A teen-ager with $1,000 once might have been considered wealthy. A car, a summer trip or a semester in college were all within reach.
Today, the money barely covers expenses many seniors encounter, as expensive keepsakes and flashy prom appearances slowly become traditional staples of the last high school hurrah.
“I tell (students) that being a senior is almost like going through a semester in college,” said Dino Stirpe, an English teacher at Verdugo Hills High School. “I tell them to get a summer job. They are going to need almost $1,000. Lots of kids feel pressure to do all of it. They don’t want to be left out. . . . Unless their parents help them out, it’s hard.”
For many students, even from schools in disadvantaged areas, senior year can mean an expensive prom night--complete with the limo ride to a ritzy hotel--class rings, yearbooks, announcements, pictures, key chains and other mementos. It all adds up.
Such luxuries have become tradition at many schools, and administrators say 12th-graders feel they are entitled to such rites of passage. The result is that many seniors are finding it tough to cope with the high cost of high school.
“We’re very concerned about the rising cost of everything related to school,” said Mike Sullivan, principal at Fairfax High School. “But we don’t have too much control. It’s very hard to do anything, particularly when tradition has built up. Imagine changing something when you are talking to a senior who has been to three proms already and has loved every minute of it.”
Many administrators say they have tried to cut back the amount of money it takes to participate in senior events. In many cases, they say, it is the students who keep costs high by refusing, in the name of tradition, to scale back. Still, for students who lack financial support, balancing the required with the desired can be difficult.
“You end up not getting a lot of things,” said Mendy DeMoss, a senior at Verdugo Hills. “I either have to save, ask my parents or go without.”
The list of “traditional” senior expenses is long and includes some old and new temptations:
* Senior portraits--the pictures that appear in yearbooks--have always been a big deal for both parents and students. Packages range from $15.95 to $500 or more, according to Minneapolis-based Lifetouch Inc., the nation’s leading school portrait firm. The average student spends about $150.
* Graduation announcements cost $50 or more, according to Jostens, a Minneapolis-based supplier of high school graduation materials. The price varies depending on the type and number ordered.
* Cap-and-gown rental varies school to school, but tends to cost around $20, according to local high schools.
* A yearbook costs between $10 and $40.
* Though sometimes purchased earlier, a class ring can also be a big senior-year expense. Rings run from $70 to $250 or more, according to Jostens. Some seniors choose to buy an expensive ring and make payments.
Alfredo Castellanos, a senior at Manual Arts High School, said his ring cost $480, which he pays off at $50 a month. “I’m proud of myself,” he said. “I insisted. Now I have it--no complaints.”
* “Class of 1994" trinkets such as T-shirts, key chains, glasses and other items are popular and range from $3 to $15. In addition, seniors at all schools are bombarded with bake sales and fund-raisers for various events.
* Some schools charge “dues” as high as $50 to seniors to help pay for graduation and other expenses.
* Many seniors plan a vacation either before or after graduation. Prices vary widely according to destination. A senior trip to Hawaii might cost between $500 and $700 and a two-week trip to Europe runs more than $1,700, according to travel agencies.
* Graduation-night festivities vary a great deal school to school, but most include both dinner and party components. Disneyland is a popular destination. Most schools charge about $50 a ticket.
The prom is often the single largest expense a senior incurs. Dave Weinstein, activities coordinator at Palisades High School, said prom costs “can easily get up to $600 or $700. One kid orders the stretch (limo), the next kid gets the double stretch.”
Tickets average $50 each. Local stores say tuxedo rentals range from $29 to $200. Women’s formal wear costs between $45 and $200 to rent for an evening--without accessories. And flowers range from $3 to $25.
Limousine costs are tallied by the hour and depend on the number of people traveling. Prices range from $35 to $45 an hour for six passengers to $105 an hour for 14 passengers. A six- to-seven-hour minimum is standard.
Though many think expensive traditions take hold only in wealthy areas, the trend seems to be universal. Hollywood High School, where 70% of the students are on the federal lunch program, is having its prom at the Miramar Sheraton in Santa Monica this year. Manual Arts High, in South-Central Los Angeles, held its prom at the Westin Bonaventure in Downtown Los Angeles last year. This year, it will be at the airport-area West Inn, formerly Stouffer’s Concourse.
