Attendance policies detrimental to education, student development

Last issue, Hilltop Views published a Letter to the Editor from Associate Prof. Drew Loewe, who wrote in response to an article by Sports Editor Amanda González, titled: “If I were president of St. Edward’s University.”

In her article, González posited that “students pay for the service of a college education and should be able to dictate their own class attendance.”

Loewe argued that González’s proposition to have no penalties for missing class is “based on a deeply flawed consumerist view of education.”

Though I personally believe that students enrolled in university should attend the classes they’re registered for (obviously), I would hesitate to blame González for her perspective, flawed or not.

St. Edward’s is a business. We have bills and salaries to pay, buildings to maintain, grasses to groom and a marketing office to attest to all of that.

Our university spends a lot of money to get students to attend this school because its funding comes primarily from tuition.

Each year, thousands of carefully curated brochures and publications complete with student diversity and retention statistics are distributed to attract students from all over the world.

And while St. Edward’s is able to provide generous scholarships on account of its generous donors and alumni, the university is still incredibly expensive.

In addition to college education becoming increasingly more expensive, it has become increasingly necessary; experts and commentators have been calling undergraduate degrees the “new high school diploma” and President Barack Obama even referred to it as “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

Though including apparently self-evident facts about university costs seems tangential here, it’s important to consider these factors when we talk about attendance policies because they are a symptom of a much more complex set of shifting dynamics facing higher education.

If our university is a business that depends on high retention rates to continue to function, if everybody needs a degree and if students are expected to be responsible for their education, then what is the role of the attendance policy?

Imposing an attendance policy on students and professors is arbitrary and problematic. It supposes that students don’t have enough incentive to go to class without being threatened with a penalty (in addition to losing out on an important, engaging lecture), and it discourages them from taking responsibility for their education.

Professors should emphasize that attendance is necessary for success in the class without insisting on a “three free absences rule.”

The notion that life is going to predictably intervene with class schedules three times or less is absurd and only promotes the idea that education is something quantifiable and uniform; i.e if you attend X number of classes, you will gain Y amount of knowledge which will result in good grades and eventually a degree.

This formulaic approach is not realistic and at worst, it is harmful to students who have learned to expect their decisions to be guided (and sanctioned) by the university.

Students have to juggle classes, jobs, internships, children, spouses and all the other extracurriculars they’re encouraged to participate in. Sometimes they miss class because they’re picking up an extra shift to pay rent or to send money home to their parents. Sometimes a fourth absence is necessary.

Even with these conflicting responsibilities, most students try to make it to class the majority of the time.

In my experience, most serious students worry about missing class because they’re worried about missing content; not because of the points that will be deducted per syllabus rules.

Some students see the three absence rule as a challenge: they calculate how many classes they can afford to miss before they suffer the loss of a letter grade and plan their subsequent efforts in the class accordingly.

On the other end, there are students who are simply apathetic. I’m not a psychologist, but I think students who are chronically absent aren’t likely to change their habits because of an attendance policy.

However, I agree with Loewe: there should not be a university-wide policy instituted regarding attendance.

Professors are competent enough to construct their own classes and provide their own guidelines for their course.

Similarly, students should be expected to be competent enough to follow guidelines.

If they aren’t going to class, then it should be reflected in their grade — attendance policy or not.

Maybe students who cannot be bothered to show up to class time after time should be given a failing grade.

This option isn’t great for the university’s retention rate, but it’s great for the student who needs a wake-up call.

And if St. Edward’s is really interested in educating the “whole person” then it needs to allow students to make mistakes, instead of coddling them into thinking that they shouldn’t.

Furthermore, students shouldn’t be applauded for showing up, taking notes and blanking out.

I realize that most professors use a grading formula that factors in “participation,” but sometimes the students who contribute most to the course miss more classes than the ones who attend devoutly and say very little, making attendance an inaccurate gauge of student merit.

Students show up to class half-asleep and half-functioning when they should really be taking a day off, but the attendance policy suggests that mental absence is more tolerable than physical absence.

It must be especially annoying to professors who let their students use electronics in class; inevitably students’ attention drifts from the lecture to the screen, which is a kind of absence. Are those students really present?

Ultimately, I would argue that attendance policies contribute to what Loewe refers to as a “flawed consumerist view of higher education” in the sense that they encourage a narrow understanding of what it means to be truly educated, which goes way beyond going to class and getting a grade; and even beyond getting a degree.

Next time I miss class to take a beach trip, I’ll gladly accept those points off my grade.