There are few guaranteed retention solutions as important as attending to attendance. Simply put, having a campus-wide attendance policy that is enforced and followed-up will improve retention up to seven percent. Granted accomplishing a campus-wide attendance policy with some strength can be a daunting political task but there are so many benefits to doing so that they far outweigh the excuses not to institute one. An up to seven percent increase in retention for example.
Most colleges and universities have a too liberal class/ faculty–based attendance policy that encourages students not to attend classes. They leave it up to the individual professor to decide the attendance policy for his or her class. This also leads to a confusing polarity that is harmful to individual professors since some require attendance and other do not require any attendance. The “you must be here” are may be thought of as “hardasses” by colleagues and students but they are really providing the best customer service.
Providing the student/ customer what he or she is paying for and needs is appropriate academic customer service and a major role of college is to prepare students for life after graduation. A consistent complaint from employers is that students do not seem to always understand and follow the company’s rules such as showing up on time or coming in at all. By not requiring attendance, schools simply prepare students for attendance problems at work if they learn they can control their decisions to attend or not. Academic customer service is not always about being nice and making the customer happy as much as making sure students get the ROI they are seeking even if it does not always bring a big smile to their faces. If being nice were the rule, there would be not tests after all.
Furthermore, once a student skips a class and sees there are no sanctions for doing so, it becomes easier to skip another time. And another. After missing a few classes a student finds he or she has fallen behind and may not see a way to make up the missed classwork and homework assigned. Or has missed some in class quizzes and is looking at a less than stellar grade with zeros in the grade book. So he or she just drops the class but since few students seem to know there is an add-drop policy and procedure, they just do not show up again. This leads to the F the student feared from the class and is an entrance to dropping out of school completely.
Every college and university should have a clear, consistent and meaningful attendance policy that states that being in class is so important that students must attend all classes if they are serious about retention. Important because students who do not attend classes are at greatest risk for dropping out. Important because students who miss classes are not gaining the value of the teacher’s instruction and thinking on the material. Important because the student also loses out on the very important teacher-student communication and relationship. Important also because it is the student and faculty interaction that is the reason we have faculty at a college or university. If students do not need teaching faculty to learn from in classes, the need for faculty disappears. And important because attendance affects an average seven percent of retention or attrition.
Yet every time the topic of requiring attendance is raised at a presentation, someone is bound to disagree and do so vehemently. For example, during a workshop in retention and customer service at a large university. It was mentioned that the college had about a thirty percent four-year retention/graduation rate that would be significantly improved with a consistent and encompassing college-wide attendance policy. A policy that would make attendance mandatory.
Immediately a faculty member passionately shook her head no and spoke out. “Students are adults and they need to learn to be responsible for their own choices. They need to learn there are consequences to their actions”. This statement which has been repeated contradicts the commonly asserted faculty belief assessment that students have not yet learned to be responsible. So we should teach them that. By allowing them to be irresponsible?
Why do we even believe they are responsible enough to make the right decision to attend or not attend class? What is it about enrolling at a college or university that makes anyone believe these people are responsible or even sensible? This is especially so for freshman which by the way is who the faculty member who asked the question at the workshop taught.
It is perhaps the widespread academic belief in the Tinkerbell Theory. This is the belief that somehow magic occurs on the stage in the local school auditorium at high school graduation. An immature high school senior starts across the stage. And with him or her walks all the attitudes, ways of thinking, and learning ingrained over 12 long years. Then, just as the high school principal hands him or her a diploma, a Tinkerbell flies overhead and sprinkles magic maturity dust on the graduate. POOF!! A college freshman! What was a latent college student suddenly sheds his or her immature ways and is suddenly metamorphosed into a mature college student ready and capable of meeting the demands and dictates of college! The very same freshman whom faculty believe is mature enough to decide whether or not to attend a but is not adult and learned enough to have been admitted to the college.
The Tinkerbell Theory applies to upperclassmen as well. Simply because they have been attending your college does not make them mature or responsible. Physical maturity in no way equals mental maturity. Maturity is something that is learned and taught. We accept that as a given with young people for example. We teach them how to share, how they need to clean their room, brush their teeth, wash, bathe, look before crossing, do their homework … If we want a child to become a religious person we teach them and even demand they go to church, temple, mosque… If we want them to play a musical instrument we make sure they attend classes and practice. And we do make them go to classes, if they are our children!!!!!
