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What Did COVID-19 Change About the Registrar’s Role?

As one of an institution’s primary offices, it was critical for the registrars to stay on top of everyone’s needs during the pandemic. But they need to continue to evolve beyond the notion of a traditional student to support a diversity of people.
As one of an institution’s primary offices, it was critical for the registrars to stay on top of everyone’s needs during the pandemic. But they need to continue to evolve beyond the notion of a traditional student to support a diversity of people.

A few years ago, the world underwent more change than anyone was ready for. Every aspect of higher education was impacted, including the registrar’s office. But the switch to remote learning wasn’t the only thing that registrars had to tackle.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has technology expanded in the registrar’s role?

Matt Imboden (MI): There’s no doubt that the wider world of evolving technologies—and the ed tech space specifically—is always playing a dynamic role in postsecondary education. And that was obviously true even before the pandemic’s challenges, which accelerated some new technology adoption in higher education in remarkable ways. When it boils down to it, I see new technologies as tools for the jobs we are trying to do and the puzzles we are trying to solve with students and educational programs. So, new tech is interesting and valuable to the degree in that it helps address these puzzles, which vary by institution. These days, at least in my view, those puzzles largely include new program types, expanding student enrollment types, new considerations for access or flexibility, and new pathways into and out of the educational experiences our institutions provide. Even historical and legacy programs that have always functioned in one way are now being reimagined as institutions wonder how they might be leveraged differently. All this means new things for academic recordkeeping, as well as student engagement and communication tools.

So, that context is clearly a breeding ground for new tech to fill gaps for institutional administrators wanting to deliver sustainably seamless and supportive experiences. But there is also all the innovation to consider on the student interface side, which gives students increasing control and stimulates their engagement. The environment is just so ripe for experimentation and innovation; we’re coming out of COVID problem-solving mode, but we’re going to remain in this laboratory of new program formats and delivery modalities. And all that just asks big, big questions of the technology we’ve historically used to manage those institutional needs in an increasingly competitive enrollment space, where student expectations are as high as they are for any other consumer experience in the world today.

Evo: Was there anything during COVID that set off a light bulb, that this has to switch now?

MI: It’s a great point to intentionally look beyond the instructional experience per se. So, obviously delivering educational course-based experiences online and all the support structures associated with those things remains central. However, during the pandemic (to varying degrees based on student or institution type), we also heard students quickly say, “Yeah, I appreciate that I’ve got an online LMS or video environment where I can keep going to class, but what about all the other things I came to college for? Those things are part of what I have always felt like I was paying for as well and definitely why I chose a particular school.” As hard as those challenges were to meet at times, that sentiment was really affirming for student affairs, campus life and student services pros because many students said quite pointedly, “There are many other things besides classroom experiences that make college mean a lot to me,” and were not shy about asking, “How are you also going to keep providing that value for me or at least make those opportunities available?”  Therefore, some of those light bulbs you mention have included other tools and creative solutions that emerged in light of the need to engage and support students more generally in co- or extracurricular spaces, too.

Now, in terms of the pandemic’s back-end or in-house implications, student data simply became crucial. They became a lifeline for institutional strategy and decision-making in ways they hadn’t perhaps before—both when/if campuses were operating remotely and once people started returning to campus and new compliance implications took center stage, not to mention the hybrid learning and working formats to be accounted for (student physical locations, travel statuses, vaccination or health categories, enrollment types, etc.). Suddenly people who had an inside line on that kind of student data—both inside and outside legacy systems—and who could dependably report on it became very important in ways I think colleges are still working to clean up and fully understand moving forward.

Evo: Why is now the time to be having these discussions about the registrar’s changing role?

MI: It’s important that we’ve been talking about the pandemic, of course, but I do think the extremely relevant and significant megatrends among college-going populations (both out of high school and in graduate/Continuing Ed contexts) that preceded COVID are as relevant as ever. There’s a notion that competition is only going to become fiercer for those students, so schools are sharpening their pencils when it comes to doing that new student recruitment work very well. But many institutions are also clearly saying that their graduate, professional, and/or Continuing Education programs have become more strategically important, not just as ways to recruit new students but because students can also return to us and continue the academic relationship beyond the so-called traditional college-going chapters of their life. For registrars, even where the role may not be closely tied to new student recruitment, the heightened importance of retention, academic continuity and ultimately timely program completion and success looms large as a key institutional contribution.

Evo: How is tech automating some of the parts of the job previously done manually?

MI: The first thing is closing the gap for students—connecting students seamlessly and in real time, either with the staff members they need, faculty members they were working with or their digital footprint itself. Creating ways for students to move through procedures or experiences without physically coming to campus and accessing those resources, which I’ll admit isn’t necessarily automation but does cut down on a lot of process steps and timelines. And though I recognize it has become a bit of a cliché, the notion of students really taking ownership of their academic experience and records, both procedurally and developmentally, is an important concept when you remember that the whole campus should be an educational environment. It also tends to create better user experiences across the board when done well and keeps the seams of our organizations from ripping in frustrating ways for students.

