Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Is the Customer, the Student, Always Right?

Which of the following is true?

  1. The customer is always right. True False
  1. If there is a question, refer to number 1. True False
It has been an inviolable adage found in the backrooms of most retail outlets and restaurants that both number 1 and number 2 are correct. The customer is always right. It is therefore our role to do all we can to please the customer; to make her feel we accept that she and her business are number 1 to the store or institution by fulfilling every wish if at all possible. To go the extra mile to make the customer happy. To indulge, pamper, spoil and if necessary, to even pander to each whim to assure the customer is satisfied and will come back. This has been the concept that has been central to Business 101 and been hung on posters and fliers in backrooms across the country almost since it was reportedly created in 1908 by French hotel owner César Ritz (1850-1918) when he stated 'Le client n'a jamais tort' - 'The customer is never wrong.” The current, more American usage was established by the Marshall Fields store in Chicago and then popularized by Harry Gordon Selfridge who left Fields to create London’s Selfridge’s department store in 1909.

It is this time honored concept that is so strongly at odds with many people on college campuses. Influential segments of the college community believe this idea that the customer is right imposes a construct of business on a very non-commercial institution – academia. A basic bastard of business which has money as its goal forced upon intellectual institutions with our ideals of intellectual pursuit and learning, in that order. Obviously not just a mismatch but an attempt to undermine the very nature of the academic environment and “corporatize the academy” as one faculty member told me prior to a workshop he refused to attend. Colleges and universities are not about money and revenue after all.

In fact, money corrupts the purity of the intellectual community, (except when it comes to my office or department’s budget perhaps or my salary, benefits cost or equipment). But then the money is only needed to be able to provide education or services to others to make the institution stronger to be better able to meet its mission. And after all, we do not have customers many academic say."Students are not customers". Students do pay for an education so they must be customers. According to the basic definition of a customer, they qualify. They exchange money for goods and service like courses and services and that makes them customers. Call them students or clients if that makes you feel better, but they are our customers and that changes the equation quite a bit. So don’t pick 1 or 2.

 And we are in a business, an academic business,a service industry which is underfunded in too many situations,  so we must "do business" to make sure the revenue comes in. After all, without money coming in how are we to fund budgets, pay for salary and benefit increases and all the other things we need to meet the mission. So we need to consider that number 1 may have some merit. Perhaps we need an ad hoc committee to study……. (Lord save us all from even one more committee!) Let’s just realize that in typical academic reality, the positions above are all or nothing postures that are both wrong, and yet still sort of have some validity. .

Consider that if you checked number 1 as correct, number 2 necessarily follows as acceptable. But if you chose number one as true, you are wrong to begin with. The customer is not always right. Yet, that does not make the faculty member who derided customer service as illegitimate in higher education right. Not at all, for he is also wrong. Very palpably wrong at that. And in this case, your wrong and his wrong do not make the customer right.

The reality is that the customer is often wrong. Particularly in higher education. Just think of your last quiz. I am sure you found many students were wrong in many of their answers or guesses. That is the nature of a quiz or a test after all. Though we would hope that the customer would be always right and prove that he or she really understood the lectures, the readings and the assignments, such is not the reality of most classes and schools. Students, our customers, are often wrong.

And students are wrong by very their very nature as students. They come to college to learn what they do not know; to become more correct in their knowledge and abilities. They are in school to replace erroneous or uninformed notions with information and learning. In fact, if they already knew, if they had the skills prior to coming into school, they would not have to enroll.They would not become students, our clients and customers.

So they old adage is wrong in higher education. But there is a saying that does fit what we need to know to keep our students satisfied and in school. "The customer (the student) comes first". That is a statement I hope we can all get behind.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

It is not an Admissions Problem but a Retention Problem at Southern Illinois and Other Universities

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has an enrollment, and thus a revenue problem. Student population is shrinking. They have lost around 50% of the freshman population over the past three years. Official fall 2017 enrollment at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is 14,554, a decline of 9% percent over 2016.  Their new Chancellor, Carlo Montemagno is saying it is “because we are not offering programs that are distinctive and relevant to today’s students.” 

But is that the reality they are facing at SIU-Carbondale?

They are losing 56% of every entering class the graduation rate is only at 44%.  The University also recognizes that it is not necessarily a problem of underprepared or incapable students because it stated there is “a continuing increase in ACT scores for new freshmen and ongoing growth in freshman retention rates” which is at 68% freshman to sophomore year which is not all that great really. The University if losing almost a third of every entering class before sophomore year.

What his all means is that attrition is losing the University $113,801,801 annually. (To calculate how much attrition is costing your school click here.)  It is losing more than it has to spend. That is a financially dangerous situation to be in.