When people start the argument on class attendance, at some time I will ask that person or persons if they have children in college. Most every time at least one does. “Okay, let’s assume you are paying only $10,000 a year for school. Only $10,000. Public university. Your child completed a FAFSA waiver at school (which should be done at every school) so could you call to find out why Jennifer is concerned her grade in a class is not that good. You are told that Jennifer is not attending that class. What do you do?” The faculty member invariably says something akin to “I’d tell her to get herself into class; do not skip classes and go for extra help!” If it is good enough and important enough to tell one’s own child to go to class, why isn’t it equally good and important for other peoples’ children in your classes to have to attend?
There are of course other excuses that are brought up to attempt to justify not having an attendance policy. Two parallel ones have to do with calling the role. First it takes up too much time and second, it puts the faculty member into the role of disciplinarian. Calling the role would take no more than two minutes. Calling the role does make a non-disciplinarian into a disciplinarian. Calling the role is like teaching itself. It is all in the way you do it. If one gets to know her or her students, attendance is easy. You can recognize who is or is not in class an check them off. If you don’t know them well enough, then you may not be doing a great job of connecting with them anyhow. The research indicates that a feeling of association with a faculty member is a very important retention and learning factor. Calling the role can be a step in that direction.
Moreover, Calling the roll also signals that the faculty member is beginning the class. Calling the roll is a learned a signal to students that a separation from the non-academic to the academic has taken place so get with the appropriate decorum. When a faculty member tells students they do not need to show up for classes but must do homework and take all tests, this sends a strong message that the student is not going to get a full fiscal ROI in this class.
When a professor tells students that they do not have to attend his lectures and they can pass by reading the assignments, doing the homework and taking tests, he is saying “There is no value to my lectures or classes. I, in fact, have nothing to offer you that you cannot get from a book.” This is a clear admission that I am useless as a teacher. I have no value for you. And in turn that diminishes each every faculty member teaching at the college or university. The fact that there is room here for someone useless and I am paying for this makes students wonder about other professors and the institution’s value. Weakening the ROI and perception of value just makes it easier for students to rationalize leaving.
An institution-wide attendance policy is perceived by students as a statement that the college is keeping an eye on them. That, oddly enough makes students feel the university cares and is involved in their learning. What follows is an actual representative college attendance policy followed by what a retention saving policy could look like.
Students are expected to attend and be on time for all sessions of a course for which they are registered. The attendance policy allows unexcused absences up to two times the number of lecture hours for a course. A student who has unexcused absences exceeding two times the number of lecture hours for a course has surpassed the number of allowable unexcused absences and is in violation of the class attendance policy. The student who exceeds the allowable number of unexcused absences may receive a grade of AW or FX based on unsatisfactory class attendance. The course instructor determines whether a student's absences are excused or unexcused.Here the use of the conditional tense and the word expected make the policy weak and ineffective. The expectation is that each faculty member will make the policy more specific. The use of expected also weakens the points about unexcused absences since if attendance is not required, how can a student face sanctions? The wording is splendid fodder for a future law suit from any student disciplined under the institutional policy. This would also hold if one faculty member in course 111 says that attendance is mandatory and determines that a student has unexcused absences enough for the failing grade indicator. Meanwhile another faculty member teaching 111 does not require any attendance and students skip classes as did the others yet they get passing, perhaps even good grades. Inconsistent application of rules makes for a winnable lawsuit. If the policy read as below, the chance of legal actions against the faculty member and university are significantly reduced while retention is increased.
Students are required to attend all class sections. Students will attend and be on time for all sessions of a course for which they are registered. The attendance policy allows three excused absences. A student who has excused absences exceeding three per course has surpassed the number of allowable unexcused absences, is in violation of the class attendance policy and will be withdrawn from the class unless the faculty member petitions the attendance office in behalf of the student. The petition must include a student and faculty member agreed upon plan to make up the missed in-class work. An excused absence will be defined as one in which the student alerts the faculty member prior to or contemporaneously with the absence and gains the faculty member’s agreement to excuse the absence as well as an agreement to assist in making up the missed work. The student who has unexcused absences will receive a grade of AW or FX based on unsatisfactory class attendance prior to midterm. Following midterm, an excused absence will lead to an F in the course. The faculty member can petition the attendance office on behalf of the student. The petition must include a student and faculty member agreed upon plan to make up the missed in-class work.The last policy may not be just right for all colleges and universities but a specific statement requiring attendance will increase retention by up to seven percent and that will be right for all colleges.
If this article makes sense, read the other parts of the longer piece on nine guaranteed customer service-based retention solutions.
And to see why you should invite the author of the article Dr. Neal Raisman to be a speaker at your schools' convocation or another event, get a free digital copy of his revised and expanded best seller Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition by just requesting it here.
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