The plight of registrars in higher education, is it all doom & gloom?

For centuries registrars have been tentatively weaving cohesive bonds between student and teacher and institution. The registrars’ diligence has ensured students are there for teachers to teach, and that credentials are there for students at the other end. But now more than ever, external forces are impacting the role of the registrar, morphing it into a new classification and threatening to cast their carefully curated processes into chaos. 

Heavy is the burden of today’s registrar. It’s true. And that was the case even before everyone had to rush about fire fighting the impacts of COVID-19—which many are still doing. But is it all doom and gloom? We have chosen to bring awareness to three structural challenges facing registrars today and discuss how technology can help overcome them.

Three challenges for today’s registrars:

  1. Challenges to student enrolment since 2019
  2. Massive losses in staff (academic and professional) since 2019
  3. The technification of the registrars’ role

Reversing the enrollment decline

Globally student enrollment went down. For example, the US saw a two-year decline of 5.1% (938,000) in student enrolment since Fall 2019. Undergraduate and particularly freshman enrollments were among those who took the deepest dive. In Australia, on the other hand, the biggest blow came from the drop in new and returning international students, which fell 99.7% between October 2019 and October 2020.

There are signs of recovery in student enrollment numbers, but there is a long way to go to get back to pre-COVID levels. So, how can registrars speed up this process? One way is through upgrading the college or university’s website, particularly the course catalog (handbook). 

In a recent Salesforce survey, freshmen students (N=107), ranked college websites a 6 out of 9 for usefulness. This came second only to parents or guardians who received a rank of 6.22. Most students (82.24%) began their college search using online resources. And more than 40% had narrowed their top college preferences after only 6 months of searching. Further, nearly a quarter of those surveyed started their college search in 10th grade, with a majority starting in 11th grade.  

This survey, although not representative of the entire student cohort, clearly indicates that students rely heavily on the information provided through college websites when choosing where to apply. And though they might be looking at the whole college website, the catalog is where they will be going to help decide on what they want to study. The catalog is one of the most important tools in a recruiter’s toolbox, so having a modern, up-to-date catalog is crucial.

The staff losses

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have taken a heavy hit with the drop in institutional revenue, mostly from investment and student fees, reaching the billions. This revenue decline translated into institutional budget cuts with workers taking the brunt of it. There have been around 650,000 jobs lost in the US (13% of the workforce). And, in Australia the estimated number of jobs lost in the higher education sector is around 40,000 (roughly 1 in 5)

Not only have these job losses resulted in feelings of low morale, but the pivot to remote online learning has increased the workload of those staff lucky enough to keep their jobs. In these challenging times where less people might be doing more work, often with cuts to pay or freezes in pay rises and benefits, there will no doubt be pushback from anyone asked to cooperate with tasks that don’t count directly to their performance indicators. These tasks are usually those directly aligned to institutional goals.  

So, how can registrars get buy-in from the academics they need to push processes through? One way is through introducing an end-to-end curriculum management system that allows you to bring data together, streamline approvals for course proposals, give you greater administrative controls, and publish an up-to-date catalog. 

The key is in finding a solution that is efficient, extensible, and integrates with existing systems (e.g. the student information system), as well as a vendor whose implementation experience matches the size and complexity of the institution. But the number one rule at the end of the day is the process  has to be quicker and easier, because let’s face it, academics already spend more time than they would like on organizational tasks when they would probably rather be doing their own research.

The technification of the registrars’ role

Another challenge for the registrar, one that is not talked about widely enough, is the technification of the role. Historically, the registrar largely performed a clerical role, but today’s registrar may be expected to undertake significant responsibilities such as project management, systems testing and troubleshooting, and business data analytics and reporting. 

In a 2020 American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ (AACRAO) webinar, presenters Leesa Beck, UC Santa Barbara, and Mike Andersen, Naval Postgraduate School, discuss in detail this concept of technification—how registrars have gone from needing purely functional skills to needing both functional and technical skills and knowledge, and are now ‘funky-techs’. 

They also discuss the challenges such as role reclassifications, training, post-implementation responsibilities for large IT systems projects, and even staff who miss having the student connection—a result of their role becoming so technical. Then they share advice on how they have overcome these challenges. One of the main messages was to ‘lean in’ to technology. 

Having said that, registrars can lean in only so far. Beyond that, technology needs to help make their job easier, for example through automation, versioning, auditing and data reporting capability, and advanced administrative controls. Registrars already know this, so the next statement is more for software vendors delivering solutions in the higher education space. The implementation process, the ability of the solution to integrate with existing systems (including homegrown systems), and post-implementation self-serviceability really matter. We vendors need to support registrars so they can keep weaving those precious bonds.

A final note

We asked our Head of Product Strategy, and former registrar, Carolyn McInnis how curriculum management systems can help registrars. She had this to say:

Curriculum management is where the academic governance responsibilities of registrars interact directly with the student experience. A good curriculum management system can give registrars the tooling they need to not only fulfill a core process responsibility but also directly support students.

All in all, registrars have big challenges to overcome, but software exists that can help. And these digital solutions are evolving into something better and better every day.

Thanks for reading. We hope this article furthers the conversation on current registrar challenges and how higher education technology can help. If you are a registrar, work in a registrar’s office, or work closely with one, we would love to hear about the technical challenges you are experiencing along with how you are overcoming them, or what you would like technology to enable you to do.

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