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When graduates are priced out of commencement, new UNT program steps in

"We don’t want any barriers to hinder them from walking across the stage in one of the biggest celebrations of their life," said UNT's Dean of Students.

DENTON, Texas — After all the hours invested, college commencement is a rite of passage that is passing by too many graduates.

“We were finding that students were not walking the stage because they couldn’t afford a cap and gown,” said Dr. Maureen McGuinness, Dean of Students at the University of North Texas.

The price for a cap and gown starts at about $100. Add an Honors stole or graduate degree regalia and it gets even more expensive.

“We know we have a number of students that are low-income as well as DACA students and international students that may not have the funds available to get a cap and gown and then be able to celebrate all their accomplishments at UNT,” McGuinness continued. “We don’t want any barriers to hinder them from walking across the stage in one of the biggest celebrations of their life.”

So, the university decided to loan caps and gowns to graduates who really can’t afford it and even provides students free portraits posing in them.

“I planned to walk but I also know how expensive a cap and gown is, and I’m graduating with Honors which you can get your Honors stole but that also costs money,” said Kelsie White, graduate.

The program is called Mean Green Gowns for Grads and started last fall with 58 students.

This spring, McGuiness said, word has gotten out and 170 students successfully applied to use it. 

“I’m a first-generation college student. My mother is a hairdresser. My dad is a mechanic. They worked really, really hard to get me where I am. Education is huge to them,” said Matilda Gamble, a graduate student from Nashville, Tenn. 

Scholarships got her through four years of undergraduate as she studied speech language pathology. Loans helped her finish grad school, Gamble explained.

“Some of the stories are I was a foster child my entire life. I don’t have any parents. I don’t have any income to be able to help me with this. I am a single mom – which really resonates with me – and I raised my children by myself and went back and got a degree,” McGuinness revealed.

For Kelsie White, 22, just wearing the commencement regalia makes this milestone undeniable.

“I haven’t seen my dad in a year and he’s coming just for graduation,” she said before tears welled up in her eyes. “For me, that’s important. It’s really important.”

The University of North Texas is one of three universities in the country with such a program. Caps and gowns come from donors. UNT said it is buying some, as well. Graduates keep their tassels, but everything else gets returned and recycled for the next commencement.

Friday morning, Kelsie walked the stage to receive her diploma. 

It’s something her dad got to see, as well.

“I’m just proud,” said Ronnie White, wiping away tears, “very proud of her. Can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Interest in the concept is growing. UNT said it is already getting calls from other universities asking how they can establish similar programs.