The Pitfalls of Graduation Culture

After ordering graduation announcements a few days ago, my mom hops on a call with me and exclaims, “you think these cards were made out of gold!” 

This got me thinking – to participate in graduation, a student must shovel out even more cash to the university to engage in ‘graduation culture.’

Let’s take a look at my graduation bill thus far:

$70 – Cap & Gown

$40 – Stoles for organizations

$21 – Chords for organizations

$75 – Graduation dress & shoes

$100 – Graduation pictures

$150 – Announcements

$175 – Hotel room for family

$200 – Decorations & food for graduation party

$50 Diploma Frame

(honorable mention, the $100,00 of student debt)

Not all of the above mentioned items are necessary to graduate – in fact, none of them are. But these things are integral to the graduation culture at JMU. Taking pictures with your roommates on the quad whilst popping bubbly champagne and glitter, buying a new dress for the occasion, and setting up a party for your friends and family are the events that make the celebration so fun and special. Graduation would not be as exciting if one simply got mailed their diploma.

Four years of monthly tuition payments, rent checks, and comprehensive fees – then we get to the day that we have all been waiting for, graduation. And while many graduates are thinking of the celebration with their family and friends, what they will wear for graduation photos, or what to paint on their grad cap, this graduation culture can ostracize and burden those students who do not have the means to drop hundreds, even thousands of dollars on graduation.

I am so incredibly thankful that my family and I have the means to do all these things to make me feel celebrated. And although it puts a financial burden on my parents and myself at the end of the semester, my family knows that this is a part of JMU culture. If I were to skip out on these events, I would feel left out compared to the rest of the graduates. 

I know this opinion comes out of a place of privilege. Being able to even attend a good school such as JMU and graduate with a degree puts me steps ahead in life. Students from lower income communities, students of color, and disabled folks are all less likely to attend college or finish their degree because of disparities in higher ed. Not only are students unable to pay for tuition, but the barriers of higher education run deep. A lack of confidence in ability, fear of the unknown, and insecurity of fitting in are just some ideologies that marginalized prospective students hold whilst navigating their college journey.

So how can a student participate in the fun of graduation culture when they don’t even have the opportunity to begin the college journey in the first place?

To help dismantle the barrier of financial burden, the debate for student loan forgiveness is gaining a lot of recent attention from Biden. But as stated earlier, that is just one piece of the puzzle for helping mend the gap in higher ed.

A far as JMU goes, this school does a great job at celebrating graduates and making them feel special about their achievement. But are these opportunities available and inclusive of all students – or does it make invisible, marginalize, and embarrass those who can’t participate?

One thought on “The Pitfalls of Graduation Culture

  1. I am a senior graduating this upcoming May, as well. I am so glad you brought up how expensive it is just to fit into this culture. I am not much of a picture person, I am always the one holding the camera for my friends while they take photos. (I am just not into it). With that being said, I have 3 graduation photo sessions booked with 3 different photographers, 3 different groups of friends, and am down $350 within the next 2 weeks! In my experience, the culture sets the vibe that if you take beautiful photos with ALL of your amazing friends that you made in college, you have your life together and you are so excited to graduate. But, in my opinion, we are all just scared to enter this next stage of life and are spending so much money to put on a mask and make it seem like we have everything together and under control when in reality, we are sad and nervous to leave this amazing school.


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