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KAI RYSSDAL: Late May, early June puts us smack in the middle of graduation season. But along with the cap and gown come costs. Dierdre Gibson is a high school senior in rural Kentucky, where a lot of people have trouble making ends meet.
But they still wind up shelling out for all the bills that accompany this rite of passage. Youth Radio sent us her report.
DEIRDRE GIBSON: The median income where I live in Whitesburg, Ky., is only about $24,000. And almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
A lot of high school seniors like me are going broke paying for all the things that are supposed to be part of senior year. Just ask Amber Watts.
AMBER WATTS: You know, it’s hard because at school they always talked about how, if you’re on a fixed income, they’re are going to pay for you to take a test, or they are going to pay for you to do this. Well, if you’re on a fixed income and you go to prom, it’s completely a different story. Y’know, you’re going pay just as much as everyone else does. And that’s not fair, I don’t think.
For many people, prom is the most expensive part of senior year, so a lot of my classmates just skip prom. Those who can go spend more than $1,000, and half of that on a dress.
WATTS: It is a lot of money. And you’re thinking, “OK, where am I going to get it? What’s going to happen? I’m going to go into debt because of prom. It’s just a complete stress.
Besides that, there’s no way to avoid all the graduation mementos. You have to pay to even walk down the aisle at graduation, a cap and gown is mandatory. They add up to $22 and you have to buy them. It seems like every week our school is trying to sell you something.
AUTUMN CAMPBELL: Senior books, senior cups, senior picture frames, friends things, memorabilia . . .
That’s my friend Autumn Campbell. Her dad is so excited for her to graduate he is offering to pay for all of her graduation memorabilia, even though money is tight.
CAMPBELL: I don’t know how the parents afford it. I really don’t. A lot of times some parents will just scrape up the money to get them to go so they didn’t have to be like them when they was little and they never got to do anything because they never had no money. So they just scrape by so their kids can go.
BRENDA CHANEY: It is huge.
Parents like Brenda Chaney sometimes get more caught up in the senior year spirit than their kids.
BRENDA CHANEY: I think that we, after having life experiences, understand . . . We all say “Gosh, if I could just go back and be at that point in my life, the things I would do different.” And we, after living life, struggling through life, struggling financially, struggling in jobs that maybe we aren’t as happy in as we would have chosen a different career path . . . We understand the importance of it. Where I don’t think, maybe, our 17- and 18-year-olds do.
My friends and I joke that prom and graduation are just practice for your wedding. And many of us don’t have time to enjoy the memories we are paying to make. I asked Rachel Chaney, who graduated last year, whether she thought all the stress and money was worth it.
RACHEL CHANEY: I was dreading graduation. And I was a valedictorian, so I had to give a speech. And the day before graduation I was like, “I’m not going. And Mom convinced me to go and give the speech. It wasn’t horrible, but I just thought it was a waste of money.
The problem is, you’ll never know if going broke your senior year was a waste until you look back on it.
In Whitesburg, Ky., I’m Deirdre Gibson for Marketplace.
RYSSDAL: Deirdre Gibson graduates today. In the fall she’ll be the first in her family to go to college. Her story was produced for us by Youth Radio and the Appalachian Media Institute.
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