The Chancellor’s response is a radical restructuring of the University out of individual departments into groupings that will cut the overall number of departments and colleges.  He has proposed that the University collapse its existing eight colleges and 42 departments and schools into five colleges and 18 schools, two of them being law and medicine to cover the lost revenue. He further plans on eliminating some departments entirely. He hopes the new structure will stimulate synergy and cross thinking to generate new ideas and programs. These, he believes will stop the population erosion.

The Chancellor believes new relevant programs will attract more students.

But this does not make logical sense since the problem is that the University is losing students after they come to school. The students originally chose the school for its programs and degrees to start with but something else made them leave. The offerings were sufficient to get them in the door but then something is happening to make them leave.  Attracting more students will just lead to more dropouts. It is not admissions that is at fault. It is something else.

The issue is not how to attract more students but how to keep them? How to increase retention from 44% to some rate that will begin stabilizing, then growing the student population. The University cannot keep losing over half of its students annually if it is to succeed no matter what the structure of its departments and colleges.

It, like most every college and university, needs to focus on retention to stabilize its population and revenues and that will not come about by re-organizing the departments and colleges. It needs to find out why students are leaving. If it does and corrects the issues, it can and will increase population making a radical restructuring that will turn faculty against the Chancellor unnecessary.

Southern Illinois has an engagement problem that is made worse by poor or weak services that would attach the students more fully to the school. A large part of what is occurring  very likely is that the University is not providing students what they need and expect especially in how they are treated, i.e. academic customer service. We already know that 76% of attrition is caused by poor or weak service provided to students as shown in the chart below. The major reason students leave a college is that they believe the college does not care about them and that is very probably a factor at Southern

Illinois as it is with so many other schools we have studied to see why students left them. The University is not providing an ease of service and procedures that make the students believe the school does not care if they succeed or not. They are probably putting students seeking help into “the shuffle” of having to go to office to office trying to find the services they need.

If we were to do a study of the University’s student attitudes I would be willing to bet our fees that a major concern students would express is that “I have not been treated and helped very well. The school does not care about me. All they care about is my money.” I can make this offer because we have found this to be the situation at just about every college that we have studied with a high attrition rate. The University likely does a good job of recruiting students but not as good a job reselling them on the school every day by providing the services students want, need and expect.

We also know this is quite likely true because closely behind the reason for leaving “The school does not care about me” is the category of “weak to poor customer service”.  Students report that they cannot get the services they need to complete a needed function for example. They go to an office to get help and are given less than good service, maybe even abrupt and indifferent treatment students report.  This in turn feeds into the belief that the school does not care about them. Just think how you feel about a business or a restaurant that treats you poorly or gives bad service. You don’t go back. Well, students make a buying decision to attend class and stay in school each and every day. If they are treated poorly, they will not want to invest their tuition and fees in the school and leave as you would a store that ignores you or gives you bad service.

All of this makes the students believe that it is not worth it to put up with a school that does not care and treats them poorly and they drop out. It is also quite likely that at Southern Illinois they are cutting sections to try and save money. This is a normal, but wrong way to save money because it also cuts students out of classes they need to progress in their major quite often.

We observed a school recently that decided to only offer some required courses once a year in the Fall but did not fully communicate that to students, and advisors did not seem to know of it either. One of those was in the senior year.  Students waited to take the course the next semester when it could fit in the schedule to find it was not offered. They had to wait until next year to get the course which often meant they had to take some course that might not fit in their major to remain full-time to get full financial aid. They had to stay longer in school to get the course complete their program. This caused problems because they had to stay another year to make up courses but their financial aid ran out in four years and they had trouble affording the cost of the extra year. Many could not and had to drop out to earn money to pay for school often not coming back.

This is all indicative of a school not with an admissions problem but a retention and customer service problem.

Would this be the situation at Southern Illinois or your school for instance? It is likely that weak or poor academic service is leading to much of your dropout/attrition rate. If Southern Illinois found our precisely what services were not being done well and fix them, it would increase its retention rate and the revenue needed to operate instead of causing major upheaval which likely will not solve its real problem – retention.

To uncover why students are leaving your university or college, call us today at 413.219.6939 or contact me by email at

Monday, November 20, 2017

Retaining Students Over the Thanksgiving Break

Thanksgiving is approaching and it may not lead to many thanks for some students and schools. Thanksgiving is going to be the most extended time
away from school for many students. It is a time when students get together with family and friends. It is a time when there is time for questions and thinking. And a major topic is going to be “how is it at….?” Some students are going to think “actually, not all that great.”

