Personal Thoughts about Compulsory Attendance for College Students

It is my opinion that attendance in college should not be compulsory. I believe the expectation that college attendance be compulsory is carry-over from K-12 schooling, where mandatory attendance is a legal matter, and where students who skip classes are given a name to capture how naughty they are. That word is “truant.”
If a student skips my Introduction to General Psychology course, they do not become truants. They become human beings who, having reached physical maturity (that is, they are adults), have decided for themselves that there is something that is more important than going to class.

Graphic created by the author using Canva

Yet chronic absenteeism still has college professors and their administrations very upset.. This disappointment is particularly evident from the tone and facial expressions of professors and administrators as they say things like, “Only three students attended my class this morning.” Therefore what is most interesting to me are the beliefs that said professors and administrations hold about the purpose of college, and how attendance fits into those beliefs. 
One of those beliefs seems to be that attendance is important all by itself. That is to say, student obedience with respect to attendance has become its own learning objective. In defense of this objective, an instructor might say “well, one day you (the student) will have a job and will be expected to go to the job each day, won’t you?” With this line of reasoning, it is assumed that students must learn how to follow course schedules in order to learn how to follow work schedules.
Another belief that seems relevant is in the importance of objective standards, because objective standards are easier to measure and enforce than subjective standards. Writing style, for example, is very difficult to objectify. Ernest Hemmingway, George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut are each well known and well respected (and well dead) authors, yet each writes in a different style. It would be impossible to standardize their writing styles without massive contradictions. Attendance, however, is extremely easy to standardize. To do so, a teacher need only check the little box next to a student’s name if that student is present when roll is called. In a writing class, the development of writing style is unquestionably more important than student attendance, yet attendance is more easily quantified and standardized, so it receives more attention. 
A third belief is one that is held by social and cultural institutions, and not universities per se. It is the belief that student retention is a useful and adequate measure of a university’s value. It is believed that schools with high retention rates—for example, ones that offer students a 75% likelihood of graduating—are good schools. This is generally called “student success,” as in “students are likely to succeed at schools with high retention rates.” As it has been defined, however, student success can be increased by EITHER increasing student performance or decreasing university expectations. A consequence of this belief is a cyclical decrease in expectations. 

Here is how the cycle goes: 
  • University wants to increase retention, so it makes graduating easier by reducing the number of credits that students need.
  • Students relax because their school’s standards have relaxed. They relax until the retention rate returns to its original level.
  • University again wants to increase retention, so it makes graduating easier by eliminating the college algebra requirement.
  • Students relax because their school’s standards have relaxed. 
  • And so on.
This cycle continues until the university has relaxed its learning standards so considerably that all that is left is “Students need to attend their classes, and they will graduate,” which, of course, following the Decreasing Expectations cycle, means that students will stop attending classes.


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