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Student-Centricity Is Key for the Registrar’s Office

Registrars need to find the balance between making the best decisions for students and the best decisions for the school.
Registrars need to find the balance between making the best decisions for students and the best decisions for the school.

Student-centricity is at the heart of each decision the registrar’s office makes. By keeping the students in mind while developing the rules and policies that will shape the institution, registrars can make it a more accessible place for learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is your definition of student-centricity?

Michelle Newman (MN): My definition is putting students’ needs and interests at the forefront. Each organization must define what that means for them. Using data and student feedback is incredibly important to be able to stay student-centric. While we’re running an organization, there are policies, processes, laws and regulations we need to be mindful of. But the one thing we in higher ed don’t like to really say is that students are consumers and have the same behaviors in our industry as they do in every other industry. How we behave when we buy new shoes, purses, clothes—we are consumers. We choose where we spend our money, just like they choose where they spend their resources and time. So being student-centric is important, and it’s about putting their needs at the center of what we do.

That doesn’t mean giving them their hearts’ desires—that’s not what student centricity means. It can be a fine line. Some people like to say they’re just going to do whatever they want. No, that’s not the case. If it’s a reasonable request and within our policies—though sometimes we can stretch our policies—then maybe it is the right response. But it’s doing what you can to make sure you are considering the individual’s needs and/or the collective needs.

Evo: How do you drive toward student-centricity without falling into a customer-is-always-right trap?

MN: I will quote our provost, Dr. Vernon Smith, who says, “Do no harm.” That is his motto. As much as possible, do no harm to the student. It makes you take a step back. It doesn’t mean you get rid of your policies, but it does make you think about your policies and your process. Is it for the student or is it for the university? And you also have to decide whether you’re going to believe that the student or customer is always right. Or you say, no, the customer’s not always right. And I am in the latter group. The customer is not always right, but is there a happy medium that we can provide when it’s appropriate?

That’s the fine line you have to walk to do no harm to that student. But considering their situation, considering the policies and taking it all into account to understand where to find middle ground that follows our policies, guidelines, legislation, what have you, versus, giving the student everything they may want, which may push us out of balance in those areas?

Evo: How have you seen student-centricity influence institutional policies and processes that historically tend to be established for the purpose of backend efficiency or operational structure?

MN: It becomes very challenging. We went through a team exercise of looking at our processes and why they are the way they are. And what I learned is, through our growth, some of the things we implemented as processes and policies were designed to make things easier for us as a university, as opposed to making things easier for the student. Back in the nineties when I was in college, I had to get physical signatures from my instructors, the registrar and my advisor to be able to register.

That was physical—we had to walk. Some universities still do that. We may not have had that physicality at this institution, but we had similar things that impeded student progress. We were seeing it as a way to establish workflow, which you can do, but we were also putting some of the workflow that could have occurred through technology on the student. It means taking a step back and you kind of have to ask that question: Is this for the student, or is this for us? And is it necessary? That was the bigger question. And if it is necessary, is there a way I can get the data, get the information from technology versus having the student needing to provide it themselves?

It does mean you have to be intentional and think through processes and policies while keeping the student at the forefront. Nobody has the resources to hire multiple staff members or implement new technology.

Evo: Where have you seen policy and process supersede the need to be student-centric or the desire and the pursuit of student-centricity?

MN: I don’t know that I have a clear example of where I personally feel like policy or process superseded students. That doesn’t mean that we give students all that they want. That doesn’t mean that every question or request gets a yes. There are financial compliance regulations—FERPA, ADA, and other laws—that every institution has to abide by. And where I find the opportunity for student-centricity is that each organization can implement practices to follow those laws and regulations to meet their students’ needs. One example I think about is third-party access to the student’s academic record. FERPA gives us what’s required: how we have to protect our students and their academic record. But there’s also information on what a student can do to authorize access to their record.

Some institutions only give the student access. If you’re going to allow access, how you receive that documentation from the student is one way you make it student-centric. So, if you’re saying that students have to physically come to your campus and physically submit their approval for waiver and request to allow access, a POA, their physical documentation, as opposed to submitting it electronically. All of that allows you to make that policy into a mandate we have to follow to be student-centric. We need to make sure we’re doing no harm because the whole FERPA process and policy are all about doing no harm to the student, making sure their record is secure, but how we do that, how we force the student to comply as an institution, that’s all on us.

Evo: We know the postsecondary institution to be a relatively siloed environment. So, when you look at technology, what role can systems and tools play in either creating or breaking down the record-keeping silos across a modern university.

MN: Technology both creates and breaks down silos. It gives you an opportunity to be creative, but what I’ve seen is that there’s always an opportunity for people to take ownership and then security-mindedness comes in, and we feel like there is so much information here. We become concerned and start limiting access. So, as I thought about technology from the perspective of creating silos, that’s where I went. It creates silos because more information is now readily available. And then people think they have to lock it down. Nobody can see it. Nobody can touch it. Only the people who own the process or need to have access can have access, which then led me to thinking about one way to break down silos: information.

Information is power, and transparency in our systems can help us. It’s a different mindset because so many people think that if everybody knows what’s going on, there’s going to be a problem. Well, if they know what’s going on and understand what’s going on, they can help remove the silo because they can now see visually and understand the student situation, the process, whatever the case may be. And you can control their access. You can make things viewable as opposed to everybody having the same access. Most systems now give you various security roles that enable that authority, but transparency and the information sharing are ways to help break down silos.

The interesting thing we all think about in higher ed is that this is our problem. It’s not—I hear the same thing from people in other industries. Silos are created, and silos break down. And I feel like as soon as we break one silo down, another one comes up. But I do feel very strongly about making sure people have the access they need to do their job, to work with students and to acquire whatever level of understanding they need from academic records.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about how the growing expectations for student-centricity are reshaping the registrar’s role?

MN: Registrars get a bad name. They are the enforcers of the law, policy, the university. However, what people forget is that a lot of innovation comes out of the registrar’s office. And because of that, I really believe that student-centricity can start there. While we are the enforcer, it’s also our job to make sure we are maintaining the academic records and giving that student what they need. That’s our goal: giving them what they need to succeed. The credentials we offer students are going to help them get a job that’s going to help them get to the next level in their education—whatever the case is. And having an intact transferable academic record is key to doing that. So, we are innovators, and we’re going to need to keep being innovators.

We play an integral role in each of our institutions in helping provide that student-centric view. I also know that it’s a balancing act to work within strict policy or law. And I think partnerships with our peers in compliance, both legal and financial, are very important to help us navigate and ensure we are being student-centric and prioritizing students’ needs as the main outcome of whatever it is we’re designing.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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