by Larry MacPhee
Amidst the flurry of bad press over SB 1070 (.pdf) and the resulting boycott of Arizona, you might have missed something interesting on page two. NAU made the Chronicle, and Slashdot picked up the story. It has been spun as a privacy and digital rights story, but it’s really something much bigger. It seems there’s a plan in the works here at NAU to use student ID cards with embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to record class attendance. We’ve been using clickers to do this for years. So why are university administrators increasingly interested in mandatory attendance? The answer is complex, but it has a lot to do with a societal shift that is having ripple effects in academia. Michael Wesch says it this way: College is for learning, and learning is for everyone. So college is for everyone. It wasn’t always this way.
A college education used to be something one aspired to, but it certainly wasn’t a necessity. For many students today, going to college no longer feels like a choice. The bachelor’s degree is the modern-day equivalent of the 1950 high school diploma. Students increasingly resent the liberal studies courses that teach “critical thinking” but don’t give them the tangible workplace skills they think they need. Given the number of times a modern worker changes careers, critical thinking, the ability to write, and other versatile competencies are more important than ever, but we haven’t done a good job selling that argument. Many students now see college simply as an expensive and time-consuming obstacle that must be overcome on the path to a good-paying job. Knowledge for its own sake is no longer the primary motivator. As Ronald Reagan once said, echoing the growing public sentiment, “Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?” So while the public is less interested in a classical education, demand for diplomas is at an all-time high. But universities are slow to change and haven’t really adjusted what is taught or how it’s taught. As a result, universities are admitting more students who are unprepared for—and less interested in—acquiring that classical education. Can you see now why mandatory attendance is becoming an issue?
Retention, High Standards, Relevance, and Choice
Administrators want to give students—including those who are unmotivated and unprepared—more opportunities to succeed, which keeps tuition dollars flowing in, so they sometimes focus on reducing the D/F/W (drop, fail, and withdraw) rates. Faculty sometimes see this as pressure to lower standards, so they push back, blaming K-12 for sending them unprepared students, refusing to teach remedial material, and resisting efforts to change the way they teach. Both groups need to realize that lowering standards and refusing to change won’t solve the problem. Instead, courses need to be redesigned to make them more compelling, practical, and relevant. Otherwise, faculty will be forced to deal with a lot more dissatisfied students who will disrupt the classes in which they don’t think they are getting what they paid for, and the perennial conflicts between administrators and faculty will continue to escalate.
Think back to your own education. What was the biggest difference between high school and college? Students acted out or tuned out in high school classes because they were required to be there and didn’t, for any number of reasons, want to be. Classroom management, a life-and-death skill for K-12 teachers, used to be mostly unnecessary for higher ed instructors. In college, students who didn’t want to be there quickly stopped showing up and, until recently, colleges have been mostly ok with that. The old attitude was that “college isn’t for everyone” and “it’s your money.” We are teaching young adults to take responsibility for their choices, the argument goes. A university is a place for free thinking, and if students choose not to attend class, who are we to tell them otherwise? But retention is the new mantra, and mandatory attendance is seen as one way to enforce it.
What will be the effects of mandatory attendance on college classes? On the surface, it seems like a good idea. Numerous studies show a strong positive correlation between attendance and student success. Students need to know that attendance matters and that we’re serious about it. But if we dig a bit deeper, there are several problems. In most studies, student success is only strongly correlated with voluntary attendance. If you make attendance mandatory, the effect is considerably, but not entirely, diminished. Also, we don’t achieve our goal if the students can easily defeat the mandatory attendance system; all a student has to do is give his ID card to a buddy who attends class. So will mandatory attendance actually improve student success? Yes, for a few students on the fence, attending class more often will make the difference between a pass and a fail, and some of our students do need a push in the right direction. But what worries me more about mandatory attendance is a negative unintended consequence. University instructors unaccustomed to unruly and disrespectful students are in for shock. They will be spending more effort on classroom management and it will negatively affect their ability to teach. Effort expended on making the courses more relevant, interesting, and engaging without lowering standards is a far better return on investment. If a course is compelling, students will gladly attend and value the lessons you deliver. Isn’t that better than forcing them to sit through a dull lecture?