Thanksgiving turns out to be a major tipping point in the decision to stay or leave a college. With that knowledge, it is also a time you should engage students to keep them from dropping into the attrition side of the decision. You could also leverage relationships with parents and families to bring them into any stay or drop decision. 

Send every student a personalized letter or formal card. The letter should of course be stationary and the card must be printed with the name of the office or person in raised engraved letters such as Office of the President.
 The letter or card should have a brief written statement such as
I want to thank you for the honor and pleasure of having you as a student at ………………….. If there is anything I can help you with, please contact me at (EMAIL SET UP FOR RESPONSES)I look forward to seeing you on campus and at your graduation. 
Sincerely, AND THEN SIGN IT.
Mail it to the student AND FAMILY. This way family members will want to see it too. This helps enlist them as supporters. With luck, you will get some responses in the special email box you set up. There may even be some thanks to you but what you are really seeking are issues that could get in the way of staying in school at your school. If you do, you can find solutions and keep that student in school. 

BTW, these letters and cards really work. 

If cards are not feasible, phone calls to the house work too. Just a quick thanks like what is written on a card will work. Especially contact any students you know are at risk. Making contact with them might be just the thing that will keep them in school. Remember, the major reason students leave a college is the belief that the school does not care about them so a call or card home states very clearly that you care.

If for some reason you can't do any of the above, crank up to CRM system and send out an email blast with the statement above. This is not as strong but it can help make students understand that you care. 

There is just enough time between now and Thanksgiving weekend to get it done and increase retention,enrollment and a family's hopes and dreams

Let me know how the letters, cards, calls and email work for you.

Call me at 413.219.6939 and I will help over the phone at no cost to you to keep retention and success rising as my way of saying thanks to all my colleagues and clients.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Student Engagement Depends on How Well They Are Served In and Out of the Classroom

Though some faculty deride academic customer service as a noxious import from business, it has been found that faculty who provide
increased levels of customer service will have a better and more satisfying teaching experience. And their students will learn better with greater desire, compliance and increased retention.

When students believe a faculty member provides them good service and cares about them, they are more willing to listen and learn. Students are also more compliant with the teacher’s instruction, more willing to engage in-class and complete assignments.

I recall a master teacher and academic customer service provider named Dr. Taffee Tanimoto at the University of Massachusetts in Boston back in 1969. Dr. Tanimoto was the chair of the math department. He loved math and was always bothered when we students had problems with algebra. He also loved teaching. Our diffidence bordering on hostility toward math baffled him and he admitted it in class. He also said that he might not make us become mathematicians but he would do all he could to have us learn algebra and maybe even like some of it if we would just work with him.

To back it up, he started 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. tutoring classes that met every Tuesday and Thursday. He lived over 30 miles away from the University and took the train in to be in the classroom by 7 if any of wanted to show up early. He would also be available in his office until 5:30 every day to go over problems with any student who needed help – even if they were not in his class. He even tutored me once at the Back Bay train station over coffee as we both waited for trains.

He was patient but did not pander – no physics for poets type of classes. Full bodied algebra, calculus and trig. He demanded but did not reprimand. He provided excellent and extremely important customer service that made us want to learn algebra. And we did succeed and as he said, he succeeded. I even got a C+ but even more I learned to like math even if it didn't always like me because of Dr. Tanimoto. His extra service made me want to learn algebra and trig even though they were foreign languages to me. If nothing else, his going beyond my expectations not only made me inclined to want to learn, they made me fell an obligation to do so.

Dr. Tanimoto was going out of his way to provide us extra help and thus academic customer service so we could understand algebra. As a results, I felt I needed to do all I could to try and learn the material.  I did not learn to love algebra even if I did learn it but I did have feel a great affection for Dr. Tanimoto.

I also grew to love the University because of the customer service I was given in and out of the classroom. And the faculty loved the University too where they could take some maybe not the always most brilliant kids and make them into educated future successes.

Dr. Tanimoto made me want to learn from him. As a result,customer service helped me and a group of math clods pass algebra. And it helped him and many other faculty like their jobs in the classroom much better than many others who saw teaching as just a job.
The customer service/willingness to learn contention is supported not only by the Taffee Tanimotos of academia whose customer service engages students by providing extra service in learning and success, as well as the results reported from colleges that have engaged faculty in customer service training. There are other formal academic studies and reports that help forward the case. Studies such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and another by Hombury, Koschate and Hoyer in the April 2005 issue of the Journal of Marketing on customer service and WTP (willingness to pay) alongside consideration of interactional equity theory support our contentions with their research.

