Why I Have a Strict Attendance Policy in My College Classroom

Empty Chairs.

In recent months I have been at a number of meetings on campus where negative comments have been made by some about professors who have strict attendance policies in our college classrooms. The comments I have heard suggest that the speakers consider strict attendance policies for our college students as inflexible, unreasonable and, invoking the nuclear option of argumentation, incompatible with this generation of students.

Once again, yesterday, comments along these lines were made in a meeting I attended, and this morning I have found myself thinking that I really want to explain why I have a strict attendance policies in all of my classes. Since I have many other things I need to do today, I’m going to present the outlines of my argument in a few extended points:

Attendance is a Key to Success (Especially for First Gen Students)

I enforce a strict attendance policy in all of my classes because in my experience it has a positive impact on student success. Students who skip classes miss material, don’t engage and connect with their classmates, and don’t go through various stages of joy, discomfort and boredom that one cycles through in a class. Most importantly, they aren’t held accountable to the collectivity that is the college classroom. Being in class is an embodied physical statement of a student’s commitment to the collective work of learning together.

If every student who missed class really checked with a classmate about what was missed, really caught up on the work that was missed, or really did extra work outside of class to make up for the absence, the argument from a point of view of student success might be less effective. Professors know, however, that the reality for working-class students is that they are too busy balancing other aspects of their lives to effectively make up for absences. So missed classes are usually just that—missed parts of their education. In courses where class content and assignments build across the semester, too many missed classes early in the year can quickly trip up a student and put them in a position where they get too far behind.

Accepting the reality that many students often don’t do all of the reading outside of class and that those students who are most likely to not do the work need the extra incentive, attending class is the very least that a student can do to invest in their success in a class. Just sitting in class, just listening to discussion, to lecture or thinking about the material is better than nothing. And, for those students who are not prepared, being in class having not done the work of preparation at least puts them in a position where they are faced with collective expectations that they have not met. 

It has struck me that many of the most vocal critics of strict attendance policies were not first generation college students. I assume that this means when they went to college they had a greater sense of how to navigate the institution and, perhaps, how to skip classes and still succeed. Many first generation students don’t have this cultural savvy. I observed this many years ago when teaching for Duke University. Duke students, mostly well-resourced and from backgrounds that made them culturally fluent with the expectations of higher education, knew how to work. They could skip classes and stay up all night to finish their work. They could drink and party and work and still show up for class to meet expectations. My experience with many working class students is that they don’t have this cultural advantage—skipping is either for work, for rest, for some family obligation, or an “assertion of customer satisfaction.”

Working-class students need faculty to help them succeed. By having a strict attendance policy in my classes, I support their education by pushing the importance of college up their priority list. Or, in some cases I am just putting it on a list that for some puts attending classes and doing classwork behind many other things. And why wouldn’t I do this when…

Students Need to Get What They Are Paying Borrowing For

I never read these books.

It isn’t the high cost of college that kills me, its the fact that many students will continue paying for their educations for many, many years. When students borrow for college they get the opportunity to learn first and then pay for it for decades—bringing the total of the loan plus interest to much more than just the tuition and expenses. If they aren’t getting what they are paying borrowing for then they will be repaying something for nothing. I didn’t pay off the last of my loans until I was in my forties and I still own quite a few books that I purchased for classes in which we never read them. Or, perhaps more specifically, because I wasn’t savvy or held accountable for those readings I chose not to do them at the time. Those books remind me of debts for nothing.

The most tragic thing, however, isn’t that students borrow for college. It’s that while they are borrowing for college the world is trying to take away the thing for which students are going into debt. It’s not like they are borrowing and then because of their debt students have their time free to learn and study and make social connections with others—to focus exclusively on the project for which they are borrowing. No, instead students borrow for college and then on top of their future debt they have one, two, or three jobs that typically pay shit. Students borrow many thousands of dollars to spend a significant amount of their time as students working for tens or hundreds of dollars in low-wage jobs that often keep them from the thing they are borrowing for! 

Just for fun, let’s do some rough math. If there are about 112 waking hours in a week and thirteen weeks in a semester and two semesters in a year that is 112*(13+13) or 2,912 waking hours in an academic year. If we split the difference between the average cost of tuition, room, board and books at a public school and the same cost at a private school we get something around $35,000 annually. For an academic year that is 112 waking hours long, we get an hourly burn rate of about $12 for the duration of the semester. So, if a student is working a crappy job, even at a few dollars above minimum wage, they will need to make $12 a hour just to break even for that hour. This makes the idea of working while going to school farcical for the debt-laden student.

Because of the incredible amount of money involved, some in the university choose to think of students as customers. And, many times I have heard an argument to the effect that if they are paying borrowing for it students should be able to decide if they want to attend class or not.

