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Five Thoughts on the Future of the Higher Ed Registrar

For higher ed to evolve in a way that will benefit both staff and students, administrators, faculty and staff will have to adapt accordingly.
For higher ed to evolve in a way that will benefit both staff and students, administrators, faculty and staff will have to adapt accordingly.

The registrar’s office is grounded in history and tradition. Our profession persists because we standardize innovative models and principles while holding true to the core tenets of higher education, helping to ensure postsecondary institutions adapt and thrive in new environments.

Over the past few years, however, we’ve been pushed to execute that role in more rapidly evolving circumstances than ever before. We’ve adopted a sense of urgency in finding pathways to helping our institutions adapt and evolve, while ensuring that we adhere to our standards.

To that end, here are five key thoughts I have on how the role of the higher education registrar will continue to evolve over the coming decade:

1. New Learner Demographics Demand New Processes and Approaches

We need to implement changes to policies, processes and procedures to better serve our changing student body. Today’s learners aren’t the traditional-age, full-time students we’ve focused on serving in the past. 

For example, nearly four out of every ten students at George Mason are first-generation students. They likely don’t know what a bursar is and may not even know what a registrar is. Telling a freshman to go to the registrar’s office to process a change request may as well be saying, “Catch a SpaceX rocket to Mars.” In fact, they probably at least understand what that second sentence means!

It’s just not clicking for them. We need to very consciously de-silo our institutions to make them easier for students to navigate—starting by building more connections between faculties, departments and students. 

2. The Registrar’s Office is More Important Now Than Ever Before

It’s increasingly important to remind people both what we do and why we do it. In the next decade, an avalanche of technological advancements will require grounded higher education administrators—and specifically registrars—to articulate the goal of strategically leveraging student data but also the need for maintenance, protection and stewardship of the student record.

Just claiming the mantle of registrar and continuing to work for an institution-wide understanding of what the registrar’s office is and does is critical. 

3. It’s Time to Change What a Registrar Does

The office’s purpose will not change, but some of the ways we operate will change drastically. 

Higher education is a very conservative enterprise in that it is resistant to change. The overarching ideas and operations are very similar to what they were 50 years ago, which are similar to what they were even 50 years before that. 

We will see incremental change, and those shifts may feel significant, even in the ways we approach our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, but the changes will need to happen faster to keep up with changing demands.

For example, registrars can help lead the charge to change student information systems and federal reporting requirements to allow us to appropriately report student gender. After all, our society no longer operates on a gender binary, and trying to apply an outdated societal norm only creates obstacles for our learners—it doesn’t support their success. 

And I do not write this to bring up a culture war. I bring it up because we are in higher education to ensure our student body can engage with the institution in a positive way, so they can achieve their academic goals and for what life brings them down the line. 

Any barriers between the student and the registrar’s office need to be deconstructed. We must be aware of who they are and make commitments to being beneficial. 

4. Tech Changed How We Interact with Students (And It Will Again)

The way we communicate with students has changed, and we need to continue to be ready to adopt new methods of communication. 

Tension exists between those who are comfortable with the traditional approach to student communication—relying heavily on email, direct mail and landline phone calls—and those who are looking to meet students where they are. 

Today’s students live in their own pockets. Their smart phones are their lifelines, and registrars should be capitalizing on that. An intentional sense of engagement with students ensures they’re comfortable coming to us with questions, which means we are doing our jobs right! If a student only checks their email once a day or every few days, the odds of that connection start to dwindle. 

To maintain the why we as registrars do what we do, we need to change the how

5. The Profession Is Changing

Approximately 40% of registrars will retire in the next five to ten years. It’s incumbent upon us to engage with our professional associations to work on succession planning. 

We must actively engage in personal development, so we can maintain the level of knowledge and understanding that has come to be expected from the registrar. At the same time, a fully thought-out succession plan needs to be developed. The number of registrars we have ready to serve students is about to fall.

It’s not just an enrollment cliff we face but a professional one as well. 

A Map for the Future

Put simply, registrars need to change in more than a few areas to best manage student expectations and stay on top of changing trends—trends in student demographics, technology and within our own departments’ workforce. 

If there is one constant, it is change. But how we handle it is up to us. We’re the ones who have the contact with students, with the resources and know-how to change an institution from the inside out and to prepare all our learners for what comes next. 

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