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Transitioning the Registrar’s Office to the New Era

The registrar’s office is undergoing a huge period of transition. With decreasing staff numbers and major updates to technologies and processes, the registrar’s office will need to focus on supporting the whole individual and utilizing data to meet their needs.

As the roles within the registrar’s office shift and grow, responsibilities are also changing. This means institutional strategies need to be reassessed to ensure the institution is aligned with industry demands and trends. In this interview, Tom Nault discusses the evolution of the registrar’s office over the past decade, the challenges that have developed and the best ways to tackle them.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How would you describe the registrar’s office current landscape right now and how it’s evolved over the past decade? 

Tom Nault (TN): The registrar’s office is in a period of transition for a number of reasons. We have staff turnover at much higher levels than usual as part of the Great Resignation. A lot of time is being spent on staff recruitment and training. Further, staff in the registrar’s office tended to stay in the office for a long time, maybe in different roles, but it was not uncommon for a staff member to work their full career in the office. Today, we are seeing that staff are more likely to move around within the institution or move to a different institution. Having said that, I don’t think this trend is unique to the registrar’s office or to higher education. The nature of work has changed across all industries, and it is much more common for staff to have several careers throughout their working life.

The high levels of staff transition have caused some concerns but also presented opportunities. One of the largest concerns has been the loss of institutional knowledge; when you lose a staff member with thirty years of experience, tacit knowledge is lost as well. That knowledge is built up over time and cannot be easily documented. Given the cyclical nature of work in the registrar’s office, it is not always apparent that you are missing this knowledge until a problem comes up that a previous staff member would have known exactly how to handle. On the flip side, having new staff come on board allows for new eyes to examine business processes and question why we are doing something a certain way. For example, maybe some existing steps are redundant, or maybe a different technology is better suited to the task.

The other big change I have noticed is that the registrar’s office is moving away from being the office of “NO” to the office of “YES.” Or maybe the office of “Let’s work together to find a solution,” although that doesn’t have quite the same ring. Traditionally, the registrar and the registrar’s office have been seen as responsible for maintaining the institution’s academic standards enforcing Senate-approved academic policies, sometimes without considering the impact that has on our learners. Enforcing rules and maintaining academic standards will always be part of the registrar’s role. However, registrars are partnering now more than ever with colleagues across campus to support student success and persistence. That may occur through reviewing policies and making them more student friendly, finding ways to support students in crisis, communicating more clearly and concisely, and making the registration process more user friendly.

The registrar’s office is also undergoing technological changes. Ten years ago, most institutions used a monolithic student information system that ran all the key business processes and housed all student academic information. Most institutions are still using that monolithic SIS but also integrating a number of other products into it. These products are used for many reasons to meet demands, including to provide more modern and intuitive user interfaces, leverage data from the SIS to support decision-making and provide services that an SIS just can’t provide.

Evo: What are some traditional strategies to engage students that don’t work for today’s modern learners?

TN: Student expectations around communication have changed. Traditionally, institutions have made tons of information available on their website and expect students to comb through it and find what is relevant to them. Institutions have often used (and abused) email to the point that students tune out the emails due to the sheer volume they receive. A few institutions I have worked at have audited the number of emails students receive, and in some cases, it averaged out to over 100 emails a week throughout a semester, ranging from information that is important for all students to know to something that a small group of students may like to know. And institutions wonder why students ignore their email! 

Students expect to receive information that is important to them in a timely manner. When we have taken efforts to reduce the number of email communications and focus on important and timely information, we have seen very positive engagement. This means that students will read emails but only read what is important to them and block out the noise.

Another key change is meeting students where they’re at by better understanding how they find and use various sources of information. We invest a lot more time and energy in engaging students on social media. 

Students use each social media platform differently. Our Facebook posts promote upcoming activities on campus and opportunities for students to feel connected to the university community, while our use of Instagram showcases ongoing supports and resources, helpfully guiding students through academic pursuits, affordability concerns, personal safety and wellbeing.

Evo: What issues is the registrar’s office currently facing? 

TN: As I mentioned, staffing and technology are two of the issues. A few others include equity, diversity and inclusion, decolonization and reconciliation, and data. Interestingly, all these issues are intertwined in some way. But by no means is this an exhaustive list.

Equity, diversity and inclusion means ensuring that the students attending our institution reflect our communities and that students who have been marginalized or otherwise excluded from higher education have the chance to participate and be successful according to their own definitions of success. In some cases, attendance may be the student’s goal, not credential completion. Similarly, registrar staff should reflect the community the institution works in, and particular attention should be paid to placing diverse people in leadership roles. 

