass it on to somebody else so that they can wear it on their big day,” Ronan added.

Instead Of Purchasing Regalia, Can Students Just Rent It?

To help students for whom the cost of regalia can be prohibitive, some local colleges — including Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Northridge, Occidental College and USC — let undergraduates rent their caps and gowns. (Typically, students get to keep the accompanying commemorative tassels.)

At Cal State Northridge, most students rent their regalia, said Director of Media Relations Carmen Ramos Chandler. Instead of paying $215 for a cap and gown, undergraduates can borrow them for $38.

Other universities sell undergraduate regalia for a lot less. At UCLA, for instance, bachelor’s regalia costs $32, and students don’t have the option of renting it. Master’s regalia, on the other hand, can be rented for $41 — which is significantly less than paying approximately $300 to buy the attire. Doctoral regalia, which starts at about $600, can be rented for $43.

The Price Of Regalia
  • Bachelor's And Master's Degrees

  • At Southern California's public and private universities, the most basic regalia — cap, gown and tassel — often retails for $50 to $100. Hoods often cost extra. Very few CSUs and UCs give undergraduates the option of renting.

  • Doctorate

  • You've spent another four or more years in graduate school, and the price for graduation regalia has gone way up. At UCLA, for instance, a set of doctoral regalia starts at $600 to buy, but only $43 to rent.

  • What About The Fancy Hat That Doctoral Graduates Wear?

  • That soft cap is called a tam, and it's often a big expense when it's custom made. USC's Trojan Tam, made of cardinal red velvet, costs $149.

But renting is not an option at all universities. Plus, over the years, some colleges have stopped offering this alternative, including Cal State Long Beach and UC Irvine.

“We moved away from rental regalia because it was not a sustainable option," said Sheri Ledbetter, a communications officer at UC Irvine. “Once one factors in the costs of transportation and the chemicals used in cleaning and processing, it became clear that the purchase options were actually more sustainable than the rental option.”

“For many years all of our gowns were only available for rent,” said Jim Milbury, a news media services specialist at Cal State Long Beach. “In 2020, after much research, we made the switch to purchase. Industry research had [shown] that the fuel used to transport the gowns back and forth as well as the chemicals used in cleaning were harder on the environment than an outright purchase.”

Milbury added that Cal State Long Beach’s gowns are made from recycled materials.

Another way colleges work to cut costs for students is by offering two types of doctoral regalia. At Cal State Long Beach, for example, doctoral graduates can purchase a generic gown instead of the custom-made attire worn by faculty members. And so, instead of paying hundreds of dollars, they can get their tam, gown, tassel and hood for $69.99. UC Riverside offers a similar option. There, graduates can get a gown and hood for just under $100. The university provides complimentary tams, which can be quite pricey — $154 for UCs — when they’re custom made.

Historically, some campuses have sponsored regalia for students. San Diego State Alumni, for instance, have raised thousands of dollars to cover the cost of caps, gowns and tassels for undergraduates. And at Cal State Bakersfield, students who participate in Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), which are designed to help students whose families may be struggling financially, get their caps and gowns for free.

But many students are on their own.

“Regalia is the physical embodiment of everything that you've done, all that hard work, and it's beautiful . . . It means a lot to be there on stage, getting hooded by your advisor. It's a really big and important moment,” said Cal Poly’s Ronan. “And it's really crushing when you get to the end of your program and you see that there are all these hidden costs involved in that celebration.”

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