Wabash College has handed out sheepskin diplomas to its graduating seniors for the past 187 years. It’s one of the last colleges in the country to do so.
But now the tradition is coming to an end. College administrators say the quality of the diplomas has deteriorated while the prices have soared.Year 188 will bring paper.
Students are not pleased.
Roarke Tollar said he feels “a little bit of betrayal.” He will graduate with a chemistry degree from the all-male, private liberal arts college in Crawfordsville in May.
“Our school is very deliberate about traditions,” Tollar said, “and those things matter.”
Wabash College President Gregory Hess explained the decision to students Tuesday evening at the Student Senate meeting. He was already scheduled to attend a Student Senate meeting in October but moved up the date after news of the change broke last week.
Hess told the IndyStar last week in a written statement that the availability of sheepskin diplomas and timely delivery have been an issue for years.
“But as we consider all of our priorities, which are always focused on the education of our students,” Hess said, “we cannot in good conscience continue to chase after questionable quality sheepskin diplomas at very high prices.”
Wabash College students speak out
Sourced from Herff Jones, the diplomas cost the college $28,000 to $32,000, depending on the size of the graduating class, which ranges from 175 to 200 graduates. The diplomas would cost around $160 a piece.
Director of Strategic Communications James Amidon said the college will look for museum quality, archival grade paper, but it’s not yet clear how much that will cost.
The Wabash Commentary, an editorially independent student-run journal, last week broke the news to students and alumni about the school’s decision, sparking dozens of comments and calls for action on its Facebook page. Editor-in-Chief Ace Dzurovcik cited administrative sources who attributed the change to unreliable vendors and cost-cutting.
One commenter called the decision an “absurdity.” Another said it was an “atrocity.”
One person who said she was the mother of a student said the cost of the sheepskin isn’t that much for the college after families spend more than $200,000 in tuition over four years, while others began to band together to plan a way to save the sheepskin diplomas.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Hess told students the decision to quit using sheepskin diplomas was made in April.
Students raised two primary concerns: transparency and communication.
“(Hess) said he’s made the decision based on quality, based on what students would want to have for their children and grandchildren, to have something they’re proud of when they graduate,” Kevin Ballard-Munn, the Wabash Commentary’s managing editor, told IndyStar. “But students were never consulted.”
Dayem Adnan, Wabash College’s student body president, said students, including himself, have looked forward to their sheepskins. He said he is disappointed and wished the decision “would have been better communicated to us.”
Students pay $43,870 a year in tuition, with an additional $14,700 spent on housing, fees and estimated books and personal expenses. About 99 percent of students receive some amount of financial aid.
Each diploma is handwritten in Latin. It’s been that way since the beginning.
The rare use of sheepskin diplomas
The cost and limited supply have driven the few other schools who still used sheepskin diplomas to stop over the past eight years. In 2011, Notre Dame quit after the university’s vendor stopped making them.
Hampden-Sydney College, a private liberal arts men’s college in Virginia, stopped around 2012. The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, stopped using sheepskin in 2016 because the ink required wasn’t environmentally friendly. And Episcopal High School in Virginia stopped last year.
Wabash College is one of two colleges that IndyStar confirmed offered the specialty diplomas. The other is Virginia Military Institute.
Col. Stewart MacInnis, director of communications and marketing at the institute, said students can choose to receive a sheepskin diploma. He said the number of students who do varies between 40-100 of the 300-350 graduates each year. The diplomas, with sheepskins imported from England, cost over $200.
“It’s getting difficult to get a hold of these,” MacInnis said. “We’re not sure how long we’ll continue doing this. I guess as long as the supply is available.”
End of a college tradition
Tollar, the graduating senior, is worried that Wabash’s decision to quite using sheepskin diplomas presents a “slippery slope” when it comes to what the administration is willing to cut.
“I don’t think it was fair to me, the seniors, and the people who have already enrolled into this college,” Tollar said.
When Tollar took a beginning Latin class his freshman year, he remembers his professor bringing in his own sheepskin diploma, handwritten in Latin. The professor told the class they would be able to read the diploma by the end of the course.
And Tollar can. But come May, he won’t be reading his on sheepskin.