I couldn’t disagree more.

If students are paying borrowing for college then the university has the ethical and moral obligation to do everything in its power to be sure they getting that for which students are sacrificing their present and a portion of their future. Looking at the per-hour financial burn rate (and remembering for most it is really a hole-digging debt rate) and considering the the ethical obligation of the institution to give students what they are attending college to learn, the absolute least we can do is make sure students go to class by doing our best to push class attendance as high on their priority list as we can.

Of course there are always exceptions, and some students have special situations that require flexibility—but my view is that the exceptions should be for the students to negotiate. The expectation of the institution, the default position of the educational venture, should be that students attend all classes so that they have the highest chance of success. I see my strict attendance policy in this way—part of a moral and ethical orientation toward students getting the most out of their education because of their debt.

Finally, there is one more thing that I need to get off my chest…

Why Do We Have Different Expectations for Athletes Than For Students?

A few weeks ago, following a comment made by a colleague about the inflexibility of “strict attendance policies” (again, with the implication that those professors who have them are being unreasonable given the pressure on “this generation of students”), as I walked back to my office something hit me: Are the coaches of our athletic teams more flexible with the pressures on “this generation of students?” Do they let their athletes skip practice? Is it acceptable if they show up to practice late? I remember from my own experiences that coaches are experts at pushing their athletes to excel—the best pushing athletes to strain beyond the level of comfort, but below the threshold of injury. Coaches also demand strict participation at practices and make it clear that absences have consequences for participation in games or continued membership on the team.

There is a curious double standard when comparing college athletics and academics: while coaches are expected to push athletes to moderate amounts of stress so that they build competence, professors cannot even expect all their students to struggle briefly with a difficult book. At the risk of overstating it a bit, mild discomfort on the practice field is a virtue while mild discomfort in the classroom is an imposition. Extending from this, why is it normal for coaches to demand attendance at practice and games while in the minds of some, professors shouldn’t?

So when I got back to my office, I decided to pick up the phone and call some of the athletic coaches at my school to ask them if skipping practice is OK. How did they feel about athletes showing up late? Do athletic coaches feel pressure to accommodate “this generation of students” who have unique work and family and other kinds of pressures, or do they still have the same expectations for participation that I remember. The answer from the coaches I spoke to was unsurprising: If athletes want to be on a team they are expected to be at practice. Of course there are always occasional things that come up, and caring coaches like caring professors attend to unexpected issues. But, coaches expect athletes to make being on the team a priority. And, if athletes want to be successful as athletes, participating in regular practice is the foundation of that success.

Class Attendance Must be Expected

For the past few weeks there has been a PSA billboard on a building down the street from my university from an organization called absencesaddup.org. It states that two absences per month makes it likely that a student will fail a grade. The billboard is targeted at K-12 students, but in my experience it applies equally to many college students—especially those students, many first generation, who do not have the cultural knowledge to effectively navigate the institutions and expectations of higher education.

Why should college expect less of its students than K-12? This is especially true when we factor in the massive expense debt that many pay for the opportunity to go to college. Of course faculty and institutions should be responsive to student needs, but we should not be afraid to have expectations, to make them clear and to have them shared across the collectivity. Some will say, students are adults, let them decide. I agree with the first part of the sentence wholeheartedly, but have a different perspective on the last part. Students are adults and if they have chosen to spend the money, take on the debt for an education, then professors and administrators should, not unlike coaches, work for student success by supporting students by clear and consistent expectations that will support them while at college.

3 comments

  1. Andy Rundquist

    How well would students of yours be able to articulate the value of being in class, say at the end of the semester? That’s a question I think about a lot for my own classes. I want them to see the value so that I can help them understand that trying their best to attend is in their best interest. However, I don’t have a strict policy because I don’t think my classes always yield a satisfying answer to that question. If there actually isn’t clear value (of course there’s always some value) to a class period, if I have a strict attendance policy it might seem to them that it’s just arbitrary points.

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    • Sorry about the delay in responding, Andy! I mention my rationale at the beginning of pretty much all of my classes and repeat it from time-to-time during the semester. If students are in class and paying attention, then I’m confident they will at least understand my argument. I don’t believe in random busy work or arbitrary rules just for their own sake. In most anthropology classes a bunch of value comes from participating in the classroom activity—discussion of readings, analysis of fieldwork, etc. In Intro to Anthropology, for example, there is an unambiguous correlation between attendance and higher grades at the end of the semester.

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  2. I think expectations of attendance in college also prepare students for expectations for attendance at work in their careers. As an HR professional, attendance problems are a major drag on my time. People can’t expect that their employer is going to be ok with them showing up when it works for them, so why should that be ok in college? Thank you!

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