Jeff-Whorley2The topic of success in college came up one evening about four years ago when a professor friend and I were talking about the fact that barely over half of the freshmen who begin at four-year colleges or universities in the U.S. graduate within six years. Even though I’ve been involved in higher education in one way or another for over two decades, this regularly reported six-year graduation rate has always seemed hard to believe.

It was no different when I thought about it again that night — barely over half of entering freshmen, 56 percent to be exact, graduate in six years. Hard to believe.

Soon, the conversation shifted to some of the families we knew with college-aged or 20-something sons or daughters. We realized just how many students we knew personally who had started college in the last five to ten years. Some had graduated and were starting careers or in graduate programs. But for one reason or another, about half of them didn’t make it to the graduation finish line in four years. Of the ones who left college, some were back home, working retail or other hourly jobs and regrouping for a second go at higher education. Some were taking a class or two at the local community college. Others were trying to find a career path without a degree. But in all cases, dropping out of college caused some real trauma in their families.

Thinking about those families led me to a big question for my professor friend. I said it out loud: “Why don’t more students succeed in college?”

My friend thought for a moment and said, “There are lots of reasons — usually it’s a matter of maturity not smarts. Every student is different but typically the ones who don’t succeed get in a cycle of missing classes, doing poorly on assignments, trying to avoid the situation by missing even more classes, and it just spirals down from there. Completely flunking out may take a semester or even two, but the behavior that gets a student in the spiral can happen very quickly.”

Having spent almost two decades of my career trying in one way or another to sort out why and how students succeed or fail in college, I was especially interested in what my friend was saying. I actually grabbed a pen and some paper and started taking detailed notes.

The first thing I wrote —“it just spirals down.”

It sounded like he’d seen the pattern many times.

“So, you teach at a college and you have a daughter in college,” I said. “How does a student, parent of a college student or even the college prevent the bad cycle from happening?”

I scribbled the question as I asked it.

He hesitated again before speaking. “Well, there are probably lots of things that could be different, but one answer is that we could treat all students the way most colleges treat scholarship athletes. They have a four-year graduation rate of over 80 percent.”

I’d seen that stat before as well: an over 80 percent graduation rate in four years for Division I scholarship athletes versus 56 percent within six years for the college student population as a whole. Even though it’s not a 100 percent apples-to-apples comparison, the gap is real and large.

“What do you mean by ‘treat all students’ like scholarship athletes?” I asked.

“Most college athletic departments have a good understanding of where to focus their efforts to maintain a student-athlete’s grades and eligibility,” he said. “If we checked class attendance for all students the same way most coaches or athletic departments monitor attendance for student-athletes, I think we’d see graduation rates for all students rise to above 80 percent.”

Class attendance?

“So you think class attendance is that important?” I was a little surprised.

The professor smiled and said, “Ask any college professor you know how many students who come to every class end up flunking his or her course. A student who shows up to every class almost always will pass. And most students who show up all the time end up making good grades.”

“That ‘downward spiral’ I described, well, it just doesn’t happen if a student is coming to every class,” he said. “It sounds like an oversimplification but from what I’ve seen, it is true.”

I kept writing because somewhere in what he was saying there was a concept that I’d never really considered before — athletic departments might already have a formula for helping more students succeed in college.

“And scholarship athletes come to class more than other students?” I asked.

“They do for my classes and for the other professors I know,” he said.

“What happens if they aren’t there?” I asked.

He laughed. “Most of the time, someone goes to the dorm room or apartment and helps him or her get to class. Once that happens a time or two, the athlete gets it and normally doesn’t miss any more classes other than the ones excused for athletic events.”

I paused to think about everything he was saying and the fact that not every college student has an entire athletic department looking over their shoulder, including his own daughter.

“But your daughter isn’t a scholarship athlete,” I said. “So, who is her coach, making sure she doesn’t get off track?” Mostly joking, I added, “Is it you?”

He smiled and said, “It sure is.”

Before I went to bed that night, I added a few more pages of notes.

Our conversation had me thinking that there were dots to be connected. The college athletic department model for student success? Class attendance as a critical component of student success? Parent as coach?

The next day I plunged into the Internet with dozens of search terms: Skipping class. Class attendance and college student success. Class attendance and college grades. Skipping class and graduation rates. I love skipping college classes. And so on.

I don’t remember what search term I was using when I found what I consider a real research treasure, “Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship of Class Attendance with Grades and Student Characteristics.” What I do remember is reading the paper’s summary paragraph:

Class attendance appears to be a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of college grades — including SAT scores, HSGPA, studying skills, and the amount of time spent studying. Indeed, the relationship is so strong as to suggest that dramatic improvements in average grades (and failure rates) could be achieved by efforts to increase class attendance rates among college students. Marcus Credé, Sylvia G. Roch and Urszula M. Kieszczynka, “Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship of Class Attendance with Grades and Student Characteristics,” Review of Educational Research, 2010

I read the summary one more time, then stood over my laptop and said, “That’s it!”

“A better predictor than any other known predictor.” Wow.

A formula of sorts came to me, and I scribbled it on a blank piece of paper.

Better Class Attendance = Better Grades = Improved Chance of Graduation.

It didn’t strike me as anything original. I supposed many athletic departments were already operating from that basic premise, and serious researchers obviously understood it. But, with 44 percent of America’s freshmen not graduating within six years, the focus on student retention, persistence and progress toward graduation was starting to grow even four years ago. It was obvious that some new approach to student success, including improving class attendance, might make a difference.

From that moment, I started thinking about how students, parents and institutions might put my professor friend’s observations and the researchers’ conclusions to best use.

About Jeff Whorley

John F. Whorley, Jr. (Jeff) is Founder and CEO at Core Principle. Jeff is a former executive vice president at Sallie Mae, president of Student Aid Services, and senior vice president at USA Group.