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Shifting Strategy to Meet Modern Learner Expectations

Students expect a seamless experience when it comes to enrolling and registering for classes. Institutions needs to be able to keep up with these high demands to keep their students. 

Student expectations are changing in this eCommerce world, and institutions are expected to adapt to meet these new demands. This means re-evaluating old processes to make way for new ones that without making any staff or students jump through hoops. In this interview, Casey Bullock discusses the role of the Registrar’s Office as we head into this new normal, how student expectations are evolving and how to create a seamless experience for the modern learner. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is the role of the Registrar’s Office evolving?

Casey Bullock (CB): I’ve often pondered how the Registrar’s Office is evolving and where we need to go. In recent years, the biggest evolution has been in technology. We’ve been able to do more with our database systems than we have in the past. Technology has been able to give us data analytics in a way that allows us to be proactive rather than reactive to students. But getting those resources to move forward can be somewhat difficult. It requires a specific set of skills or talent to do data analysis at that level. What I’ve found is that as my staff has evolved, they’ve become analysts rather than processors because we’ve automated so many things.

Evo: How are student’s expectations starting to shift the way that folks in the Registrar’s Office approach some of their more ingrained or longstanding processes?

CB: Students expect to do everything online. When it comes to applications, students need to be able to do it from home. Students at Weber State University are nontraditional. They have families, work responsibilities, and when we require them to come to campus for some type of transaction, it’s really frustrating for them.

Students expect higher education to provide the same seamless transaction they get with online banking. They want the technology to be where they are and accomplish what they need it to do. They don’t have the time to go somewhere to talk to someone. 

Evo: Do you think students today are willing to jump through the same hoops that traditional Higher Ed has structured for them?

CB: I’ve had to pull student athletes out of practice to help them change their major. We had to physically go to the department. Netflix and Amazon are setting the next student expectations. Their algorithms are set up to recommend the next best show to watch based on their interests. We can do that in higher education. We can become more of an advisor to students who aren’t sure what classes they want to take. It becomes an interaction rather than a process. 

We often require students to know the structure of our campus or organization to get things accomplished. For any student, knowing that structure is difficult even if you’re familiar with it. Faculty have a hard time knowing the full structure of campus. Students don’t want to jump through the multiple hoops they’ve traditionally had to jump through. Higher education needs to evolve from those hoops and have the technology in place to help a student navigate their degree path.

Evo: How does the student’s experience engaging with the Registrar’s Office impact their perception of the institution, and by extension, their likelihood to persist through a credential?

CB: I’ve heard stories about the history of the Registrar’s Office where students came down to the gym and fill out cards to register for classes. If you were at the front of the line, you had a better chance of getting into a class before it was full. Now, in an online format, students essentially have to figure out the classes they need to take. That becomes part of the challenge—the student is now self-advising. 

As students interact with the Registrar’s Office, it’s not face-to-face anymore. Instead, they’re interacting with us through our computer systems. If our computer systems aren’t designed intuitively or aren’t user-friendly, it reflects on the campus. 

Evo: Do the traditional processes of the Registrar’s Office connect to the expectations students have for a seamless experience?

CB: I don’t think traditional processes of the Registrar’s Office connect to the expectations today’s student have. If these processes are manual, students won’t understand them. So, we’ve moved into this more modern online area. We’re using database systems to accomplish the work we’ve done. But there’s still some antiquated processes within the Registrar’s Office that we need to modernize.

Transfer students comprise one of the more difficult groups to gain enough momentum into higher education to get a bachelor’s degree. Part of that challenge is the advising piece, and that comes down to the Registrar’s Office. How fast are we getting the transfer work one? That becomes a challenge since it can become manual. I have evaluators entering in courses by hand, then articulating them. If we don’t have the articulation, we’re sending them off to the department.

Now, we have become faster over the years. It used to take six months to get work done. Imagine registering for classes and not knowing what has transferred is really frustrating. We’ve narrowed it down to a five-day time, from when we receive a transcript to have it fully articulated. But it took technology to do that, and it’s still somewhat of a manual process. But students expect that process to be instant. They don’t understand what goes into it. 

It’s the same thing with faculty when it comes to curriculum. Our curriculum goes through an approval process that, depending on the institution, can take up to a year. It’s not about updating the catalog, it has to go through multiple committees. So, we’ve been able to improve these processes with automation. 

Evo: What impact does modernizing the Registrar’s Office have on staff time and efficiency when those technology solutions aren’t in place?

CB: We automated graduation. I’ll graduate 80% of my graduation class in one night. We’ve been able to accomplish an incredible feat. But the fear was that people’s jobs would get automated—and that’s not true. What it does change is our ability to service the student.

Instead of it being a manual transaction, the graduation office has moved into a more proactive realm. They’re looking at how can we be more proactive in identifying the students who are about to graduate and helping them apply for it. For those who’ve applied but are having issues, how do we get those issues resolved before the end of the term? We’ve shifted from processing graduation to managing graduation and helping students through that process. The roles changed, and we’re now able to walk them through it.

Evo: How open are staff to delivering that modernized experience when it’s creating more time pressures and more work for folks in the office?

CB: We’ve had to change our paradigm of how the Registrar’s Office works. We had to get out of what Registrar’s Offices were, into what it could be. When a student comes to our office, we want them to understand how to use it. We try to go beyond registering them ourselves and actually teach them how to do it to ensure their classes meet their lifestyle. 

Students are now being equipped with knowledge. Our purpose has changed to be far more service-oriented, geared toward training and coaching. 

We have a motto, “Look them up.” If a student comes to ask us a question, we want to look them up in our system and then see if we can identify any other issues they have and give them the information they need. We also train them on how to use our systems and what to do.

It’s about creating a self-service environment. Even though it’s a little more work right at the start, it’s going to create a more effective and efficient process in the long term. Initial work is required to set up that delegation with databases and online pools. But it does take that work up front to anticipate the student’s needs and wants to properly do our job. 

Evo: What are some first steps that registrars can take to move toward this more student-centric future for the profession?

CB: To become more student-centric, you first have to look at your structure. How many processes does a student have to physically come to your office once complete? Then, how many of these processes can be moved into an online format? It’s about looking at how we can develop a better structure for the campus. 

Next would be to look at staff and see where they need additional training or help to get them up to speed on where you’re heading as an office. How do you provide them with the support to explore those areas and try some of those things? Training and human resources become very important to campus success and office success. We’re equipping them for the future rather than just telling them get the job done.

I would then look at it from a political standpoint. We’re a community, and a community needs collaboration. A frustration that happens on campus needs to come back to my office, so we can deal with it. It’s about providing better tools for departments to be as proactive as the Registrar’s Office. There’s somewhat of a trickledown effect with our proactivity. 

Lastly is culture. How do we create a culture around innovation and productivity to help students move through the institution? Is the culture in place for students to know the institution and accomplish what they need? Sometimes we expect students to know everything about the campus and where to go, and oftentimes, they have no idea where to start. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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