The studies have found that the greater the feeling that one received good service. the greater the willingness to pay for that service. Thus, if a college provides good academic customer service, students will not resist tuition payment, or even increases, much. They will feel they are getting a good fiscal return on their money as a result of being served well in and out of the classroom.

In the 2006 NSSE Director’s Report (P10) report, the following is stated  "For years, researchers have pointed to involvement in educationally purposeful activities as the gateway to desired outcomes of college. Students who engage more frequently in educationally effective practices get better grades, are more satisfied, and are more likely to persist. Two decades ago, this literature prompted Chickering, Gamson, and their colleagues to compile a list of “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education,” which are reflected in many NSSE survey items. Recent findings from independent studies have corroborated the relationships between engagement and indicators of student success in college such as grades and persistence with undergraduates in different types of institutional settings. These studies also show that while engagement is positively linked to desired outcomes for all types of students, historically under-served students tend to benefit more than majority students."

We have no disagreement with this observation. Instead we add that the same is true for faculty when they become engaged with their students. Moreover, we add that though there is no disagreement with the NSSE panel's recommendations of curricula and pedagogy they feel would add to engagement, true engagement comes from appropriate customer services to students.

The 25 Principles of Good Customer Service in Higher Education begins with:
“where everybody knows your name
and they’re awfully glad you came”

This is the type of service engagement that must be created before pedagogical or curricula engagement can be achieved. If students feel that no one knows their name, i.e. no one cares about them, they will not engage with curriculum or pedagogy. But if students do feel that the professor cares, that will increase the willingness to learn leading to greater learning and increased teaching satisfaction for the teacher.

If you would like a copy of the 25 Principles of Good Customer Service in Higher Education, click here to request.

To increase retention, graduation rates and enrollment get in touch with us now at 413.219.6939 or email me at

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Academic Customer Service is Not Retail Customer Service

Customer service in academia is a very different animal than retail and commercial service. For one, the buying patterns are very different. At
Nordstrom for example, the service focuses on a unique one-time purchase and hoped-for future purchases for those in a particular social bracket. The purchase is a one time event. 

Let’s say I go to Nordstrom (for me, the Rack) one day to buy a shirt, maybe a tie to go with it. These are limited and specific material objectives I can obtain and achieve in this one event. I buy them and leave, not to think of a purchase again until a particular need arises. The service focuses on that one purchase. 
Disneyworld the same. One vacation a year. Not so college. Purchases are made very day, every class.

Too often we think that the decision to enroll is the one and only buying decision of our students. Not so. Not at all. That is just the first of many, many purchases on their way to graduation or attrition.

In college, our customers are in a constant buying/purchasing pattern. They are making a decision on your product every day and most every hour/class. Every day, students get up and decide whether or not to go to school and go to classes. They decide whether or not to go/purchase each and every class depending on a number of service-based factors and ROI’s, “is this worth my time, does the faculty member give a damn, is it part of my major, can I blow it of and still get a good grade, do I just feel like it today?”. These decisions ultimately lead to retention or attrition with steps in between of course. We buy a shirt once every so often. College is an every day purchase. And one might successfully argue that it is more important then a shirt.

This is very different than a unique purchase in retail which is a self-contained event in all cases with a simple temporal and commercial conclusion. Retaining a customer in retail is much easier than in education. When I buy a shirt, I walk out with it I can even wear it right away if I want. It’s material.

Retaining a student is much tougher than getting someone back in a store. In fact, once a student leaves a college, she does not come back while if a store has provided weak to poor customer service, if it has what a person needs at a good price, he will very often go back. Part of the reason is that there is little investment in the store. It does not cost anything to wander the aisles looking for a shirt for example. It does cost to go to classes looking for the education needed to get a job. Further, a person can often do without getting that shirt. He will usually have others at home he can wear. But a person may not be able to get a job without buying that degree with six years attendance and paying (that's the average time to graduation now).

An education? Can’t wear it. Can’t carry it. Can’t touch it. It’s more like love. We all need it. We all crave it but it can be hard to define, pin down or sometimes even know it is happening. It takes faith, trust. And that is often the basis of retention because all one can get from an education is trust that I have have been trained to get a job and learned something, I can get a job with. All I have for the thousands of dollars I paid into college is a piece of embossed card stock with signatures that says education took place. At Nordstroms I get a shirt I can wear. In college, I got a diploma I can hang in my office that somehow says I am trained and educated sort of like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz.. 

Bad service in a school may well make the student leave forever as studies have shown. In fact, weak or poor academic customer service can account for 76% of all attrition.

