High schools and colleges require students to pay mandatory fees to walk at graduation. Critics say this discriminates against low-income students.

High schools and colleges require students to pay mandatory fees to walk at graduation. Critics say this discriminates against low-income students.
Graduation fees can be unaffordable for some students.Getty Images
  • Most high schools and colleges charge students a graduation fee to attend the ceremony.
  • Critics say these high, mandatory fees discriminate against low-income students.

Brittany Brockenbrough wanted to attend her graduation at Virginia State University in 2015. But she didn't get the chance to walk in her graduation ceremony because she couldn't afford the fees.

She missed out on the milestone event because of a $125 cap-and-gown fee and $160 in other graduation fees that were required to attend the ceremony.

Brockenbrough is now an adjunct professor of art and design at Virginia State University. She told Insider that nothing had changed since she graduated; the school was still charging mandatory graduation fees.

"Every year, I have students who are devastated because, after years of working hard, they can't afford to attend their own graduation," Brockenbrough said.

Brockenbrough and her students aren't alone. High schools and colleges across the US are charging students mandatory graduation fees — sometimes called a walking fee — to walk in their graduation ceremonies. It's locking many out of an education milestone — especially low-income students.


Graduation costs for high schoolers and college students can be pricey

There are different types of mandatory fees. Most schools require students to purchase or rent a cap and gown. But another fee can come from any outstanding bills that the school charges for textbooks and unpaid lunches. Some schools charge both fees.

On the high-school level, graduation costs can vary from $40 to $500. Some state legislatures have argued for strict penalties for students who can't pay off a fee. A Tennessee Republican proposed in 2020 that schools should withhold graduation from high-school students with jobs if they had an outstanding lunch bill.

Some states have taken steps to eliminate mandatory fees. For example, California and Minnesota have barred mandatory graduation fees in public schools.

Likewise, many colleges across the country also charge expensive commencement fees. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it costs over $100 to purchase the cap, gown, and tassel. For doctoral students, regalia can cost $1,000.

U.S. News and World Report found that some universities were also charging college seniors a fee just to "apply to graduate." At Arizona State University, for example, that could cost $50.


Schools often report that these graduation fees help pay for administrative tasks like printing diplomas. The fees also help the school pay for the graduation venue.

Critics say these mandatory fees are discriminatory

Brockenbrough said there's a belief from school administrators that students should be able to save for these fees, but this isn't possible for everyone. She said some students don't have leftover funds after paying for essentials like food, housing, textbooks, and gas.

Hope Kirsch, a former teacher and an education attorney in Arizona, said these mandatory fees continued to be charged in public schools because they were yet to be challenged legally.

"It is discriminatory to bar low-income, marginalized students who can't pay the cap-and-gown fee from attending their own commencement ceremony," Kirsch told Insider.

Kirsch added that even when schools have fee waivers that students can apply for, it could be humiliating to fill out detailed paperwork about their family's finances and share it with their high-school administration.


Jack Bettilyon, a 23-year-old college student in Georgia, told Insider the mandatory fee was exploitative and that many schools contract with the same cap and gown companies each year — like Jostens, who dominate the market and often charge high fees.

Bettilyon said that many of his high-school friends could not walk due to the cap-and-gown fee. He said he was largely dismissed when he raised concerns with his school.

"I was told that students should just start saving ahead of time and there is nothing the school can really do about the price because they have a contract with the company that makes the cap and gowns," Bettilyon said.

Laura Guy, a clinical social worker and program coordinator at the clinical-mental-health program at Fordham University, said missing these right-of-passage events could profoundly affect students.

"It is a symbolic ceremony about saying goodbye and moving on to the next steps," Guy told Insider, adding that these fees "send the message that no matter how important this moment is, how hard a student worked, or what they achieved, they are not welcome unless they can afford it."


There are some resources for students who can't afford these mandatory fees

Some schools across the US have addressed this issue by having students apply for a waiver. Santa Fe College, for example, has a program that allows students to apply to borrow a cap and gown. UC Davis similarly lets students apply for an award that would pay the cap-and-gown fee.

But not all districts and colleges have these programs, and some students rely on external organizations.

Chenice Brown-Johnson is the founder of Just C, a non-profit organization that has provided 210 caps and gowns since 2020 to high-school students in Virginia who otherwise would not have been able to walk in their commencement ceremonies.

"The pay or don't participate system is harmful," Brown told Insider. "Financial hardship should not disqualify you from participating in graduation."

Kirsch, the education lawyer, said families concerned about required fees should find out what their state policy was and reach out to free legal resources for support.


But either way, Guy said all students should get the chance to experience their graduation — no matter their financial situation.

"Graduation should not be a pay-to-play event," Guy said. "It should be a moment for all students to celebrate this milestone with their classmates."