Graduation: Fact Sheet

Graduation and commencement ceremonies at U.S. academic institutions are often held in the months of May and June. This guide is designed to assist congressional offices with work related to graduation celebrations. It contains a brief history of the ceremonial tradition and the attire worn, sample speeches by government officials, presidential commencement addresses, and statistical resources on educational attainment and graduation rates from authoritative government sources.

Graduation: Fact Sheet

May 3, 2018 (R44021)

Introduction

Graduation and commencement ceremonies at U.S. academic institutions are often held in the months of May and June. This guide is designed to assist congressional offices with work related to graduation celebrations. It contains a brief history of the ceremonial tradition and the attire worn, sample speeches by government officials, presidential commencement addresses, and statistical resources on educational attainment and graduation rates from authoritative government sources.

History

The tradition of degree ceremonies originated in Europe in the 12th century in the medieval universities of Paris and Bologna, and later in the English universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the 13th and 14th centuries. These universities were originally composed of apprentices who would learn a set of skills from a guild of masters; at the end of the period of study, the apprentice would achieve a testimonial of skill, referred to as a degree, which enabled him to begin to practice and teach his trade as a member of the guild. The term for the ceremony celebrating this achievement, commencement, derives from the Latin "to begin" (ad incipiendum).1

Modern graduation ceremonies in the United States have evolved to include the rituals and attire from these European traditions and newer traditions such as the march to Sir Edward Elgar's song "Pomp and Circumstance," first used at Yale University in 1905.2

Attire

Modern graduation attire—hood, cap, tassel, and gown—has its origin in 12th century medieval European universities. The attire has been worn at U.S. graduation and commencement ceremonies in some form since the colonial period and was standardized with the 1895 American Intercollegiate Commission at Columbia University.3

The gown originated with the standard attire worn by most Europeans in the 12th century. At that time, gowns (i.e., long robes) were worn by the majority of the population for all occasions, often accented with cloaks for warmth. By the 16th century, as fashions changed, these robes were worn mainly by professional men. By the 17th century, only scholars, legal professionals, and other officials wore such attire.4

The modern hood signifies the degree of the person wearing it. It originally was an extension of the cloak, as supplemental fabric to cover the head for warmth and protection. It appeared as a separate article of clothing in the 13th century but was not used as an indicator of rank for scholars, as it is today, until the 16th century.5

The cap, or mortarboard, is thought to have originally been modeled either after the rigidity and square shape of a scholar's book or after a master workman's mortar board. The original square cap with a tuft, called a biretta, was replaced over time with the rigid square mortarboard and tassel commonly used today.6 In the United States, a common tradition arose at some institutions to toss the cap into the air at the end of the ceremony to signify the completion of a degree; this tradition originated at the graduation and commissioning ceremonies of the United States Naval Academy in 1912. Some institutions also incorporate the tassel into the ceremony, having candidates for degrees shift them from the right front side of the cap to the left at the moment degrees are awarded to them.7

Sample Commencement Addresses

The following is a sample of commencement addresses by Members of Congress and other officials and dignitaries.

Commencement address at the United States Naval Academy (MD)—Vice President Mike Pence, May 26, 2017. [Video]

Commencement address at George Washington University (DC)—Senator Tammy Duckworth, May 21, 2017. [Video]

Commencement address at Howard University (DC)—Senator Kamala Harris, May 13, 2017. [Video]

Commencement address at Carthage College (WI)—Representative Paul Ryan, May 22, 2016. [Video]

Additional resources for transcripts and video of past commencement addresses

Presidential Commencement Addresses

Commencement address at United States Coast Guard Academy (CT)—President Donald J. Trump, May 17, 2017. [Video]

Commencement address at Liberty University (VA)—President Donald J. Trump, May 13, 2017. [Video]

Commencement Address at the United States Air Force Academy (CO)—President Barack Obama, June 2, 2016. [Video]

Commencement Address at Rutgers University (NJ)—President Barack Obama, May 15, 2016. [Video]

Statistical Sources

Numerous federal and private sources maintain statistics on graduation rates and educational attainment in the United States. The following resources may be useful.

Educational Attainment—U.S. Census Bureau

Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates—U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics

Public High School Graduation Rates—U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics

Author Contact Information

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Footnotes

1.

Frank C. Baxter and Helen Walters, Caps, gowns, and commencements (Chicago: E.R. Moore Co., 1966).

2.

Miles Hoffman, "'Pomp and Circumstance': Familiar Standard Marches Ahead of Competitors," NPR Morning Edition, May 27, 2003, at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1273081.

3.

Baxter and Walters. See also Thomas Vinciguerra, "Graduation Gowns Explained," New York Times, June 5, 2005, at http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9405E6DC1538F936A35755C0A9639C8B63.

4.

Baxter and Walters.

5.

Ibid.

6.

Ibid.

7.

See "The History of Academic Regalia Commencement Apparel," Colorado State University, at http://commencement.colostate.edu/apparel.aspx; "Commencement FAQs," George Mason University, at https://web.archive.org/web/20171206010229/https:/events.gmu.edu/commencement/commencement-faqs/; and "Commencement: Regalia," University of Georgia, at http://commencement.uga.edu/traditions/regalia/.