The tassel, the bundle of strings that hangs from the freshly minted graduate's mortarboard, used to be the only part of the graduation custume that could be kept as a souvenir of the day. But now almost half of this spring's graduates can keep the whole thing - cap, gown, and tassel - because they've bought the whole thing.
Twelve years ago C.E. Ward - a Roanoke, Va., manufacturer of academic, choir, and ceremonial gowns - pioneered the disposable gowns called ''keepers'' or ''one-trippers'' that are made to be used once and then either kept as a souvenir or thrown away.
''It's really a convenience thing,'' said William Stephens, Ward's vice-president for academic sales. ''For a long time school administrators have had real problems collecting the gowns after the ceremony was over. The kids were too excited to care, but the school was liable for any rented gowns which were not returned. Too, from the manufacturer's point of view the rental business involved so many different steps that selling them outright was much simpler.''
But it is not more profitable for the companies that have been without these gowns; for them, the advent of the keeper was an economic hardship. ''It threatened to make obsolete their huge inventories, built up over many years,'' Mr. Stephens said. Most companies tried to get at least two rentals per gown each season. With proper maintenance a well-made gown could last 15 to 20 years or more. The rental fees from the first two years paid off the company's investment; from then on it was clear profit apart from minimal maintenance, dry cleaning, and storage costs. ''In percentage terms,'' Mr. Stephens said, ''the profit is in the rentals.''
What's more, with the rental of baccalaureate gowns running from $7 to $20 and the disposable keepers starting at $8.75 and going up to $30, it is generally cheaper for the consumer to rent a gown than to buy one. Nonetheless the trend is moving steadily toward the purchased throwaway type. Sixty percent of C.E. Ward's business in academic gowns this season is in ''one trippers,'' and according to Mr. Stephens, they're having a very good year.
Jostens Inc. will sell more than a million disposable gowns this season; they will rent some 150,000. Since acquiring a cap and gown division just 10 years ago, the Minneapolis company has doubled its manufacturing facilities to keep up with the demand.
While most college and university graduates will still wear black robes this year, more and more high schools and junior colleges are moving toward gowns in school colors. ''It looks like a rainbow in that factory,'' said Judy Schuster, Jostens' manager of employee communications. Jostens makes its disposable gowns in 18 different colors and sells the whole outfit for less than $10.
''It's a good buy for a family,'' said Janet Waterman, the director of the student activities center in one upstate New York high school. Even though Waterman's supplier, Collegiate Cap and Gown, intends their one-trippers to be just that, she's found over the years that with careful washing all the children in a family can wear the same one. ''More and more students are turning them in if there are no other kids in the family, so someone the next year who cannot afford to buy a gown can have one free. It's a good experience in recycling,'' she said.
And then there's the sentimental value emphasized by the trade names of these gowns - ''Souvenir,'' ''Treasure,'' ''Keepsake,'' and ''Keepever.'' ''It's kind of like a wedding dress to them,'' said Michael Bovi, the bookstore manager of one New York state college. ''While the value of the robe as an article of clothing is minimal, the achievement value is tremendous. And if the kids don't want to keep 'em, the parents usually do.'' According to Mr. Bovi, few end up in the trash, at least not right away.