Ollie Channel, a science teacher who coordinates the Manual Arts prom, said the school does its best to help students offset the costs.
“This is a traditional thing,” he said. “Our approach is to get seniors who may not be able to go, to go. We do as many fund-raisers as we can throughout the year.”
He said the school saves money by opting for a less expensive menu and using facilities that provide free parking and security.
Sports can also cost seniors a great deal. Letterman’s jackets run between $135 and $250 or more, according to Jostens. Though schools provide basic equipment, such as jerseys, pads, helmets, bats and balls, some athletes say there is a lot more to it. Almost all sports require special shoes or cleats, paid for by the student. Other expenses include braces, pads, jackets, T-shirts, special training camps or coaching.
Amonie Akens, a senior at Palisades High School, said football season cost him $100 this year. "(School) pads are good, but they aren’t good enough,” he said.
Christy Cayson, a senior at Verdugo Hills, knows firsthand how expensive it is to be active. Christy, 17, was a cheerleader and a member of the drill team. She was also the football team manager, the school mascot and a member of student government.
Hers is an extreme case, but the price tag on her activities was more than $1,600 this year alone.
“It’s our senior year,” she said. “It’s the most important thing to us. It’s only here once and it’s not coming back. A lot of people really pay into it. . . . A lot of people are too embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t have the money.’ ”
Christy’s family helps her pay her way--no small task. Graduation announcements cost $180. Her cap-and-gown rental ran $22. Then there was the class ring for $280, the letterman’s jacket for $184, the $32 yearbook and the $70 homecoming dress. Friday night’s prom will be $100, assuming she leaves tickets and transportation to her date.
Then there are the costs of drill team and cheerleading. Between the two uniforms, two sets of shoes, pompons, training camp (add a third uniform), competition fees, coaching fees and snacks for the football players, Christy said she spent an additional $780. All of this comes in addition to standard adolescent expenses such as gasoline, car insurance, lunches and clothes.
“It’s worth it, as long as she minds her P’s and Q’s and stays active,” said Tina Cervantez, Christy’s mother, who has four more children to put through high school. “They have to earn it. But as long as their grades are up and they go to school and want to be involved, it’s worth it.”
Students cope with the expenses in different ways, but many have to work part time. Now that the cheerleading season is over, Christy has a job. Mendy DeMoss also works to help fund her senior year, logging 10 hours a week as a secretary for $5 an hour.
“I have to work for everything I get,” she said. “But when I really need something, something always comes along.”
Many students baby-sit or work for their parents. But like the rest of the country, teens are also having trouble finding work.
The unemployment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds nationwide was 19.9% in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure for the entire labor force was 6.4%.
“There’s not that much movement (compared to years past), but when you compare it to the general population, it’s extremely high,” said Abraham Mosisa, a bureau economist.
Amonie Akens, the Palisades High senior, said he has to trim costs because sports prohibit him from working. Instead of renting a limo for the prom, he will borrow his grandfather’s car. On dates, he favors cooking at home and a walk on the beach over expensive restaurants and movies. And he often shares clothes with friends to stretch his wardrobe.
“I have to sacrifice some things,” he said. “But I got a class ring and I’m going to the prom. I try to ration as much money as I can because I don’t have a job but I do have a lot of things that I want to do.”
Though costs are high for seniors across Southern California, how high can depend on the area the school is in. At Manual Arts High School, for example, officials say standards are different than schools in more affluent areas.
“In this area, the issues are more like, ‘Do you have bus fare?’ not a ring or a jacket,” said Arlene Andrews, activities coordinator. “The students who can afford it do it. Some get extra jobs and the parents sacrifice. But if they are not so inclined, then they don’t do it.”
Administrators do their best to offset costs. Dick Rippey, assistant principal at Hollywood High, said the school holds an annual candy sale to help cut costs. Students who sell can earn prom tickets and other expensive items.
“If the school district had to pick up the tab, none of these things would go on,” said Sullivan, the Fairfax High principal. “If the school district had to do graduation, we would mail them their diplomas and say, ‘Go with God.’ ”