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What The Modern Registrar’s Office Can Do For The Modern Learner

Today’s registrar’s is almost unrecognizable from those ten or so years ago. How registrars work, and where they place their values, has had to change as well.
Today’s registrar’s is almost unrecognizable from those ten or so years ago. How registrars work, and where they place their values, has had to change as well.

These days, the registrars office is more automated than ever, resulting in more efficient workflows which are better for both students and the registrars themselves.

Registrars should be looking for a path that will provide a more straightforward experience for learners, while assisting the institution to know what needs to change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for the modern registrar to focus on the learner experience?

Rodney Parks (RP): Today’s Registrar’s Office is very different from registrar’s offices even a decade ago. These days, I often equate a modern registrars’ offices to an IT division more than the traditional processing offices we were in the past. These days, we are asked to provide an immense amount of data to faculty, staff and students, as well as innovations and initiatives. How we store data, report, keep it accurate and connect it to dozens of disparate systems are key components we often see registrar’s offices handle. Additionally, investigating and testing new software, managing projects, rolling out new technologies and hiring are critical components. Being able to provide and support strategic enrollment initiatives is also an area of growth for registrars.  The data we provide should be able to paint that picture of what a successful institutional student looks like, how we retain current students, what challenges institutional students face and what changes we need to make to improve retention. For example, our institution loses about 10% of our students in the first year. Is there a specific path analysis that the registrar’s office can assist with to help the institution know what changes to implement to retain the student.

Evo: How does the registrar’s office’s role need to evolve to keep up with its expanded enrollment management demands?

RP: As a Senior Consultant for AACRAO, I still see numerous non-exempt processing positions within the registrar’s office. Some offices have moved completely away from this type of position, focusing more on the technology to do routine processing work. For example, at Elon we don’t have any positions lower than an assistant registrar anymore, and all but one have a master’s degree, mostly MBAs. Even when you think about the registrar’s traditional processing role, such as collecting information from the student and from faculty for grades and things like that, the real work has to do with the workflows created to support these tasks and maintain automated systems. Creation and support for new policies such as a pandemic leave of absence, changes to repeat grades or increased flexibility with  Prior Learning Assessments are primary work conducted by registrar’s offices. Other areas might include conducting research on the system to see what it takes to retain a student that doesn’t matriculate, automatically putting them on a leave of absence to retain a deeper connection to the student in case they change their minds. This gives institutions the ability to keep those lines of communication open, like not disabling institutional email addresses, reminding them that they can use library services, giving them the option to apply for housing and register at the same time as any other student based on the number of credit hours they’ve achieved. Incentivizing students to return to the institution, all key areas of registrar work.

These days, the administration frequently wants to know all the touchpoints the university has with a student. Can we determine which students represent a higher risk of transferring and focus more energy retaining them. There’s software out there now that does a lot of that stuff. But some of these things can be built institutionally to bridge that gap before we even get to the point of needing to leverage new software at a tremendous cost. Registrar’s offices can use predictive analytics software to analyze likely success paths for first-year students and to better understand the correlations to success.

Evo: As the expectations of your registrar’s office evolve, are registrars taking a more comprehensive and collaborative approach to engaging learners across different parts of the institution?

RP: Absolutely. You’re even seeing that in records. Think about how often now you hear the term comprehensive learner record.

The registrar’s office at Elon produces electronic diplomas that can store program outcomes or competencies. What that boils down to is giving potential employers the ability to mine credentials for more information about the student experience. Similarly, new records give students the ability to articulate experiences more fluidly to potential employers. When we first started building these new records, it was not uncommon to hear Elon students say, “Wow, I forgot I did those things over the last four years.”

So, how do students talk about their experiences as well as intercultural competency? By working with faculty to get more data available on these electronic records, the registrar’s office is helping tell these stories. When an employer interviews an Elon graduate, they understand how experiential learning and classroom engagement have created a scholar that can articulate their experiences in a way that prevents employers from having to worry about investing in an Elon graduate.

Evo: What are the characteristics of a great student experience in the context of this future-oriented registrar’s office?

RP: Well, it differs based on the student.

So, one of the things we know is that more and more students are matriculating, knowing the path they want to follow. You’re seeing institutions pressured to provide credentials with a higher probability of helping the graduate land a high-paying job. This means building more 3+1 programs that provide a bachelor’s and master’s upon graduation in four years. Registrar’s offices must design and build prescriptive paths that students can take to succeed. But there’s another component to that: As we graduate students, those alums go back out in the field and become successful. This leads us to a discussion about successful alumni and creating similar paths for current students. In other words, can I take the college experiences that made you successful in your field and create a template for it?

