Friday 16 December 2011


I attended the University of Canterbury's graduation ceremonies on Wednesday afternoon. I'd avoided attending each of my own graduations other than high school, mostly because I expected them to be mind-bogglingly boring. I also had the handy excuse of being well out of Winnipeg by the time of my undergrad graduation ceremony, in New Zealand by the time of my doctoral graduation ceremony, and of its being a faux pas for a PhD student in the States to attend his Masters conferment (signals that you think you won't finish).

Don't get me wrong - the speeches from our Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, and from Ruth Richardson, were excellent. The awarding of the research medal was nice. The pomp and ceremony of the event is also itself important. Getting all dressed up in regalia is great fun for staff and students alike. A graduation ceremony consisting of those speeches, and some abbreviated degree-conferment ceremony with appropriate pomp, would be great. But I struggle to understand the utility function of those who attend graduations as they currently exist: a half-hour of good content interspersed among a couple of hours of watching, and applauding, a bunch of people you mostly don't know walking across the stage to be given their degrees in alphabetical order by degree.

I can imagine, as a student, the value of getting to walk across the stage and shake hands with the head of the University. And parallel benefits for the parents. But is that benefit worth the couple of hours of watching a few hundred* other people doing the same thing? Can it really be the case that the median student prefers the current form of graduation to one where we keep the nice speeches but forego handing out the diplomas to each graduand?

The first response is that students attend because parents demand it. But that just pushes the problem back a level: why should any parent prefer sitting there for two hours, watching a bunch of people they've no chance of knowing walk across the stage in exchange for the 45 seconds in which their kid gets to walk across the stage? The parents definitely enjoy watching their kid cross the stage, and I can understand getting utility that way; I would too. But at that cost? Surely there are other ways of celebrating your child's achievement: a graduation party at home with friends and family instead of formal graduation, for example. Even more puzzling: parents of international students fly in to attend; the two hours at graduation are a trivial part of the overall cost.

Potential explanations:
  • The 45 seconds' utility trumps the time cost for most people; Crampton is a pod-person.
    • Note that the second clause can be (is almost certainly) true regardless of the rest.
  • The ceremony with public awarding of degrees is a binding enforcement mechanism preventing students from lying about their academic progress.
    • But a lot of US schools run graduation with fake certificates because final grades haven't yet been tabulated!
  • It's a horrible showing-you-care equilibrium. Parents attend because they want to demonstrate how much they appreciate their kids' having worked really hard to get their degrees; kids attend because their parents want them to and they want to show their appreciation for parents' financial support. Both would be better off if they could agree to a graduation party at home instead, but the one proposing it risks being seen as not caring.
    • But then a University could do well at the margin by offering a more efficient graduation ceremony. Maybe they wouldn't really attract more students by it, but they'd at least save the opportunity costs of the stage party. That nobody does this suggests the median student isn't in the showing-you-care equilibrium.
  • People attend to feel validated about having purchased this educational bundle. Sure, it's after the fact. But a nice ceremony makes the degree feel more credible both for those getting it and for those who funded it. It's a bit irrational: you should seek quality signals ex ante, not ex post, and I don't know of anybody who decides which school to attend ex ante on the basis of graduation ceremonies. But if it makes appliance buyers happy when their fridge's instruction manual starts out with a friendly "Congratulations on having chosen wisely in purchasing our brand!" maybe this holds here too. The obvious inefficiency of the ceremony, and observing that other parents attend, somehow signals the strength of the brand and the wisdom of their prior investment decision. In this version, waiting through all the other kids is a benefit, not a cost: "Look at all these fine young people among whose ranks my child now stands!"
Best guess: a good quarter of folks are there only because it's a bad equilibrium (as in the next-to-last bullet), another quarter are there because the disutility from waiting through the other graduands for their kid isn't that high, and the rest split either between validation or simply attending because it's the thing to do.

Note also that I completely understand the University offering the event given that parents and students seem to demand it - none of this is meant as critique of Canterbury, or of any University's putting on these ceremonies. And I also understand Faculty attendance as part of the job. I'm struggling to understand the demand side, not supply.

Could somebody who is not a pod-person help explain why they enjoyed attending their graduation or their kid's?

I wonder whether there are testable hypotheses in here. We have records on student characteristics - tons of records. We know who attends graduation and who stays home. Some hypotheses:

  • If students from lower-decile high schools are more likely to attend than those from higher-decile high schools, that's consistent with either opportunity costs of time being lower among attendees, or benefits of seeing the kid's graduation being higher where college attainment is less common. 
  • I'd predict higher proportionate attendance among those receiving first class than third class honours, mostly on the benefits side of the calculus (being announced to everyone as having first class honours)
  • I'd predict higher attendance among those from underrepresented ethnic groups holding constant incoming school decile - benefits of seeing graduation higher where college attainment is less common.
  • If the "showing you care" story is right, we expect highest attendance among those departments where "showing you care" is integrated into the discipline's way of being - Social Work, Cultural Studies - and lowest attendance among departments like Economics. 
  • Others?

* Canterbury splits its graduation ceremonies across different days for different faculties to make things tractable. Commerce, Laws, Engineering, and Fine Arts was Wednesday afternoon. Relatively few Econ graduands attended graduation, suggesting their utility function is more like mine.


