According to Friedman, Rodriguez, and McComb, who did a study on 350 undergraduate students on their reasons for attendance and nonattendance in class, they conclude that "males and females, older and younger students, students who live on and off campus, student who do and do not have jobs, students have light and heavy course loads, and students who do and do not pay their own way in school attend classes with equal frequency." The only difference is that students with better academic records attend classes more regularly.
As to the differences in course characteristics, "students attended faculty taught courses less often than GTA [graduate TA] taught classes, larger classes less often than smaller classes, and natural science classes less often than others." However, courses that penalize absences encourage student attendance in any of the above course settings.
The primary reason why students attend class is internal. They feel they have the responsibility to attend class, their interest in the subject matter, and also getting the material first hand rather than from other sources. Another study has also shown that better attendance is associated with higher grades (Wyatt 1992).
In another article (Jensen and Moore 2009), students who attend help sessions are mostly A and B students and virtually no D and F students. Results also show that students get better grades if they attend these help sessions, and they also attend class more often.
The bottom line is that attendance seems to have a correlation with higher grades. The question is do students really want higher grades, or they are just satisfied with a pass? It will be interesting to survey students on what grades do they realistically expect to get given the effort they are willing to put into the course.
Friedman, P., Rodriguez, F., McComb, J. 2001. Why Students Do and Do Not Attend Classes, Myths and Realities. College Teaching. 49:4, p124-133.
Jensen, P., Moore, R. 2009. What Do Help Sessions Accomplish in Introductory Science Courses? Journal of College Science Teaching. May/June 2009. p60-64.
Wyatt, G. 1992. Skipping class: An analysis of absenteeism among first-year college students. Teaching Sociology 20:201-7.