Strict Attendance Policies Do More Harm Than Good

Staff Writer Zane Khiry ’25 argues that participation grades are a more comprehensive and equitable alternative to rigid attendance requirements for encouraging class engagement.

There are a number of professors at Amherst who will dock your grade proportionally to the number of class meetings you miss: be absent twice, and your A becomes an A-; miss class three times, and you’re brought down a whole letter grade. The harm these policies cause disadvantaged students — often forcing them to make the impossible decision between academic success and their own wellbeing — cannot be understated, and faculty must recognize that their strict attendance policies are inequitable. It is time we do away with them in pursuit of a more just and equitable curriculum.

Professors often base these policies on an idealized notion of the college experience: the idea that we students are here, first and foremost, for academics — and, to their credit, many of us are. A large portion of Amherst students come to campus with the economic privilege to be able to solely focus on their schoolwork. They’re motivated, excellent, and relatively unobstructed in their intellectual pursuits. The problem, however, begins when this isn’t the case.

These policies harm the students who don’t have the privilege of engaging in academic life without external constraints: namely, first generation low-income (FLI) students, students with mental illnesses, students with disabilities, and students with other severe health conditions. It is important to note here that these students are still motivated, excellent, and worthy. However, through no fault of their own, they are unable to put as much time and focused energy into academic life as their peers. Strict attendance policies only harm them — as they are made to choose between their grades and their own well-being.

These policies sometimes force FLI students into a predicament in which they have to choose between financial security and academic success. Additionally, students with pressing health concerns are made to sacrifice their wellbeing for the same reason. In both cases, students are prompted to make an impossible choice between caring for themselves and succeeding academically. The undue stress this imposes on disadvantaged students increases inequity, harming the very students the college should be seeking to support the most.

Some faculty might argue that these attendance policies serve an important pedagogical purpose: strengthening class participation. It should be acknowledged, however, that participation grades are much better at achieving this end, as they take into account meaningful contributions to classroom discussions, rather than only the fact of attendance in and of itself. Doubly so, they still incentivize students to show up to class.

While an accommodation does exist for students who need flexibility with attendance, this measure alone does not do enough to support all students who are disadvantaged. Students who are undiagnosed — sometimes due to socioeconomic barriers — while still suffering from severe conditions, are in no way able to be accommodated. This not only poses a threat to their academic success, but to their entire wellbeing, as students are then made to sacrifice their health for their grades. For this group of students, it is then left entirely to the discretion of the professors whether or not their absences should be excused — this gives too much power to individual faculty members, and leaving open the possibility for less understanding professors to penalize them for prioritizing their needs.

Lastly, the faculty’s argument itself belies a contradiction. Even if we were to concede to professors that a sizable portion of students are excellent, motivated, and unobstructed in their academic pursuits — which is undeniably true — we would still run into a problem: for if students here are as excellent and unimpeded as professors seem to believe, they would show up to class anyway. The strict attendance policies would then only serve as an empty formality — one that only ends up hurting students without the luxury of engaging with academic life in an unobstructed manner.

One might argue that doing away with strict attendance policies opens a loophole for unmotivated students to exploit, as they’ll no longer be penalized for their absences. It should be noted, first and foremost, that this reason alone is not a strong enough justification for these policies: progressive changes should not be discounted merely because of the potential presence of a few bad actors. Instead, other, less inequitable policies should be put in place to counteract them — and participation grades serve that very purpose. These grades incentivize students who otherwise may not show up to class to do so, and, moreover, to meaningfully contribute to class discussions. The bottom line is that participation grades do everything these inequitable attendance policies do, and better.

It must be said that many students do not go to college in a vacuum, and it’s time all faculty members come to recognize that fact. The idyllic vision these professors have of an undergraduate experience insulated from intruding obstacles or obligations hurts the students for whom this isn’t the case. This tension between the ideal and the reality of life on a diverse campus is manifest in their strict attendance policies. It’s high time faculty members put an end to these harmful restrictions in pursuit of a more just and equitable curriculum.