  1. I was also at Wednesday arvo's ceremony Eric, full of pride as my daughter received her BComm. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

    She has thrived since she left her mother's nest and headed down to Canterbury, so it was also a celebration of her passage to adulthood as well as becoming a young woman of letters.

    At just on two hours, the ceremony wasn't too arduous, and although the trip to Christchurch cost a few bucks, it was money very well spent.

  2. I think they're a horrible waste of time! I told my parents as much but they were keen to attend - I might have laboured the point, but as Hamish graduated in the same ceremony as I did, and he did want to (hence I would have had to sit through the ceremony anyway) it seemed pointless. I guess that gave us 1 minute 30 seconds of utility?

  3. @KeepingStock: I totally understand the utils derived from all of that. Imagine an alternative ceremony that replaces "every graduand takes his or her turn to receive a diploma" with "Each degree cohort comes up as a group to receive diplomas". Is that more or less preferred? My presumption is that the ceremony as it exists has to be efficient, or else we wouldn't see it done that way in most places; I'm just trying to figure out why.

    @MrsCake: Awesome pic, by the way; Hamish in the apron also great. Your parents wouldn't have taken a Coasean move to a party at your house in lieu? Did they have ex post regret? Did Hamish?

  4. Sitting through the ceremony for my own graduation was all part of a weeknd of fun: reunions with friends who had also returned to Dunedin to graduate, faculty gatherings, the procession of graduands to the town hall, the pomp and ceremony, photos, dinner/parties afterwards . . .

    There was more to sitting through two ceremonies for my daughter - first in Dunedin, second in Auckland - than her few seconds on stage.

    Graduation is one of the few public acknowledgements most people ever have of their achievements.

    It's not just about your family member/s or friend/s it's the whole package and a private party couldn't match it.

  5. @Homepaddock: Agreed! But can all that wonderful stuff be kept in a ceremony that replaces some of the time spent on "each graduand comes to the fore and gets his or her degree" with other stuff, or with a reduction in total time spent?

  6. The individual aspect of the ceremony might be a hangover from when there were fewer people involved, but now it *is* the ceremony and I'm not sure anything else would count. (It coccurs to me I might have liked a small scale one with my actual lecturer, but I was involved in two departments.)

    I'm also suspecting there's an endurance aspect to most public ceremonies (I'll let you think of it as a commitment fallacy) that makes them carry more weight in proportion to, well, the wait.

  7. That's my last candidate hypothesis: that the costly effort of the event itself carries signalling benefits.

  8. As someone who just a few days ago voluntarily attended the graduation of not even a family member, but the daughter of friends, I can make one or two comments.

    First, consider that however wasteful of time and money a graduation ceremony is, it is maybe two orders of magnitude cheaper than a typical wedding. Certainly financially for the parents, but also in terms of the total time people spend for only one couple, not a few hundred graduates.

    Second, I observed that people weren't entirely wasting their time. The woman on my right was reading a book, and the gentleman on my left was reading a newspaper. I may have snuck in the odd look at twitter myself.

    I also have this low quality iPhone video to show for it.

    I thought it was nice a friend a quarter century younger than me invited me to an important moment in her life. You don't get many invitations to hand out. I'll even go along to her PhD ceremony in a couple of years as well, if invited. They get a considerably longer time in the limelight.

  9. @ Bruce - quite so; I tried to upload the video of my daughter's walk across the stage and down the stairs onto Facebook, but the 3G coverage kept dropping out, probably from people like you trying to do likewise! And I'll be back when she completes her post-grad qualification, equally proud, given that she has already exceeded the academic achievements of her Dear Old Dad!

  10. @Bruce: 1) Agreed. But does that mean that a more efficient ceremony couldn't be found?
    2) Point here definitely taken; something against which the stage party is constrained. In that case, it's a nice quiet break in which to read and relax during the off-bits.

  11. Being a big production is the point. The university gets to show that its tail is bigger than the other peacock's tail. Parents (and siblings) get to signal their love and devotion by completing an arduous task.
    Graduands likely have low opportunity cost on the day.
    And, FWIW, my first alma mater did split the ceremony. Everybody was in one big hall for the speeches, and then we went to our departments to receive our degrees.

  12. At ND only the doctoral candidates received their degrees individually (the "high status" degrees), which made us PhD candidates feel very nice (I attended, and was glad to). Everyone else got their degrees en masse (each degree got a little recognition separately, but it din't take nearly as long as say the MIT ceremony, which I also attended once for a friend).

  13. @Bill: That's consistent with explanations 4&5.

    @Xavier: That sounds like a great compromise. I really regret not having heard the guest speaker, Craig Nevil-Manning, who presented at the morning graduation ceremonies. A unified ceremony with all the guest speakers, and condensed handing out of diplomas, seems a good idea to me....

  14. Lets not forget that the graduands also likely receive some warm fuzzy feeling from watching and celebrating their classmates and friends walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, assuming that they graduate together as a year cohort. So perhaps it's not quite the arduous occasion you picture. I enjoyed the pomp and ceremony of my graduation, but then I got to walk the stage twice during mine, so that made a bit of a difference.