When classes begin on Monday, some students at Northern Arizona University will have a little extra incentive to roll out of bed for that 8 a.m. calculus class.
The school is installing electronic scanners outside some large lecture halls to track attendance. NAU may be the first American educational institution to try the technology.
"When I started here, I was of the mindset that this is college -- students should decide for themselves whether they should show up or not," says associate professor Brandon Cruickshank, who has taught Chemistry 101 in a cavernous classroom at the university for 15 years. "This is no longer high school."
But over the years, he's seen that attending class does matter. So now he factors class participation into his students' grades. Most of his students are freshmen.
"We do have to say to a lot of those students that it really is important that you do show up to class -- you are not going to do well if you're not there," he says.
Research suggests that missing even one class can result in a lower GPA for first-year students. And a freshman's grades, in particular, are really important, says Karen Pugliesi, NAU's vice provost for academic affairs.
"The stronger a student's grade performance in the first year, the far more likely they are to persist at NAU and graduate," she says.
Efforts To Boost Graduation Rates
Universities across the country are struggling to boost lagging graduation rates. At NAU, only about 30 percent of incoming freshmen will earn a degree in four years. About 3 in every 10 students drop out after the first year. And if something as simple as going to class could help turn that around, Pugliesi thinks it's appropriate to make it a priority.
"There's a lot of compelling things out there, there's a lot of competing choices that a student can make," she says. "We ought to do everything we can to make that choice the most likely."
The university received $85,000 in federal stimulus funds for its new "electronic attendance" pilot project. The school has installed scanners outside 20 large lecture halls -- including Cruickshank's chemistry classroom -- where it's not practical to take roll.
Getting A Green Light, Student Opposition
When students flash their ID cards near a scanner, a light turns green, and they get checked off on an attendance report.
"I don't see why we need to be told what to do anymore," says junior Rachel Brackett.
"I feel like it's a move toward that -- treating us as though we were juveniles."
Brackett has mobilized student opposition to the project. She has launched a Facebook page, gathered 2,000 signatures and organized a rally against the plan. Brackett says part of the college experience is learning to make your own decisions, and living with the consequences.
"I really felt like NAU is not giving students enough initiative," Brackett says. "They coddle us -- I almost feel like -- in a lot of our classes."
She also doesn't like how the school could track where she is in a "Big Brother way." Linda DeAngelo, with the Higher Education Research institute at UCLA, shares those concerns.
"Rather than focusing on, 'Did students go?' -- in other words, 'Did they scan their card?' -- the more important thing to think about is what are they doing in the classroom; are they actively participating?" DeAngelo says.
Universities also have a strong financial incentive to retain their students. It costs about $400 to recruit a single student to a public school and nearly $2,000 to a private college. Every time a student drops out, that process starts all over again.