In Canada, many institutions have made commitments to decolonization and reconciliation based on the calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A registrar’s office needs to consider how to support Indigenous student enrollment and how their readiness for postsecondary education may be measured in ways other than grades or standardized test scores. We also need to look critically at the processes our offices undertake and how they may exclude or otherwise harm Indigenous Peoples. For instance, do we allow Indigenous Peoples to use their traditional or gifted name in our systems? Do the parchments that our institutions issue reinforce colonial concepts, or do they reflect and respect the Indigenous lands on which we operate?

That brings us to data. Both above topics needs to be informed by data. Canadian institutions have only recently started collecting more detailed demographic data on their students, where this has been more common in American Institutions. As Canadian institutions move into the collecting more detailed and sensitive demographic data, we will need to focus on the reasons why we want to collect these data and be transparent with students about how we will use them.

The other issue with data is that institutions have not been great about using the data they possess to inform decision-making. Frequently data is used to report on a specific item, such as how many students are enrolled or how many courses they are taking, but not as frequently to predict outcomes, such as which students are primed to persist and what interventions can take place to increase student persistence. With the registrar’s office being the custodian of student information, there is significant potential to make better use of the data we have.

Evo: What are some best practices for registrars to help overcome these issues and improve staff efficiency? 

TN: There has been a lot of work done at various institutions to address these issues. So, my first piece of advice is to reach out to peers and see how they worked on these challenges. To get more specific, here are my thoughts on some of the issues I have raised.

Staffing: Look to professional associations like AACRAO to see what they have developed. AACRAO has developed a competency framework that can be very helpful in developing positions with an eye to laddering. This will help staff grow within our office, so they don’t need to leave to gain experience or earn promotions. Be intentional about developing staff and providing mentorship. Be sure to encourage individuals who may be ready for a new challenge but may not believe it yet.

Technology: We all know that institutional budgets cannot support acquiring every new piece of technology, so it is really important to understand what problem you are trying to solve and how software can help solve it. Another key is focusing on how you will implement the software effectively. Acquiring the software is one thing, but will the resources be made available to maintain the software and train new users? Also, never underestimate resistance to change and how intended a system’s intended users may want to retain the old software or way of doing business, even if it’s inefficient and the users complain about it. Essentially, this boils down to having strong project and change management. 

Data: There are a lot of best practices published on data governance and management, so these serve as good starting points. From my experience, it is important you understand the data that you have and how it is generated. Never be afraid to question data if they do not look right. Just because they are in a system does not mean they are right. This does not mean that you can ignore data when they do not suit your purpose, but if something does not look right, investigate to see if your concerns are valid. Finally, I would say that so much of the data under the registrar’s control are about people. In many ways, they represent people’s hopes and dreams, so we need to treat the data with the respect that they deserve. There is an ethical requirement to use available data available for the purposes they were collected for and to protect them from people who should not have access to it.

Decolonization and reconciliation: Work in this area may feel uncomfortable, and that is alright. It can be hard to challenge the assumptions you hold or that are embedded with society. When working with Indigenous Peoples and communities, remember that they should be involved in any discussion or action that will impact them. This requires working in true partnership with Indigenous communities, understanding their needs and how your institution can help meet those needs. Be careful not to assume you know what is best for Indigenous communities.

Evo: What are some enrollment and retention trends you expect to see over the next five years?

TN: The pandemic will shape a lot of what we will see over the next five years in terms of enrollment. We will continue to see the expansion of online learning due to student demand. Students at our institution are seeking online learning to make their lives easier. They do not want to take public transit for one to two hours each way to take a course or two. They would rather be able to take the course at home and use the time they have been spent in transit studying or working to support their educational costs. Though online education is here to stay, we may see the pendulum swing back to more on-campus or hybrid learning at some point. I think students will start to realize that postsecondary is about more than taking classes, and the experience you have on campus cannot yet be easily recreated in an online environment.

We will see more microcredentials offered, and micro-credentials will ladder into more traditional credentials such as degrees. In a way, this will make education more modular and accessible. Some students may only want knowledge in a very specific area, and the microcredential may be the place to get this knowledge. Other students may want to earn a degree, but the thought of taking four or more years to earn that degree sounds daunting.

Given the changes in the economy and skills required to succeed, we are likely to see more mature learners attending postsecondary education, either as a first-time attendee or as somebody returning to upskill or reskill. Institutions will therefore need to consider how their offerings can support nontraditional students, and this may mean more online learning or more offerings on evenings and weekends.

There will also be an increased focus on student retention. Give the enrollment challenges forecast in both Canada and the U.S., it will become even more important to retain students at your institution. This will likely require new strategies and focusing holistically on the student to support their success.