Modernizing the Registrar Office to be More Student-Centric
Along with many departments of the institution, the Registrar’s Office has been executing on traditional processes and procedures for decades. But modern learner demands require more engagement and support as they come in and out of the institution throughout their lifelong learning journey. This requires a change. In this interview, Ray Darling discusses how the role of the Registrar’s Office has evolved, how they’re breaking from the traditional structure to become more student-centric.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is the role of the Registrar’s Office evolving along with them?
Ray Darling (RD): I’ve been a registrar for 15 years at three different universities: the University of Guelph, University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. So, I’ve seen quite a bit of change in this role over the years. I was a student at the University Guelph in 1986. Back then, students would say that one of the main reasons for going to university was personal development or developing a world view. Now, the focus is more on employment and income. It’s more of a utilitarian approach to education; what can I get out of this?
It also costs a lot more to go to university these days, so students (and their parents) want to see a return on their investment. Another part of it is the massification of university, too. When I was a student in ’86, roughly about 25 or 30% of the population had degrees or higher education credentials. I believe it’s well over 50% now. So back when I was a student, oftentimes it was wealthier people who went to university or college to get a liberal arts education, or people like me who were on scholarship or recruited to play varsity sports. It was an experience, and not as many people were worried about jobs at the other end.
Oftentimes, students have a different mindset now. Recently, a colleague mentioned this in a meeting; he said he believes students enroll in higher ed to get the credential and make connections for the jobs afterwards instead of learning. He was talking about attendance in his classes slipping off, and he was a little discouraged to find that students were just there to get the credit; their degree.
We have seen a change as well in Registrar’s Office, just in terms of complaints and feedback from parents, there is more a consumer mindset. I say to my team, “Our students are our customers.” I know it’s not always in vogue to call students customers, but that’s really what they are. It’s a different relationship than the one you have with your cable company or your cell phone provider. But they are customers, especially for units like ours. Of course, students are not customers in the classroom; they are not paying to get an A or a credit. But outside of the classroom, we are customer-focused. We do have to maintain the academic integrity of the institution, set up policies and enforce them, but we also need to provide a great student experience.
Evo: How does that mentality impact the adherence to process that the Registrar’s Office is kind of known for?
RD: Everything is moving toward self-service for students, so the focus these days is of one-stops. This is sort of an inverted pyramid way of doing things; where things are self-service, and 24/7. That’s what students are used to, especially with transactional services. And then the next level down is using phones, email, chats and artificial intelligence. But there’s always going to be a need, in my opinion, for some face-to-face Interactions. People want to come in and speak to somebody. So ideally, they can go to one location and get help from people.
We’re doing a major system refresh right now, and one of the main goals is to improve the student experience, to make it more like what they’re used to with other service providers and make it possible for them to register for their courses on their phones, put courses into a shopping basket, work out a schedule, then hit submit.
Evo: How does the student’s experience with the Registrar’s Office impact their perception of the institution and their likelihood to persist?
RD: One way is certainly through Financial Aid, which also falls under the domain of my office. We want to ensure every qualified student can get a university education. So, there’s certainly been an evolution to needs-based awards to support those students. That was the whole focus of first-generation students—we knew that if their parents didn’t go to school, many of them assumed they couldn’t afford it, when that really isn’t the case. If students believe that they can do it, that they’ll be supported financially through our office, that’s obviously going to help with persistence, retention and graduation rates.
Like many universities, U of G was having some real issues with student mental health. So, we had to figure out what about our policies and procedures were causing this stress for students or contributing to their mental health issues. Some things we’ve done over the last few years is pushing back the drop deadline, which used to be the 40th class day. We changed it to the 60th class day, the last day of classes. By then, students have received lots of feedback and know how they’re doing in the class.
Everything needs to be balanced with academic integrity, but I believe we’re doing a good job in that area, and a lot of these policies and processes go through my office. We’re also looking to improve other things, like how much of a grade should be returned to a student by a certain point in the semester, and how much can a final exam be worth from a student stress point of view.
Evo: How difficult is it to create that kind of a culture change in an office so defined by tradition and process?
RD: Registrars have been around for 500 years—one of the oldest university positions. We are definitely perceived as gatekeepers and number counters. But I have also seen a trend of increasing empathy and a willingness to understand the impacts of our policies and procedures on student mental health and success.
For example, I am having someone come in and provide training and education for myself and my managers on equity, diversity and inclusion–how can we hire more, to be more representative of the community, what we can do to attract students from BIPOC groups that are traditionally underrepresented, how we can modify our services to keep their well-being in mind, etc.
Evo: How do you modernize the role of a Registrar’s Office while maintaining that adherence to the structures, policies and the procedures in place, especially when it comes to how staff time and effort are leveraged?
RD: Creating the one-stop is a great example. Right now, I have admissions, student finance, enrollment services, records and scheduling under me, so we’re creating a one-stop service, which we’ll be taking the frontline people from Student Finance, Records and Admissions and putting them into a unit. We’re currently renovating our office to suit this model of service delivery, getting rid of cubicle “silos”. When we go back, there’ll be a frontline, which is student-focused and service-focused. The second line will be tier-two people, who go out to help the frontline. And then the back of the office will be tier-three or more back-office people. They won’t be in their distinct units anymore. They’re now going to be sitting more in an orientation that focuses on servicing students.
My team is on board. I know some of them have questions and concerns, especially frontline staff, wondering whether they will they be able to do it. But they know they need to be knowledgeable about everything our office does; they need to be great customer service people. Customer service orientation will be a big part of training. So, we’re definitely breaking down our traditional structures and building them back up with a focus on student support and success.
Evo: What are some first steps that registrars can really start to take to enact or execute this vision of a more student-centric or sustainable future for the Registrar’s Office?
RD: The first one, which should be obvious most people, is to talk to your students. Get feedback from them. As a registrar, I’ve always met with the student government at the university where I was working. We would meet once a month and have a dialogue. I say, “Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?” They come back with questions. It’s important to survey students about your service and have students on your committees.
There was a commercial several years back about an ad campaign, featuring all these old guys sitting around trying to think of how they could do cool marketing about basketball shoes to young people. And I was thinking, yeah, that pretty much sums it up the mistakes people make. How are they all going to know what 17-year-olds want or sixteen-year-olds want in terms of marketing if they don’t speak to them?
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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