Yet schools most always tolerate bad behavior and service from its employees. That is another difference between academic and retail customer service is you can’t even get rid of an obviously poor service provider in college while in a store, if they don’t perform according to store requests for service and at least a smile, one can fire them. Try firing a faculty member because he or she treats students like crap. And teaches with total indifference to the customers’ needs and learning style. Have fun in the grievances and court. Unless of course the faculty member is an adjunct. Then we will let him or her finish the term, teaching horridly, pissing off students and increasing attrition. Don’t need the hassles, grievances, lawyer calls and legal suits to follow. Better to provide horrendous service to our customers. Or a worker in a service office like the registrar's or business office who growls when she has to help students. Can’t just let her go. Need at least a long period of progressive discipline before one can even contemplate dismissal. And if she is in a union… Rather different than most stores or a resort. If a person angers and repels customers there, he or she is gone quickly.

There is quite a bit more too. Poor service in a store just makes the customer leave and go elsewhere. Unless of course he needs the particular item that the store sells and is the only one so doing in the area, then he’ll grin and bear it to buy it. She may want to leave but if the product can only be obtained there, she will have to either get it there or forgo it completely. Education? Can get composition, math, psych, etc. etc. most anywhere even on-line so one does not have to be bound by location and exclusivity. 

There is another and most significant difference between academic and retail customer service. In academic customer service, we know "the customer is not always right". In fact, that is proven every day on tests and quizzes and too often in the ways that they can act. It is the job of the college to teach the student to become "more right" through teaching both in and out of the classroom. Out of the classroom? Yes because we are not only teaching information and ideas but preparing students for life after college and for job. In a store, there is no interaction to improve the customer while in college, that is our mission.

To assure you retain more students through academic customer service, training is needed. We can't expect our faculty and staff to provide good service if they have not been trained to so so. Contact us today to learn how we can increase retention and graduation rates through improved customer service training at 413.219.6939 or email me at

We can and will increase your population and enrollment.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Higher Education is Vocational Education

A colleague of mine who is a faculty member in allied health at a large university said to me that if he had it to do over, he would teach at a community college where they have vocational
education. I was surprised. Not that he wanted to leave a university for a community college but that he that he didn’t realize that higher education is vocational education.
The difference is that for the most part, universities teach some higher level vocational ed.

Universities teach vocational education?

Yes, just ask any student attending a university or four-year college why she is there. The answer invariably is to either “get a job” or “become a botanist, teacher, computer analyst, engineer, poet or some other work-related professional. Even a philosophy or art major is taking the courses to become something – a professor or an artist.

Our students are not at college to “learn” but to get a job and earn. This is not new. The first university, Harvard, was started to teach young men to get a job as ministers. That was their vocational goal. Harvard is still a vocational school but one for future professionals like all other universities.

Students view college education as training for a job. And they are right for all courses except some required courses. The courses in their major all point toward becoming qualified to become something, to get a job in a field. If required courses were not required, students would not take them unless they somehow worked into their career goals. The required courses are an attempt on the part of the institution and faculty to broaden the curriculum and the students but they are just add-ons to a vocational curriculum.

Now, if this argument is not making faculty spitting in rage by now I would be surprised. For the most part, they refuse to see the vocational orientation of what they do. They see themselves as teaching in an institution devoted to learning not jobs. The very idea that a college has vocational bases is wrong and pure heresy to them. They persist in believing students are there to learn and broaden their intellects.  The majority of faculty refuse to see going to college as a means to an end even though they all went to college to get a job as a faculty member in a major field to teach others how to become a professional and get a job. It is the majority, quite often those in softer fields like literature, the social sciences and other required area courses that are most adamant about the university not being job-related.

A very close friend of mine taught classical literature at a graduate program at a university. He would invariably get quite angry when I would bring up the subject of higher ed being vocational. “I don’t teach students so they can get jobs. I teach them to expand their minds” he would say even as he trained graduate students for teaching jobs. He expanded their minds so they could become intellectually qualified to get a job. And the students knew this. Any course they took that was not directly related to that job they wanted was considered worthless and if at all possible, avoided. For example, when the teaching associates at the university I attended for grad school were required to take a course in practical classroom pedagogy to teach, they rebelled as believing this course was a waste of their time.

As a result of these differing views of the very nature and role of the college it can be seen that faculty and students go to two different schools together.  One is a professional training intuition and the other is an academy of learning. Fortunately, the two colleges do come together for the most part in the classroom when the course is within the student’s major. The student is there to be trained and the teacher is there to train them through teaching them and having them learn the material. The students learn the material so they can apply it in their vocational area. The faculty member gets to teach and expand the students’’  knowledge which can make him happy.
It is in the required courses where the two college situation is a significant problem. Students do not see them as leading directly to their vocational goal while the faculty see the courses as intellectually enriching and valuable in their own right. As a result, students rebel against the required courses and that rebellion is too often seen in their not applying themselves very hard to the work of the class. It takes last position behind anything that does relate to the job goals.

