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Reorganize the Registrars: Student Experience Needs to Come First

Times have changed. The registrar is no longer a faculty-first office, but one that must serve the student population.
Times have changed. The registrar is no longer a faculty-first office, but one that must serve the student population.

Registrars have their eyes on so many parts of the institution that they need to be in constant contact with faculty and staff, but what about the student? Accessibility for students will become more and more critical for the registrar’s office.

Evo: Why is it important for the modern registrar to focus on the student experience?

Doug McKenna (DM): Too often, we in the registrar’s office get bogged down in the forms or requests submitted or the sections we must build. We do a large volume of work, and it’s very easy for people to disassociate and get bogged down in the minutia, not recognize the people to whom we’re providing a service. I’ll say this a hundred times today: The registrar’s office is a service office. We provide service to primarily our students but also all the people who support those students—faculty, staff, other student services’ offices, etc. And so, I try to reiterate with my team that this may be the 300th grade change request you’ve received and processed today, but that is the only grade change that student is ever going to have enacted for them, and it’s going to take them off probation and put them back in good standing. It’s going to change their life.

Maintaining a connection, some acknowledgement of the humanity of why we’re doing what we’re doing is important. It also helps us flow through a decision tree when we have to make those kinds of decisions about a particular process. If we do it one way, it’s really easy for us, and if we do it another way, it’s really easy for the student—and it always has to come down to the student. How can the registrar’s office support the student’s ability to succeed at our institutions?

We have a responsibility. We play a role assisting with retention. We know from studies that students who feel engaged, who feel welcomed and supported persist at higher rates. And they go on to achieve their goal, the dream of receiving a degree at whichever level—baccalaureate, master’s doctoral. Just with the United States enrollment environment, we’ve got a dip of high school graduates coming up, and retention is a really key piece for maintaining student enrollment at institutions.

The registrar’s office plays one of the largest roles in that because, after the student is recruited and admitted, we are responsible for their records, for the systems they use and many of their administrative interactions as they progress through their student career. It’s incumbent upon us to make those experiences positive, and we can’t do that if we’re not thinking about the student. Who are our students? What do they need from us? And how can we best provide that? If we’re only thinking, “How will this work for the registrar’s office?”, we’re missing the point.

The modern and future registrar must understand what their students need. They must engage with students, meet students where they are and provide the support students need.

Some of that is complicated because institutions are sometimes beholden to these giant, monolithic enterprise resource-planning and student information systems. So, they are not as nimble and progressive or responsive to changes in demographic or technology.

Evo: How can technology be leveraged to help the registrar’s office meet the heightened expectations students, staff and faculty have, while navigating the need to work within these seemingly immovable monolithic systems within the postsecondary infrastructure?

DM: This is the sort of the question that registrars grapple within a technological sphere, specifically with catalog and curriculum, with course scheduling. Those aspects of our responsibilities get us to engage with faculty and standing committees. Because if there are curriculum changes, they go through an undergrad or graduate committee, potentially starting at a departmental level or a college or school level, then going up sometimes all the way to Faculty Senate. Part of our role separate and apart from the technology is to provide perspective and expertise to understand what faculty are trying to accomplish and helping them craft the language or the requirement in a way that will not be detrimental or counter to existing policy and not wildly disruptive to other procedures.

I’ve been an advocate for involving registrar’s offices in curriculum processes all the way back to when I worked at Michigan State, where I was rewarded for that stance by having stacks of curriculum proposals to read. It was definitely rewarding. Part of our job as professional administrators is to help the faculty work within the confines of the system or even understand what the confines are.

When faculty are putting curriculum proposals together, they’re benchmarking. They’re trying to figure out what the learning outcomes will be, all the objectives, and trying to mush that in. It’s not on their radar to think, “How does that work? How would I submit that through the curriculum process? How would that be represented in the registration system? How would that show up on the degree audit?”

The registrar’s office has a certain level of experience with it and a helpful perspective. Ultimately, we can guide faculty to craft their proposals in a particular way that leads to positive outcomes for students without changing, without usurping, without undermining the faculty’s intention.

Those partnerships across campus are more critical today than they’ve ever been because all those things must be translated into a series of systems. Sometimes those systems talk to each other. Sometimes things have to be reinterpreted when they move to another system. So, faculty involvement is critical because it allows you to pick up the phone and say, “What did you really mean here?” And have those conversations before the requirements or the curriculum becomes codified and published in the catalog—because once it’s in the catalog, that’s it.

Now, the technology piece is interesting. Registrars have been struggling with this technology piece since the early ’90s—since the very beginning of the worldwide web. And then on through, as we chatted a bit through the Y2K scare, where billions of dollars were poured into technical infrastructure—not only in business, but also in higher education—that’s where you started to see rooms being wired with ethernet, or Wi-Fi becoming available on campuses more broadly. So, that was a huge leap forward technologically.

