If every tassel on every graduation cap was always meant to go on the same side, it might be easier to remember which side that was. But that’s not how it works: Some tassels start on one side and are switched to the other side during or after graduation, while others stay on the same side the whole time. It all depends on what degree you’re getting.
As Shutterfly explains, students earning a high school or undergraduate degree start with the tassel on the right. After you’ve actually graduated, you move it to the left. Often during a graduation ceremony (probably after diplomas have been handed out), a presider will tell everyone it’s time to shift their tassels from right to left. If you need a handy mnemonic device to help you nail that protocol, just remember that the right side is the right side—and when you move it to the left, you’ve officially left school.
But once you have an undergraduate degree, your tassel remains on the left side for any higher degrees: master’s degree, doctorate, etc. There’s no switching involved in these ceremonies; the tassel starts on the left and stays on the left.
What Does the Turning of the Tassel Actually Mean?
College kids have been wearing tassels on mortarboard caps at least since the 17th century, when golden tassels at universities like Oxford and Cambridge distinguished members of the nobility from lower-class students, who wore black tassels. The side-switching convention is much more recent; and while it’s not clear exactly how it originated, it is clear that it didn’t actually used to be for seniors.
One of the earliest occurrences was during the 1901 graduation ceremony for the Woman’s College of Baltimore City (now the co-ed Goucher College). The entire student body wore caps, each class dangling the tassel off a different corner. Once the seniors received their diplomas, the three younger classes shifted their tassels to the next corner. As The Baltimore Sun explained after the 1902 ceremony, the motion indicated that each student “had turned another corner in her college career.”
The tradition steadily gained popularity as the 20th century wore on, but it continued to be for the younger students well into the 1960s. Sometimes, it was the seniors who turned the tassels of their underclass counterparts. By the early ’70s, however, seniors had started turning their own tassels, which came to symbolize the end of their academic careers and entrance into the real world—the same way we view the custom today.