Op-ed: Mandatory attendance takes away students’ autonomy

Emma Plante, contributor

“Attendance is mandatory and will be factored into your grade,” says nearly every professor during the first week of classes. Most courses begin the same way: you walk into the first meeting of the semester, a stack of syllabi is passed around the room and the professor outlines policies and expectations. Flipping through the syllabus, you find the breakdown of your final grade, which includes the dreaded participation grade based on attendance. This “attendance is mandatory” sentiment must go, as it decides how students should allocate their time.

College students are autonomous adults, albeit young ones. They are responsible for taking care of themselves and making long-term decisions about their careers and futures. Upon finishing their mandated primary and secondary education, students choose to pay thousands of dollars for their optional higher education. Undergraduate tuition at Northeastern, for example, is $26,210 per semester. Since college students pay for the (optional) opportunity to attend classes, they also pay for their absences. When they decide to skip a class, they are still paying for the ability to attend that class. To deduct points from their grade on top of that is a needless additional punishment. 

For some students, college is the time in their academic career when they develop time management skills as they juggle new responsibilities. They are transitioning and gaining control of themselves, their education and their lives. By mandating class attendance, professors treat college students like they’re still kids who will only attend class with the threat of a lowered grade. This treatment implies professors believe college students cannot behave autonomously in a way that is good for them. Mandatory attendance demeans students while they are figuring out how to use their newfound independence.

Another flaw in requiring attendance is that it fills seats, but not necessarily minds. Students who do not want to be in class but are required to be there will contribute little to the classroom and won’t pay attention. These students can distract others by talking, using their phones and browsing the internet.  A major issue with the premise of mandatory attendance is that it values physical presence with no guarantee of engagement. Forcing students to come to class will not necessarily make them participate or glean anything from the lecture. Students who want to be there in the first place will benefit the most from showing up to class, and suffer the most from the disengagement of their peers.

Factoring attendance into grades can also create a double penalty in which a student’s grade suffers both because they aren’t attending classes and because they don’t understand the material as a result. When they don’t attend a lecture on a certain topic, they won’t be able to complete homework or an assignment as well as they would if they knew what had been taught in class. Logically, if a student gets a poor grade because they don’t understand the material, there’s no need to deduct more points for missed attendance. They’re already paying for their absence with lower test grades. Additionally, if a student can do well without coming to class, why punish them for skipping class and using their time more valuably?

Some argue that due to the relationship between attendance and positive learning outcomes, professors are doing what is best for students by mandating attendance. However, one could also argue that showing up to class shows that students place value in their education, and these students are more likely to put effort into academics than those who don’t. It might not be a direct cause-and-effect situation where attendance leads to better grades. Even if that is what is occurring, it is not the place of the professors to make students attend class for their own good. College students are adults who can make these decisions for themselves. Perhaps a better way of guaranteeing engagement with material would be more in-class assignments and class discussions.

Most students want to make the most of their time here. Each credit costs, on average, about $1,000 at a private, four-year institution such as Northeastern. If students have any sense, they won’t waste that money by skipping class, but they should still be able to choose how to prioritize their schedule. By deducting points and making attendance part of students’ final grade, professors are treating college students as if they can’t be responsible for themselves and their education. Mandatory attendance penalizes students twice over, forces unengaged students to come to class and doesn’t allow students to make autonomous decisions about time management. It is not the place of the professor to tell students how to make the most out of their education; that is something they must learn for themselves. 

Emma Plante is a second-year journalism and political science combined major.