Visit Modern Campus

The Ever-Evolving Role: How Registrars Are Playing a Bigger Part in Student Involvement

Involving registrars in larger conversations around strategy can help drive enrollment management to new places.
Involving registrars in larger conversations around strategy can help drive enrollment management to new places.

The registrar’s office is changing to keep up with evolving student needs. By using previously unavailable or unknown tools, technologies and methods, enrollment management can be sped up and improved to be further streamlined in the future.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is the registrar’s role evolving?

Tina DeNeen (TD): Over time, the registrar’s role has evolved quite a bit, especially in the past couple of years, with the way we’ve had to make rapid and monumental changes. Long ago, the registrar was a faculty member that came to administration from the academic ranks and acted as keeper of the record, so to speak. The registrar’s position has grown beyond being the protector of academic history, although that part of the role continues to be important. One of the most notable transformations is that a registrar must be very tech savvy or, at the very least, capable of leading a tech team to design and implement systems that support institutional goals. A successful registrar will know how to leverage technology to serve students’ needs, as well as those of faculty and campus leaders. Today’s registrar is a strategist connected to most—if not all—sectors of an institution, who can help provide big picture input.

Another devolvement is acknowledgement of the registrar as a vital member of the enrollment management process. Registrars have access to vast data that can inform all points of the student life cycle. That’s not to say that the registrar has to be housed in the enrollment management unit. I myself was a registrar at four different universities, and my department was housed in student affairs, academic affairs and enrollment management. None of those org structures were a better fit than another. It’s not about where you report; it’s about the work you do, as long as everybody is focused on global institutional success.

Evo: Does that imply a shift in registrar focus, from being process- and efficiency-oriented to experience-oriented?

TD: I don’t know if it’s implying a shift. That’s dependent on the individual registrar. Tools and knowledge are used differently based on the registrar and the needs of their institution. A really successful registrar not only monitors compliance with academic policies but also identifies trends and assesses how these policies impact students and their success. The former is focused on process or efficiency, while the latter is an example of using experience to inform decision-making.

Often a campus will implement a policy that’s good on its face, but the registrar is positioned to see things that others may not, such as how the policy impacts students or groups of students. Those are the kinds of issues you want registrars to raise. You want them to have the liberty to go to the campus leader and say, “We’ve implemented this policy over the last three years, and here are the trends.”

Evo: What are some of the most common challenges new-school registrars, those on the enrollment team, are facing?

TD: One challenge would be finding a seat at the table. A campus that does not fully understand or embrace the registrar’s work or does not take advantage of the information a registrar can provide can prove to be challenging. The good news is that registrars tend to be resilient and resolute, finding a way to communicate ideas and information.

Another challenge is the vast technology to choose from and the limited time to vet it, with rarely enough funds to purchase it. That becomes a challenge for the registrar’s office, particularly a new-school registrar who has been using technology in their role for most, if not all, of their professional life. Depending on an institution’s structure, there may be an IT department vetting all the technology available to registrars, but they don’t necessarily have the functional background to connect the work with the technology. But again, today’s registrar will ideally be an integral part of the enrollment management process and have a seat at the table to participate in the conversation. So, there are challenges but none that are insurmountable.

Evo: Looking at the role registrars play today, whether they recognize themselves as part of the enrollment management team, what impact can they have on student engagement in terms of the enrollment retention and success?

TD: First, let me clarify something: I am not advocating for the registrar to be part of the enrollment management team. My advice is that registrars be part of the enrollment management process to enrich it.

But getting back to your question, there are so many touch points at which registrars can impact student retention and success. First of all, transparency would aid in student success. Many students don’t know the registrar’s function and don’t know the right questions to ask when they run into an issue. This is particularly true for first-generation students who likely were not exposed to the college experience before enrolling. Registrars, along with academic advisors, can be an academic lifeline for students. Implementing frequent check points and early warning systems, so students know their status and can correct course before they dig a hole for themselves, is vital to both retention and success.

Evo: Where and how do registrars today impact the student experience?

TD: Registrars need to help students understand what they do and how they can help them. At one of my former institutions, I implemented a monthly Talk to The Registrar, where I would go to the student center and set up a table and talk to students about whatever. We also established a senior fair. If you were a senior, you would come by our table and talk to us about what’s next. “What do I need to be doing? How do I get a final degree audit? When do I order a cap and gown?” The things we think everybody should but don’t necessarily know.

Registrars play many diverse roles. One day, a registrar—or a member of the registrar’s team—might serve as a counselor because a student contacts them to withdraw from school, and they learn that the student experienced something traumatic. The registrar must be able to support the student through that conversation and appropriately and discreetly alert the student affairs team, so they can look after the student, provide them with services and make sure they’re okay.

Registrars are often the ones who hear academic appeals. If a student has been suspended, they typically appeal through the registrar. Sometimes it’s just the registrar. Sometimes it’s a committee headed by the registrar or that the registrar sits on. Registrars also have a lot of influence on the athletic process because they’re the ones who certify a student-athlete’s eligibility to participate in intercollegiate sports.

Suffice to say, the registrar intersects with almost all parts of the institution, and an institution that acknowledges and takes advantage of that can be more successful. If an institution is intentional, the registrar is going to be a very vital part of the overall work.

Evo: How can senior institutional executives position their registrars to play this larger, more impactful role for learners?

TD: Those who understand the registrar’s role are already positioning them to be part of the larger conversation. At institutions where registrars are not part of the larger conversations, it could be because they have not had the opportunity to demonstrate what their role is or what their role could be. I did some consulting at a university once, and during the consultation I interviewed many people from across the campus about their relationship with the registrar’s office. I found that several of them were unaware of the registrar’s work outside of registration or academic transcripts. That disconnect jeopardizes registrar inclusion in strategic planning. However, when a campus knows what the registrar’s office does or should be doing, they’re likely already involving them in the strategic enrollment management process.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it’s going to take to support this evolution of the registrar’s role?

TD: The good news is that registrars don’t wait for permission to evolve. Evolution is simply part of the profession. Registrars have made so much progress over the years that I don’t think there’s an issue with continued growth. Registrars are often at the center of major issues that they have to figure out how to handle. When we needed to figure out how to deliver instruction in alternate ways, registrars played a vital role. When we needed to determine how to keep students safe in the classroom, registrars were central. Grit, determination and resilience helped drive registrars to find solutions to unprecedented problems.

A registrar has to be flexible and willing to come up with a different way of doing business, even if the issue is something they never thought they would face. Think Katrina. Think COVID. A registrar has to be able to pivot, while maintaining academic integrity. Today’s registrar is flexible and committed to contributing to learner success.

Author Perspective: