AACRAO Research: A Year in Review 2018

May 16, 2019

 By Wendy Kilgore

Similar to years past, we examined eight areas of research interest to our members in 2018. For example, we repeated the registrar’s career profile report and learned there will be a large number of retirements in the next few years. We also updated information on admissions practices in a 60-Second survey, and partnered again with AICE on international education practices.

60-Second Survey Topics:

  • Accreditation and Recognition of International Education, January 2018
  • Pre-college Programs, March 2018
  • Official Transcript Types, Cost, and Volume, May 2018
  • Alternative Credentials: Beyond the Diploma and Transcript, July 2018
  • Program Completion Time Limits, September 2018
  • Admissions Practice Snapshot, November 2018

Other topics:

  • Registrar career profile
  • Excess credits at graduation

As with our 2017 efforts, these initiatives were designed to help meet our research goals:

  1. Contribute to a better understanding of the factors and conditions that impact higher education academic/enrollment services and ultimately student success;
  2. Use the Research Advisory Board to engage the membership in determining the focus of the research;
  3. Develop new insights and information for our members to help them successfully lead their institutions in a continually evolving environment;
  4. Maintain current partnerships and develop new partnerships with other organizations and associations who share common interests with AACRAO; and
  5. Disseminate relevant, up-to-date research on student success to practitioners and institutional decision makers.

Included in this article is a brief introduction of the research topics and summary of the key findings, which have been modified slightly from the original reports. The purpose of this article is to provide a single source of research finding takeaways from 2018. With the exception of the full report on excess credits at graduation, the related reports can be found within the Research section of AACRAO’s website.[1] The report on excess credits at graduation was published as an article in SEMQ. This article includes only the highlights.

60-Second Surveys

With the continued support of our membership, this is the fourth year that AACRAO has conducted 60-Second Surveys. The purpose of these snapshot surveys is to gather a broad-brushstroke perspective on practice. With that in mind, it is understood that the way the questions are written will likely not be inclusive of all variations in practice. However, the results of these surveys provide insight into comparative practice on a high level. AACRAO regularly completes more comprehensive surveys on topics of interest to our members.

Accreditation and Recognition of International Education

The January 60-Second Survey was a partnership between the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE) and AACRAO. 

Institutional accreditation is an important factor for U.S. institutions in determining if credit or degrees from another institution will be accepted. However, accreditation as we understand it does not often exist outside the United States. This month's 60-Second Survey, in partnership with AICE, examines institutional policies pertaining to accreditation status and the acceptance of credit and degrees from foreign institutions. 

The survey included participation from 588 institutions. Several of the policy-related questions proffered “yes,” “no,” and “not sure” as the response choices. The percentage of respondents who selected “not sure” was higher than expected. As such, the “not sure” responses were removed from the descriptive data in the key findings below and are reported separately in the figures. 

Key Findings

  • Nine out of ten institutions have a prescribed policy on regional accreditation requirements for admission and transfer-of-credit purposes.
  • Comprehensive institutions are more likely than other types of institutions to have a prescribed policy.
  • More than 70% accept a foreign institution’s recognition by a national ministry of education to be equivalent to regional academic accreditation in the United States.
  • Comprehensive and/or very large (20,000+ students) institutions are more likely than other types and sizes of institutions to follow this practice.
  • Less than half accept recognition by a national government board or body overseeing training or employment to be equivalent to regional academic accreditation.
  • Only 30% recognize a national government board or body overseeing specific professional sectors (Health/Agriculture/Defense/etc.) as equivalent to regional academic accreditation.
  • Less than 15% recognize a non-governmental organization, and less than 20% recognize a governmental board of a foreign government outside of the institution’s geographic area as equivalent to regional academic accreditation.
  • The admissions office (54%) is most likely to be responsible for determining whether students' foreign education comes from an accredited school, followed closely by the registrar’s office (50%).
  • The registrar’s office (68%) is most often responsible for determining if transfer credits from a students' foreign education come from an accredited school. 
  • More than half of responding institutions have exceptions to regional accreditation requirements for admission or transfer of credit.

Pre-college Programs

AACRAO members were asked about the existence and purpose of pre-college programs in the March 60-Second survey, and 451 participated. The following definitions framed this survey.

Pre-college Programming defined in this context:

University sponsored/organized programs and activities for K-12 school participants typically not yet enrolled in college as degree-seeking students.

Pre-college Programming Unit defined in this context:

The university department and/or umbrella entity with responsibility for oversight of all pre-college programs at one college or university.

A few of the questions included “I do not know” or “I’m not sure” as response options. These responses have been removed from the descriptive data presented here and from the sample size above. 

