Published on 2016/05/09
The EvoLLLution | Registrarial Services for Student Success
The registrar’s office is central to the operations of many universities and typically serves as a front line to respond to the needs of learners, which means empathy and high-touch support must be prioritized.

The Office of the Registrar is a perfect example to highlight the importance of a “high-touch/high-tech” approach, where some of the more rote tasks are automated to allow staff to focus on the really high-value work that directly impacts the experience of students.

The Dual Roles of the Registrar’s Office

The Mandate of the Office of the Registrar (OR) is to recruit and admit the best students, support students’ academic success, ensure smooth transitions with enrollment in courses and program each year, and facilitate student progress from first year through to graduation in a timely manner. Sounds fairly straight forward, doesn’t it? It’s just performing administrative activities that support the student’s academic career, delivered through bureaucracy and logistics, then measured by data and record keeping, and voila, we end up with graduates!

It’s not that easy. Anyone who works in a registrar’s office and is actively involved with the responsibility of Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) knows how difficult it can to balance between “these are the policies and you have to follow them in order to meet the requirements for graduation” with “here’s how we help when you are an exception to the rules.” This is not a simple matter of developing and implementing recruitment and retention strategies. This is balancing between consistent application of university policies and being empathetic to individual students who may be dealing with circumstances beyond their control.

While our academic colleagues focus on delivering an exceptional educational experience, we administrators help students follow policy and meet their goals. We must manage student records with the utmost care for accuracy, confidentiality and timeliness, by documenting student transactions and interactions.

On the one hand, we are guardians of the integrity of the degree as well as academic records and our work helps ensure that the value of the degree is maintained. On the other hand, we know that students face unpredictable circumstances that may affect their ability to be successful, be they one-off or on-going situations and need to find resources or accommodations to help them. These can be health-related matters, financial concerns, or family-related issues—all of which can create barriers for students to perform at their best in a rigorous academic environment. Somehow, we have to balance these two (almost conflicting) roles.

Streamlining to Maximize Impact on Student Success

On a campus of nearly 14,000 undergraduate students, the Office of the Registrar last year recorded approximately 54,000 student walk-in visits to the Office of the Registrar with 11,000 of them being academic advising appointments and 6,000 being financial aid advising sessions. We prepared 80,000 individual examinations and more than 4,000 petitions. All these students interacted with our office and we had to both apply policy as well as provide service. Student response to our actions or communications range from gratitude (when students get what they want) and relief (when they learned about options after a bad situation) to confusion (when they discover they are not where they should be) and anger (when the answer is not what they want).

The Student Success team (primarily the front-facing people from the Office of the Registrar) provides academic advising, financial aid advising, as well as course enrollment services. Our advisors and frontline staff actively interact with students, helping them find information, understand policy, meet deadlines, untangle class schedules, add/drop courses, navigate government loans, petition for exceptions to the rules, reset passwords and develop study plans to graduate in a timely manner.

Traditionally, registrarial offices are very paper-centric. You can usually find documents on everyone’s desk, forms to fill out for any transaction and filing cabinets lining the walls from one end of the room to the other. At UTM, the Office of the Registrar has shifted to a primarily paperless environment so that most student transactions happen online, freeing up our face-to-face student interactions to be more focused on individualized support. Using technology, leveraging the Internet, and having a very student-centered culture, the UTM Office of the Registrar strives to make our services accessible and student-friendly. Streamlining more common transactions allows us to better focus on unique situations or complex cases when they arise. And they do arise!

Cool Tools

Online Advising for New Students—With only a 30-percent participation rate for our in-person New Student Group Advising, surveys indicated students were finding it challenging to attend in-person sessions. As a result, Academic Advisors developed an online “course” for newly admitted students, covering all the important academic and financial information new students need to prepare for their first year at UTM, e.g. degree requirements, choosing courses, student life, fees, and financial planning. Each module included Prezi presentations followed by a quiz. We tracked the logins. Students who completed all sections were entered in a draw to win an iPad. 83 percent of the 4073 invited first-year students accessed the site. By putting content online in an interactive manner, a much higher percentage of students accessed key information prior to starting their studies in the fall. The goal was for students to avoid long lineups in September at the Office of the Registrar for information they could easily find ahead of time.

eNotes – In 2003, the registrar moved the tracking of all student transactions in the OR to an online system. This allowed the advisors and frontline staff to coordinate services for students, preventing the need for a student to reiterate requests to various staff members. In conjunction with the other online student registration systems, this online system puts students and staff on the same page as they come to a common understanding of where the student is, where the student wants to go and what the student needs. The eNote system helps staff better serve students by putting relevant student information at our fingertips rather than having to dig through paper documents. This speeds up our advising sessions significantly and allows our academic advisors to advise more students more comprehensively.

Student Referral Program – As at any large institution with a variety of student services offered by different departments and units, UTM students found themselves bounced around and confused by who does what. Often the onus was on the student to remember what was discussed and what had to be answered by another office. From time to time, students took advantage of the situation, declaring that one office said this new office could do something for the student that clearly could not be done. The UTM Office of the Registrar is implementing an internal electronic referral program that will facilitate clear and direct communication between various academic and student services departments. This tool allows staff to create a brief record of student interaction as well as outline the purpose of a referral to be provided to both the referral recipient and the student, putting all involved on the same page. This centralized referral system provides an avenue for staff to create referrals that may require a more detailed explanation or clarification. A record of the pending and completed referrals is kept in the eNotes system.

Technology Isn’t Enough: The Importance of Empathy

Any time human beings are funneled through processes in large numbers, facilitated by automated systems and being recorded by massive databases, students may need additional support to navigate things. It is easy to focus on policy, processes and procedures. However, the risks are that we then rely on those systems rather than respond with empathy.

Recent headlines screamed “UK university refuses grieving student to delay her exams after her father died because she could not prove he was dead” where a student received eight automated rejection emails for each of the eight exams she asked to defer. She submitted these requests as she needed to deal with the death of her father, who died in another country, but was unable to provide original official documentation as stipulated by the university.

Seeing these headlines puts into focus why we streamline what we can, but remain vigilant in providing appropriately individualized services to students when they are in need. It is not difficult to see how something like this could happen when systems are automated and set up to process original official documents (not always readily accessible in some parts of the world). While we too have highly automated processes, our senior leadership encourages our staff to have compassion and a creative, solutions-based approach.

Our team strives to take this balanced approach: constantly building on our technological tools to streamline processes and automate the application of policies to student records but keeping in mind that students are people who may need the human touch when they are going through challenges.

The Office of the Registrar at the University of Toronto Mississauga has a “high-touch/high-tech” approach. We strive to automate rote transactions, making them more accessible to students for self-service to allow staff to focus on the really high-value work that directly impacts the experience of students.

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