More traditionally defined, the principle of automation is emerging in interesting ways with predictive tools. Helping schools identify students who need their attention earlier and what kind of attention they need is very powerful when making decisions about what to do with finite resources. Automating responses to those student persistence alerts or training/employing artificial intelligence tools when human resources may not fit the bill are also emerging considerations in many places. Guided advising pathways for students and the correlating planning and projection tools are adding value in many places today. And an important frontier in this regard is bringing additional data points together from beyond the realm of the observable academic performance data we see in today’s systems—non-cognitive factors and other data points we can collect from students and bring into conversation with evolving academic metrics.

However, there’s an interesting conversation to be had about the pros and cons of a culture of predictive data, of course. When you produce those kinds of success metrics or risk scores for students, your models are only going to be as flawed and biased as the people and assumptions that built them and the data available to do it. So, we need to be mindful of that, and keep some of those tactics at arm’s length, leveraging them where we can if they can help bring more important factors into the light. What does excite me about these innovations is that they can allow you to direct your energy and your teams’ energy toward the students and issues that need it the most, not just spread the peanut butter thin in a one-size-fits-all way—particularly in an increasingly resource-constrained environment. I would hope that we are good enough professionals to actively avoid making unhealthy assumptions based on what a limited set of data points or a single narrative might try to tell us.

Evo: In what areas can the registrar’s role expand and grow?

MI: My own professional story as a registrar, or the person leading registrarial functions, is unique in that I came from a traditional (undergraduate) student affairs background—the big staffing gateways of student housing, campus programming and student activities. But then I moved into academic services and academic affairs work in a professional school environment. It has really been interesting to experience all the ways in which the registrar profession and scope of work can dynamically and meaningfully connect to so many aspects of the student life cycle. The shared sense of student academic direction and vocational purpose that’s common in a professional school environment likely accelerated that, but I believe it to be true in many different institutional settings. These days, I run the risk of just taking it as a given how dynamic the registrar’s role can be. And perhaps it’s important not to get too hung up on labels, and it’s more about student recordkeeping, reporting registration and academic progress roles in the broader student success effort. I’m grateful to often reflect on leveraging the academic records function alongside other traditional student affairs and student support features.

And I’m not even really talking about the traditional academic services integrations. You think about registrars working very seamlessly with academic advising and financial aid functions, but registrars tend to have clear lenses on overall academic progress trends or even important issues like student financial standing because we’re typically tasked with executing enrollment cancellation policy/process—or any status changes that have students exiting the institution or shifting their enrollment. Add into that many of the COVID-era compliance and planning responsibilities that registrars have taken a major stake in as the data experts, and suddenly you can find yourself at the center of the student experience.

I know that our conversation has been sort of a broad encompassing of various undergraduate and graduate program formats, but particularly in graduate and professional education today (which includes many part-time and online enrollment modalities), the registrar is uniquely positioned to be that fundamental mediator between learners and their general student status at the institution. There may be more opportunities for the registrar to represent or maintain that bridge. Of course, there are important differences between institutions, but it has the potential to be one of the places where a lot of stuff comes together, and student academic progress in our institutions can be well managed and understood with connections and referrals made to departments, services or individuals who can best assist students. In that sense, there are interesting ways that registrars could evolve their self-understanding as student success professionals that would be really great, especially if done in partnership with other parts of the institution.

Evo: What can institutions do to be more student-centric, and what can specifically registrars do?

MI: This is where I just clearly assert that one of the most important steps an institution can take to become more student-centric is to complicate their ideas of what or who a student is. We need to actively resist any notion that students are a monolith.

It’s been almost a decade now since Louis Soares wrote that great piece for the American Council on Education about the need for us to shift to a post-traditional learner mindset. It’s not appropriate to have that dyadic vocabulary of traditional or nontraditional students anymore in our mouths or in our heads—and we must recognize that such thinking connects back to historical assumptions and approaches that simply don’t reflect the needs of the moment. I try to use that language of post-traditional learners as a reminder of the ways that our institutions and I need to evolve to meet the needs of increasingly diverse, multi-faceted and ultimately unique students.

That line of thinking runs through pretty much everything we’ve talked about today, but it’s about ensuring there is no such thing as a normative student and therefore no such thing as a normative student experience. Institutions will be successfully student-centric moving forward to the degree that they’re ready to be different things for different students at scale. There are many ways in which those considerations matter for the work I often see EvoLLLution doing or highlighting: for example, elevating the needs of students engaging with academia in different life stages, who have different employment statuses, who may necessitate part-time program formats for their educational goals, etc. These things obviously intersect with or include remarkably important cultural differences and prior experiences.

And registrars need to be aware of that because it should inform the types of records we maintain, the kinds of information students seek and the assumptions we make about how that information should be used to inform decision-making. Not to mention the equity considerations we can help to elucidate by disaggregating our student outcome data and informing the questions we should be asking as institutions about our effectiveness and future aspirations. Those are the things moving forward that should define the concept of student-centricity to me, as much as or more than user software interfaces because it goes on to inform how we ultimately organize to meet the needs that matter, once we can see them.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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