This creates real tension and even anger in the faculty who have to believe that what they are teaching is important and cannot accept excuses such as “I had to study for a test in my major so I couldn’t do the homework”.  This is why faculty who teach required courses are most vocal about students “not caring, disengaged, unmotivated, and not college material”. They are teaching at a college in their minds that does not exist in the students’ minds. It is a clear anomie situation.   They see the standards and values breaking down in students and the university and that causes tensions and stress between the faculty and students as well as between faculty and the college itself that let these students who are not prepared or engaged into their classrooms.

They need to understand that there is a real gap between them and their students in how they view and exist in the college. They need to accept that students are there to meet their own goals and get a job. They should understand that anything that does not lead to that goal is considered unimportant and alien to most students.

Yes, there are some who will respond enthusiastically to a required course. They may even be enthused by a literature course for example to become an English major and work to become an English teacher as a result of a required English II course. But then the reality is that the course became part of the student’s vocational goals by defining the goal more clearly and becoming a building block in the goal itself.

So what are we to do about this? First realize that students and faculty are at different universities and need to all be at one. Next, recognize that the student is the one who pays the bills and is the reason for the existence of the college. Without them, there would be no college. Thus, it is for the faculty to move closer to the students’ college and accept the reality that the students are there for a vocational reason and goal. Faculty need to accept that some of the courses they teach will not be seen as fitting into the students’ college and not take umbrage at the students’ indifference to the course.

Moreover, when possible, faculty should make the course fit more closely into the students’ vocational mindset. Make the course materials more relevant when possible. So for example, when I taught composition, I had students write job application letter. I did not assign any literary essays but readings about the world they live in and business-related topics.  
This will not necessarily be possible in all courses. For example, when teaching a world literature course. But if the faculty member recognizes that the students are in the other college, at least the experience may be more predictable and change the expectations of the faculty member to make the experience easier and more satisfying.

Retention important to you? Then get copies of the best selling books The Power of Retention and From Admissions to Graduation by Dr. Neal Raisman today by clicking here.


Monday, October 09, 2017

Requiring Attendance and All the Attending Excuses Against It

For the life of me I do not understand the attitudes and rationale of so many faculty toward student attendance. All I need to do at most every retention study and workshop is review the
institution’s attendance policy with the audience and kaboom, the fight is on. Yes, I did say fight. Most faculty and some administrators immediately disagree with me. They yell out “what do mean we should not have an institutional attendance policy? We then insist that students "learn the most they can by attending every class and learning from you. Don’t you realize that required attendance is a major positive factor in keeping students in college leading to their graduation and institutional success. That required attendance will return a significant percentage increase in retention and revenue? What’s more….”

Every college and university should have a clear, consistent and emphatic attendance policy that states that being in class is so important that students must attend all classes. 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 to learn from in classes, the need for faculty disappears.                                           

Yet every time I raise the topic of requiring attendance, someone is bound to disagree AND speak out. (There are always people who disagree but remain quiet until later when they get animated and assertive among like-thinking people because that’s the academic passive-aggressive way we do things.) And when they disagree in a workshop for instance, they do so vehemently. Example, a week ago I was giving a workshop in retention and customer service at a large community college. I 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 raised her     hand. I saw her and asked her what she wanted to say.

“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” she said as does someone at most every presentation and workshop I have ever given. This statement of course indicates the belief or assessment that students have not yet learned to be responsible so we should teach them that. By allowing them to be irresponsible!

By permitting them not to come to class and learn the material properly we allow them to become intellectually bankrupt on the subject. Then we let them prove their irresponsibility by putting material from class lectures on the exam knowing that if they did not attend class they cannot pass the exam. Sort of like letting someone have a mortgage they can’t possibly pay for and we know it but sell it to them anyhow. I suppose that’s sort of teaching them financial planning by going bankrupt? 

The students in our classes are not yet responsible or even learned enough to make many decisions. That’s why when we assign homework we give a date for it to be handed in. That we can eve be fairly firm on. “It is due on next Tuesday. If it is not in then, I will not accept it without a valid reason.”

Why is it so important to not trust them on turning in homework on time but it is okay to let them  not attend a class in which the homework assignment and material related to it are handed out or have been discussed? Am I the only one who sees a major contradiction here? Why not just trust them to hand it in on time? Or better yet, why not trust them to hand it in at all? Why isn’t homework an optional attendance sort of thing. “Hand it in if you think if you think it’s important? Or if you can pass the class without doing or handing in enrollment, fine?” Contradictions anyone?
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.