These days, students are doing a ton of internships, travelling all over the country and experimenting with different jobs. But is there a way to further refine some of those interests, so they’re not changing jobs 14 times by the age of 38? Can higher ed do more to inspire passion within a particular career path, simply by connecting them to successful alumni, looking at what path they took, providing the students with some of those experiences or giving them the option to have them, and then encouraging them to pursue that path. Talk to alumni and let those alumni be as engaged with the student as their faculty advisor–in essence, staff, faculty and alumni advising all rolled into one. Every institution has deep employer connections that can help support this process.

Evo: So, it’s about scaling a personalized experience to minimize barriers for students. Something as simple as a bottleneck, essential classes for graduating, while ensuring appropriate advising and support.

RP: Many schools are in the process of fixing support mechanisms, or already have fixed them, because we’re using planning software. Students don’t have to go to a spreadsheet and plan out a four-year curriculum or worry about looking through the details in an academic catalog anymore. You now have a system that, if I’m going to study finance and stick with this course in the third year, will plug in all the other courses you have to take in order to take that one class in the third year. So, you plan out a four-year curriculum and know that you will graduate with a minor, a major, or two minors, or two degrees, etc., simply because you planned those goals early.

Think about how many programs institutions have created at community colleges across the country. A student goes to community college, takes the core curriculum and saves an immense amount of money when they transfer to a 4-year university to complete a bachelor’s degree–for example, transferring to a great four-year teaching university school with great connections to teaching in middle school and high schools across the area. It allows the student to finish a bachelor’s in two years and utilize the university’s job networks and resources to position themselves for success. We are seeing more institutions focus on transfer students rather than the dwindling number of traditional 18- to 22-year-old students seeking a traditional four-year university. Institutions are long overdue in meeting all learners’ needs. You’re also seeing a tremendous movement toward stackable credentials as well.

People call me all the time asking all kinds of questions related to evolving and stackable credentialing.

They want to know how to make badges valuable and how to create layers of competency within badges. They want to know how to create prior learning policies that award credit for learning outside the classroom. They want to know how we can create stackable credential pathways that allow folks to earn certificates en route to degrees. They want to know how to create programs that allow for on-ramps and off-ramps, so students can learn at their own pace.

Creating this kind of flexibility and learner experience is becoming our new normal.

Evo: How does a registrar’s office transform into this more collaborative place?

RP: It’s a major shift. I always tell people, “Think about it. Nobody goes to school to become a registrar.” You fall into the field early in your higher education career. We see student workers start in the office and ultimately stay in the field. Sometimes they’ll come from other areas. For example, I started in HR in higher education, had a great mentor (Andy Brantley, President and CEO of CUPA-HR), took on an assistant registrar role and woke up 20 years later as a registrar. But you’re starting to see more national organizations create competencies to be successful in the field. How do we begin to tell institutions, “Don’t take the chance of hiring from within simply because it’s easier. Registrar’s offices need to diversify staff like most other areas in higher education. It’s unfortunate that there’s only one registrar per institution and that turnover across the country is relatively low, thereby stagnating knowledge and innovation.

You can’t just go to a conference once a year and expect to learn which things are changing. One thing my office started doing early on is taking a group of people and go into another institution. And you’re more and more of these collaborations among institutions to learn new aspects of the field. There’s no need to create this from scratch when you can look at what other institutions are doing to solve some of these complex problems.

Registrars know the data well, so there’s no reason they can’t be creative in solving campus problems. But they must start moving from that culture of no to one of innovation and sharing. Can I use other disparate systems I’ve already been working with to create something new? How can I better facilitate the work between the registrar’s offices in IR offices to create dashboards for campus leaders? As people age out of positions, they need to rewrite those job descriptions and bring in highly technical people that will take the office to the next level. Don’t be afraid that a younger staff member may only be there for two years and leave because two years’ with an innovative employee can be a game changer. And who knows, keep that employee moving, inspired and having fun, and they just might stay three years or more.  I have one that has stayed with me nine years. His degree is in computer science, and he has built so many new innovations that the entire campus sees the registrar’s office very differently.

Challenge yourself and your team to think of ways to market your office. How do you help those around you understand the work we do? I hate the words registrars have used for years: “We are the gatekeepers of academic records.” Gatekeepers, that’s the exact phrase.

I like to advise never using the term gatekeepers ever again. This is not Ghostbusters. We need to think about how we become a culture of yes, a culture of creativity and innovation. When you get to that, it makes our jobs so much easier. Start doing little things, encourage staff buy-in, and people will start to see the change. All these things lead to a very different registrar’s office, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and you need the leadership to inspire these concepts within your staff.

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