Hosting commencement costs university $104,000

Graduates prepare to accept their diplomas at fall commencement Saturday in McGuirk Arena. Some students decorated their caps for the event.

Hosting commencement ceremonies for May and December graduates will cost about $104,000 — but Central Michigan University is not the only one paying.

The 3,300 students receiving degrees in May pay between $50 and $85 for the gown they wear at McGuirk Arena.

Gowns must be purchased if students want to walk during a commencement ceremony.

Big Rapids senior Ana Lossing bought a diploma cover for $10 and her gown for $50 at the graduation fair, which was hosted March 28-29 by the CMU Bookstore.

She never thought much about how she felt paying for these items before.

"(It was) just one of those things you have to do," Lossing said.

Barry Waters, director of the CMU Bookstore, said in an email more than 1,400 gowns were sold during the fair at a $10 discount.

The total cost for regalia, which includes a cap, gown and tassel, is $60 retail for undergraduates and $85 for graduate students. These items are also available through the CMU Bookstore.

Regalia sales make about $33 in profit each for Baccalaureate gowns and $38 for the Masters gowns, a margin that Waters said is set slightly lower than the regular clothing sold at the bookstore.

The possible sales are $80,718 for undergraduate gowns and $36,860 for graduate gowns. This doesn't include the 76 Doctoral graduates, though not all students graduating will choose to walk during a commencement ceremony.

Any profits the bookstore has by the end of the year are distributed to general fund, which is used for expenditures that include maintenance, personnel salaries, research, scholarships and the academic colleges.

Waters said in an email he thinks students don't view the purchases negatively.

"This is big day for the students, the culmination of years of hard work to accomplish a goal," he said. "For many, they could be the first person in their family to receive a college degree. Wearing graduation regalia is a part of the tradition of commencement."

It would "be nice" if the university provided regalia for free, Lossing said, but doesn't necessarily have a problem with the cost.

"I kind of view it as a necessary thing if we want to participate," she said.

Waters said graduating students wear custom-made gowns out of a special material: recycled water bottles.

CMU switched to the custom gown, which is maroon and bears the school emblem, three years ago. This switch resulted in an increase of $7 each to make the gowns. The cost was not transferred to students but absorbed by the bookstore until last fall. Now gowns cost $5 more than they used to.

Hosting the event

Keith Voeks, assistant director of university events, said little expense is spared to make sure graduating students end their college experiences on a high note.

"This is probably our single most important event, because it does mark the success of our student's academic achievements," Voeks said. "We want to send them away feeling good about it, so (the university) really pulls out all of the stops."

Commencement coordinator Kyle Pybus-Jerome said the expenses for this May's commencement ceremonies have not been finalized, but the year-long budget is $104,000. This includes the ceremonies in December as well as May.

Preparation for the ceremonies takes 11 months and begins one month after the previous ceremony. For 2016, there are four ceremonies this spring and three in the fall.

Voeks said throughout his career he has been involved in the preparation for somewhere around 400 to 500 graduation ceremonies. He said there is a lot of time and effort put in by members of the University Events Office, President's Office, Facilities Management, University Recreation and others.

"We have to work across every department on campus and every academic discipline also in order to pull off graduation, so there is a lot of coordination," Voeks said. "It is quite a matrix of information across the people we work with."

That network includes a lot of unnoticed background work coordinated by the Events Office to transform McGuirk Arena for the ceremonies. Voeks said once a woman told him she thought it "was a lovely set-up," but wondered where the basketball games were held — he said she was standing there.

"That really said volumes about how we can take a sporting complex and turn it into something that holds something as important as a commencement activity," Voeks said.

About 250 people are involved with the set-up, operation and take-down of commencement. Some of them are off-campus contractors, some are full and part-time staff, and some are students employees from campus departments.

"Commencement requires more resources than we have on campus. When that happens we hire an off-campus contractor to fill in the aspects we may lack," Voeks said.

One major contractor is West River Light and Sound. Voeks said the contract, which is for about $6,000, includes a lot of equipment like the staging for the orchestra, overhead rigging and curtains.

"It is quite a package that we usually rent from them every year, but that's just a small piece (of the overall) commencement," Voeks said.

On average, 80 percent of graduates attend commencement, Pybus-Jerome said.

Seating is determined by the number of graduates divided by the stadiums capacity, which is considered to be 3,500 people, 200 fewer than the actual capacity, so as to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Graduates may request up to five free tickets for seats in McGuirk and four for the Simulcast Room.

Lossing said she is using all five tickets for McGuirk Arena, but her roommate "is scrambling for extra tickets," because she has four siblings and step parents that want to attend.

One place students can buy and sell tickets is the Free and For Sale CMU page on Facebook. From $10 to $50 for several tickets, students can buy them from each other. Some adds say they will give them away for free, others that the price is negotiable. 

Pybus-Jerome said this act is not "encouraged or supported" by University Events.