But where we must live and engage with is that most institutions have a SIS that is part of a larger ERP. So, the Banner student information system is part of the Ellucian ERP. PeopleSoft is part of the Oracle ERP. Those things have enormous user bases that can’t easily be customized, and there’s a push-and-pull on what it is we’re trying to accomplish, the particular process we need to support and the best way to do that. Is it something that we can manage with the IT staff here at the institution? Probably not for established processes like curriculum management, catalog production, degree audits. And those are linked because the curriculum becomes the schedule of classes offered, and that’s what students register for to meet the degree requirements whose foundation dates way back in the curriculum. It all goes over and over again.

There have been changes and developments. Technology is not standing still, so there are better ways now to connect some of those processes and make the overall process itself more transparent. In the past, these curriculum proposals would show up at Faculty Senate and then they’d get published in the catalog, and that’s where we in the registrar’s office would read them and then try to interpret them for either policy changes or to build the degree audit based on what’s been approved. Now we can track every single step, every revision, sometimes side by side, from what it was before to what it is now or what’s being proposed. And the level of transparency technology provides is enormously helpful if you’re engaged in those conversations at a point where you can make those changes.

Evo: So, it comes down to a question of how much time is there and how much time it takes to do those things?

DM: Einstein said, “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler,” and that’s an approach I like to take as well. We can automate many things, and some of those things should be automated. We could confer degrees automatically. That’s not in the institution’s interest, so as a person who has a fiduciary responsibility to the institution, that’s a piece where you back off and you make sure that there are a number of human interactions or interventions on a particular process. And then at the end, maybe the process of awarding the degree, conferring it within the system, that can be automated so long as the initial review is done by the unit and then the back-and-forth with the registrar’s office, etc.—those are manual processes.

Catalog and curriculum in particular require a very human process, and the systems we put in place need to be very intuitive and transparent, so people can see where the proposal is, what’s in the proposal and engage with it in positive ways. Degree audits are also super important documents for students in particular, but they don’t need to know the dirty underbelly of requirements coding and all of the linkages between course equivalencies and things like that. They want to see what the requirements are. They want to have their academic history applied to those requirements in an appropriate and accurate fashion, then they want to graduate. One of the roles technology plays for the registrar’s office is making the back end of the house fall into the background, so the student can concentrate on their outstanding requirements and not have to dig through four versions of the catalog to see if the particular course they want to take will meet that requirement.

Technology definitely has a role, and it can make all of our lives a lot easier in terms of how we receive information from academic units, how we engage with academic units, how we communicate with students and how we get information back from the students. But it is not the be-all and end-all. The technology is not the reason why we do the work, and it should only be thought of as a tool to make the students’ experience better.

Evo: Generally speaking, noncredit management and registrars tend to operate symbiotically with some interconnection, but it’s very rare for a registrar’s office to own both noncredit and credit record catalog management. What was the thinking behind the move into the registrar’s office at George Mason, and how’s it gone so far?

DM: We are coming up on a year, and the actual transition flowed following that decision, so we’re still a little ways away. The thinking goes like this: The registrar’s office has a particular set of skills, tools, expertise, and shouldn’t the registrar’s office provide that expertise everywhere the university needs it? The answer is yes.

In particular, class scheduling and registration are things the registrar’s office at George Mason is responsible for. I say at George Mason because not all registrar’s offices deal with class scheduling. But what we’re trying to do here is align form and function, so we don’t have redundant functions spread out across the units. I do not mean that in a negative way, that somebody’s redundant. It’s hard to hear, but George Mason is a public institution. We have a limited budget to do the things we need to do, so we have to take advantage of the efficiencies that we are able to.

One of those efficiencies is using the expertise in the registrar’s office to do things like course creation, class setup, scheduling and registration support. Adopting registration support for Continuing Ed has gone reasonably well so far. There are some things we’re still looking at, revisions we need to process and enhancements we would like to make, and those things will come in time. There is a certain necessity to provide continuity of operations. And at the same time, there’s an effort to understand what the process is and why decisions were made, to recognize that there may be opportunities for improvement, understand where the university is interested in having growth opportunities, then shift internal resources to support that growth. That’s where we are currently. It’s gone reasonably well. We’re two or three terms in now, if you count fall ’22, where we have been the primary support for registration.

Another piece that technology is moving forward is revisions to transcripts and the expansion of transcripts. The transcript over time is inside baseball. So, one institution’s transcript is really useful for another institution to understand what courses the student’s taken, what their grades are, etc. Pick any institution’s transcript and send it out into the job market, and it’s not that useful. There’s the student’s name, maybe the dates of attendance, but people just want to see the degree, maybe the GPA or whether they received honors.

Where technology can fill a need is better communicating what students learn from those 35 classes they took to earn their degree. Being able to drill into an electronic version of the transcript and have that linked directly back to the catalog and curriculum to say, “Here were the learning objectives. Here are the outcomes.”

This gets to an initiative the Lumina Foundation has been working on with AACRAO (the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, our professional association), and that is the comprehensive learner record. Having a view of what the student has accomplished, what their grades are, the transcript but also extracurriculars or co-curriculars, microcredentials, all experiential learning activities, etc. The comprehensive learner record is an interesting idea right now. It has not been launched in meaningful ways across higher education. A couple of institutions are making headway, but I think it will be more and more the case in the next five or ten years because of the transparency that technology enables.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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