The Tinkerbell Theory of Student Maturity 
It is the widespread academic belief in fairies that makes people in colleges believe their students are adults. it. You know, Tinkerbell, the maturity fairy of the Tinkerbell Theory.
The Tinkerbell Theory is most clearly elucidated in the belief colleges have that their students know how to be students. Actually, too many schools have a misguided belief in Peter Pan and fairy dust. They believe that somehow magic occurs on the stage in the local school auditorium at high school graduation. An immature high schooler starts across the stage. And with him or her walks all the attitudes, ways of thinking, and attitudes ingrained over 12 long years. These are the same very characteristics that made the soon-to-be high school graduate have to prove he or she was capable of succeeding in your college. Then, he or she stops and just as the high school principal hands him or her a diploma, a small, invisible maturity fairy flies overhead and sprinkles magic knowledge dust on the graduate. POOF!! You’re 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!

And if for some odd reason the fairy dust did not complete the transformation, the next ten weeks of summer vacation complete the transformation. After all, that freshman is no longer a high schooler. He or she is a freshman at Neverland U and all our students know how to be students. After all, they are here at college.

But this is far from the truth. Peter Pan was fictional and so is the belief that incoming students are college students upon walking on campus. (The Power of Retention: More Customer Service in Higher Education; p. 157)
The Tinkerbell Theory also applies to upperclassmen  Perhaps not as obviously but it does apply to most of them. Simply because they have been attending your college does not make them mature or responsible. And we all know this. We even complain when they act irresponsibly.

For example, do students suddenly shut off their cell phones in class if they are juniors? Not unless they have been taught to do so. Do seniors not text during class? Only if taught they cannot do that in class. When a freshman returns to campus as a sophomore does he or she come to class on time? Even better, if he or she has passed Comp 1(and 2 if you demand it) is the student’s writing now mature and correct? Etc. Etc……. What else is fictional is that we teach them responsibility by letting them choose to be irresponsible; to go to class or not.

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 children to become a religious, 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!!!!!

If It’s Good Enough for Your Kids…. . 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-affiliated university. Your child completed a FAFSA waiver at school (which should be done at every school) so you can 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 her butt in class, not skip classes and go for extra help!”

So if it is good enough and important enough for you to tell your child to go to class, why isn’t it equally good and important for other peoples’ children in your classes to have to attend? That’s when the “ahhhhhh” and “we fell into that” light bulb moment hits. But fear not, the light gets turned off quickly.

And then I respond “Why didn’t you just shrug your shoulders and say something like ‘well I guess that’s her just learning to become responsible?’ Or don’t you want your children to learn responsibility the very hard way you would let other peoples’ children learn responsibility. By dropping or flunking out and getting to work at some minimum wage job? Oh by the way, most every business does not teach responsibility by making showing up for work an option. When workers do not come to work, they learn about looking for another job. Interestingly enough, that is true at the colleges and universities at which we work too.”

Not Enough Time and I’m Not a Disciplinarian Excuses 
Okay but how does taking attendance make someone into any of the above? It doesn’t. It is like teaching itself. It is all in the way you do it. If one gets to know her students, attendance is easy. You can recognize who is or is not in class and 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. Little says connecting and caring like “yes, whatsyourname” or “you in the blue blouse.”

It is easy and quick to simply go through the roll, call out their names and see who responds. That way you can check to see who is here and…Wow! Start to learn their names!!!

One could also assign some student to take the roll or pass the attendance sheet around. That is not as effective of course. Some students will work it out so they can skip and not learn from you. And you will not learn their names since it is a way to not get too acquainted with anyone in the class. And yes, I know you will say you get acquainted to many of the students in class in the process of teaching. Of course, you can’t get acquainted with those who don’t show up. And we all know the pile of research that indicates that a feeling of association with a faculty member is a very important retention and learning factor.

Just Not Enough Time to Take Attendance Roll 
I also get the excuse that there just is not enough time in the class to take attendance every day. The two or three minutes it might take will kill the ability to learn all the material. A way to make sure there is enough time is to just start the class on time. As I investigate retention issues and customer service for universities an colleges, I am always amazed at the high number of classes that simply do not get roiling until at least five minutes have gone by wasted. In many cases, the delay is caused by late students, late faculty members, faculty talking to students at the front of the class rather than office hours or after class or the faculty member and class not knowing how to come to a decorous academic order.

Staring class on time is also good teaching since it reinforces the need for students to be on time. The major reason new employee graduates from college lose jobs is they do not show up on time. So why not emphasize a life lesson by startling the class when it is supposed to start?

