Mandatory Attendance Policies are Overbearing and Harmful

College is difficult. An oversimplification? Perhaps, but there’s really no better way to put it. College students are facing a whirlwind of obligations and responsibilities that they may never have faced before, and the pressure to not only succeed but go above and beyond in order to become a competitive member of one’s desired field is enough to make anyone a little stressed. 

Picture this: it’s Thursday night, and you’ve had an unbelievably long week. You mean to go to sleep early for your 8 am the next morning, but the time gets away from you as you’re scrambling to finish an essay that’s due online by midnight. Even once you’ve finished and submitted, you’re far from a sigh of relief — maybe there’s an exam to study for, or you haven’t even gotten a chance to eat dinner yet because you were so busy with work or club meetings. The time ticks away quickly, and before you know it you have only three hours to sleep if you want to wake up in time to shower and make the journey across campus to class. Your alarm goes off, and you can already feel a headache setting in from the lack of sleep. All you want in the world is to rest a bit more, but you can’t. Your 8 am has a mandatory attendance policy. 

Not all classes have mandatory attendance policies — that decision is left to the individual professor — but many do. These policies differ, but they tend to incorporate a certain number of allowed absences, ranging from whatever number the professor decides to possibly only one. During cold season, large portions of the class are often fighting through an illness: coughing and sniffling and generally feeling awful (not to mention spreading germs like wildfire). Unfortunately, many can’t afford to take the hit on their GPA that an absence beyond the allowance might bring, whether it’s in the form of lost participation points or a markdown on the homework assignment due that day, even if it was completed 100% correctly. 

Physical illnesses aren’t the only reason someone might need to miss class but are heavily encouraged not to. Students could have familial obligations: nothing major enough to warrant an excused absence, but an obligation nonetheless. Or sometimes, students might be suffering in a way that is not visible like a cold. In recent years, there has been a push within many schools and institutions in favor of attendance policies that allow for mental health days. “The average age of onset for many mental health conditions is the typical college age range of 18 to 24 years old,” informs Courtney Knowles, who is an executive director of the JED Foundation. A Statista study states that out of the 18 million students enrolled in college in the U.S., three in four report a sense of “overwhelming anxiety” at some point, and 30% report this anxiety taking place in the past two weeks. Large portions of college students live with clinical mental diagnoses, such as anxiety or depression, and the vast majority experience stress to a level that can sometimes be debilitating. Yet, in most situations, these students are forced to attend class at times when doing so could be potentially harmful to their health and wellbeing because the alternative could greatly jeopardize their grade. Because getting that 4.0 comes above everything, right? 

The fact of the matter is that college students are adults. They are entering the stage of their life where they actually get to make decisions for themselves, but mandatory attendance policies take all of the choices away from them. Being in class is important — there are discussions, announcements, and lectures that a student can’t experience if they aren’t present, and consistent absences will obviously be detrimental. However, should it not be up to the student to be responsible for their own academic success and catch up on missed material when need be? After all, we are paying tuition to be here. If a student chooses not to attend class regularly, that is on them, and their grade and overall learning experience will reflect that decision. To force students to attend class at all costs fails to take into account the extenuating circumstances that could cause someone to require an absence, and can even close the door on healthy conversations regarding mental health if students feel they are being punished for the struggles they are dealing with. 

I’ll say it again: college is difficult. Students need to feel that the institutions they attend and the professors they interact with are on their side, and penalization for normal life occurrences only serves to make them feel isolated and dismissed. 

If anyone is struggling with anxiety, depression, or any facet of mental health, some helpful resources can be found at CAPS (for MSU students) or NIMH (for general mental health inquiries including hotlines and further help and treatment). Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and just remember that a number or letter grade doesn’t define your intelligence, aptitude, or worth. You are more than a four-point scale.