Business Students Get a Dress Code

Along with the standard syllabi and schedules that accompany the school year's start, marketing majors at Illinois State University are contending with a policy that rarely sets foot on a college campus: a dress code.

Beginning this semester, the campus in Normal, Ill., will require its 400-500 students in upper-level marketing classes to attend class in  "business casual attire," not the sweats or pajama pants that often find their way into university lecture halls. The new policy outlines appropriate attire for male and female students. For women khakis and slacks are acceptable. So too are dresses and skirts, as long as they are no more than four inches above the knee. For men khakis and polos, golf shirts, and sports jackets are the new on-campus standard.

The university's newfound fashion consciousness isn't just about style. According to Tim Longfellow, head of ISU's marketing department, it's about preparing students for the wardrobe requirements of the working world. "Dress can sometimes be an issue for new employees and interns," he says. "We've had employers tell us that they've sent interns home because they didn't understand what business casual was. We wanted to allow students to get a level of comfort; you can't just turn on a light switch."

If students repeatedly fail to meet the standards, their grades are at stake: the dress code gives faculty members the power to ask the student to leave the classroom and receive zero credit for any work due that day. Says Longfellow, "It's just like life: if there are no consequences to bad behavior, then the good behaviors slip away."

But will instituting punitive measures really result in increased professionalism? Not according to Susan Bixler, co-author of "Five Steps to Professional Presence: How to Project Confidence, Competence, and Credibility at Work." She says that in the real world you get rewarded for good behavior, not docked for bad dress. "Besides, this is too parental. You have to treat [students] like adults."

Longfellow is sticking by his department's new guidelines. He says that faculty members have, thus far, reported largely positive results. Their students--even in the 8 a.m. classes--are "wide awake, prepared for class, and contributing." Sara Molider is one of those students, a senior in marketing who will graduate in December. She thinks the dress code is giving her a sense of the style needed in the corporate world. "When you do dress up … you do hold yourself to a higher standard," she says.

Some of her classmates have been less enthusiastic about the new policy. But Molider thinks this should be their wakeup call, not a reason for complaint. "Some students are saying it's a violation of their freedom," she says. "But is that what they're going to say when they have to dress nicely for their first job interview?"