Taking or calling attendance is a way to call the class to some sort of order. It can be the signal that the academic world is about to intrude on the more relaxed and disorder of the non-academic world in which people can do as they please without regard for others and a faculty member. Calling the roll also signals that the faculty member is asking for decorum, academic decorum in the classroom. Calling the roll is a well recognized signal to students that a separation from the non-academic to the academic has taken place so get with the appropriate decorum.

Another excuse I hear is that faculty do not want to be made into those who cause students to get into trouble, to report on them. But then if that is a concern why give grades and report them? After all nothing can cause problems more than a low grade.

I Have Nothing to Offer 
A quite prevalent response to required attendance is that this is college, an academic environment in which we are teaching ideas, ways of thinking through specific course material and information to students to prepare them for life. We are trying to instill in them a process of inquiry that can lead to mature decisions later on. Okay. Fair enough but can students learn if they are not in class?

If students can learn as much when they are out of classes as they can from a faculty member in the class, the issue is not attendance at all but the value or lack of value the faculty member brings to the material and learning. If a student can learn the same amount of information or whatever just by reading the books, frankly that faculty member teaching the class is…well…not worth much. Maybe nothing. Maybe less than nothing since he or she is wasting student time and institutional resources.

Realize that 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 worthless piece of the faculty” makes students wonder about other professors. And it does not mater if he or she is a brilliant researcher; not to the student in the class trying to get something of value out of it. 

Anyone who tells students directly or indirectly that attendance to hear and discuss the lectures is not required to pass the course is saying I have nothing of value to offer and should not be teaching.

The Required Courses Paradox
The “this is an academic environment” excuse leads directly to another popular reason why faculty oppose required attendance although I have yet to have anyone argue against required courses. Why do we require some courses? Because if we did not students would not take them. We believe these courses are fundamental to a good education and preparation for life in and after college. We require these courses but do not require students to attend them.

If we assign these courses as so important that all students must take them, we must also assure they are important enough to make students attend them.

Weak Administrators and Legal Ramifications 
The reason why some faculty oppose required attendance is they believe that the administration will not support them. They believe that if they are going to fail a student due to missing too many classes, the student or parent will go to a senior administrator who will tell the professor to work something out. Make it go away.

I have to concur that there are some administrators who would do just that. Often while waving what they claim is customer service. It is people like these that give customer service a bad name. What they say is customer service is not. It is just making the problem go away because I don’t feel like dealing with it or listening to an angry parent or student. Keep Academic Customer Service Principle 11 in mind:

11. The customer is not always right.
That’s why they come to college and take tests.
(If you’d like a copy of the 25 Principles of Good Academic Customer Service just click here and just ask)

Furthermore, these people can get away with asking you to make it go away or figure something out because there isn’t an institutional attendance policy that the weak kneed need to lean on. In the same way they can point to an institutional, state, federal or some other agency policy and tell a student or parent “I’d love to help you but my hands are tied because….” 

This can occur because there isn’t an institutional policy. With a patchwork of individual faculty class policies which hopefully are elucidated in the syllabus, it is much easier for a weak administrator to pass the buck. If one section of a course requires attendance for all lectures except for excused absences; another has no required attendance; and a third lets students miss three meetings, you can see how easy it would be for a weak administrator to manipulate the situation if a student in the no miss section had two unexcused absences and was flunking as a result. Moreover, just think how well some attorney will be able to present the inconsistencies to a jury when some family sues because junior flunked the course due to the two unexcused absences while other students never went to the same course, different section, and passed.

An institutional policy takes away the possible manipulation and even legal action in which a plaintiff could sue not just the school but you individually. It also would not allow an administrator to suggest, ask, imply, persuade a faculty member to possibly consider passing the student against the attendance policy in the section even if other students may have flunked for non-compliance with the attendance policy for the section.That could definitely lead to a lawsuit?

But these are the weak people-pleasing administrators. When I ask the senior administrators at the over 450 colleges and universities I have worked if they would support a faculty member who followed an institutional required attendance policy, every one of them state support for an institutional policy.

So now, why oppose an institutional policy? What is the value of a hodgepodge of non-policies? They do not help students. They open faculty up to disparagement and even legal sanctions. Whereas an institutional policy helps students, promotes learning and keeps faculty out of court.

An institutional attendance policy will increase retention, persistence and graduation rates at a school as much as 18%. That alone is a powerful reason to have such a policy. But it also means that more students will be in the classroom to learn more and that is core to any institutional mission and educational success.

If enrollment management is important, get copies of the best-selling books The Power of Retention and From Admissions to Graduation at The Administrators' Bookshelf.