Key Findings

  • Most institutions (82%) report having pre-college programs.
  • Nearly four in ten have two to three programs and 14% have ten or more.
  • Almost half of the institutions have increased the number of pre-college programs in the last three years.
  • Pre-college programs are most likely to be administered by academic affairs.
  • It is not unusual for pre-college programs to exist in more than one institutional division.
  • Just 30% of pre-college programs are housed in their own unit.
  • A director is most likely in charge of the day-to-day operations of pre-college programs.
  • Less than one third of pre-college units report through admissions and recruitment.
  • More than half report that recruitment materials are provided to participants of pre-college programs and/or a list of pre-college program participants is provided to admissions/recruitment.
  • Just under half include an admissions presentation at each pre-college program.
  • Seventy percent either strongly agree or somewhat agree that pre-college programs are an important part of the enrollment pipeline at their institution.
  • Three-quarters note that less than 24% of 2017 applicants were part of a pre-college program.
  • Community outreach, academic program exposure, and access to college top the list of the primary purpose of pre-college programs.
  • More than half indicate that one to four staff work in pre-college programs and a further 11% have fifteen or more.
  • Nearly one third serve 500 or more students annually in pre-college programs, and 22% serve less than 100.

Official Transcript Types, Cost and Volume

May’s survey addressed the type, volume, and cost of official transcripts. A big take-away from this survey is that there is quite a variety of ways in which institutions charge for transcripts. For example, in building the survey it was assumed that institutions selecting “no charge” for the question about official transcript charges would mean no charges at all and, thus, terminate the survey. I heard back from one member that although they selected “no charge,” they were expecting to be asked the questions about delivery fees. Additional comments provided by respondents in their survey responses also point to a high degree of variance in official transcript cost and pricing practices that could not be captured by the survey design. Some practices mentioned are as follows:

  • There is no charge for paper transcripts for walk-ins.
  • A different amount is charged depending on the language of the transcript (e.g., Spanish vs. English).
  • Mailed and walk-in transcripts are free, but there is a charge for electronic transcripts.
  • The transcript fee is waived for current students. Alumni pay $20 + a special handling fee if it is greater than standard postage.
  • There is a difference between what degree and non-degree students are charged.
  • The rush processing fee is per order, not per transcript.
  • There are additional charges for notary or apostille services.

The survey received responses from 688 institutions including several combinations of control, size, type, and countries.

Key Findings

  • In addition to credit-based transcripts, 21% of responding institutions issue undergraduate non-credit or continuing education transcripts, and 14% do the same for graduate and/or professional programs. Just 4% issue co-curricular transcripts.
  • Sixty-two percent have seen an increase in the number of official transcripts issued by their institution in the last five years.
  • One-in-five issue 20,000 or more per calendar year.
  • Half do not partner with a transcript vendor; 2% outsource the process entirely; and the remaining 48% partner with a vendor, and both produce transcripts.
  • Almost three quarters (72%) produce both paper and electronic official transcripts.
  • Almost three quarters (73%) charge a per transcript fee with no free copies.
  • Three percent have a one-time service fee
  • Another 2% have either a flat-fee per term or a flat fee per calendar year.
  • Fifteen percent do not charge for official transcripts
  • Among those who offer both paper and electronic transcripts, 62% charge the same for both, while 14% charge more for electronic, and 24% charge more for paper.
  • The average cost for a transcript, regardless of format, is between $5.00 and $9.99.
  • Most offer a walk-in service for official transcripts, and most charge a premium for that service.
  • More than half offer a rush service that reduces processing time and charge for this service.
  • Half offer an expedited delivery for transcripts bound for international destinations, and more than half offer the same service for domestic addresses.

Alternative Credentials: Beyond the Diploma and Transcript

In July, 639 AACRAO members responded to the survey about the existence of, or institutional interest in, alternative credentials. For the purpose of this survey, examples of alternative credentials include co-curricular transcripts, badges, e-certificates, comprehensive learner records, diploma supplements, e-diplomas, or any other micro-credential (a credential that is less than a certificate). In retrospect, we should have included two other branching points in the survey. The first would have been asking those who already have some alternative credentials if they were considering others. The second would have been asking if any alternative credentials were in use at any time in the past but eliminated for one reason or another. 

Key Findings

  • Just under a quarter offer at least one type of alternative credential.
  • Of those that do, the co-curricular transcript is the most common.
  • The co-curricular transcript is most often issued by student affairs whereas most of the others are issued most often by the registrar’s office.
  • Among the institutions without alternative credentials, 38% are considering offering at least one, and the co-curricular transcript is being considered by the majority.

Program Completion Time Limits

The topic of the September 60-Second Survey Program was completion time limits. Questions included whether time limits existed, institutional control over SIS program time limits, how time limits are applied, and what the time limits are. This topic is one that highlights the variety in practice between and among institutions of different sizes, types, and control. The survey received responses from 612 institutions.

Key Findings

  • Most (68%) institutions set program completion time limits.
  • Fewer than half (46%) have an automated method in the student information system to keep track of program time limits.
    • Among those that do have this ability, about half (49%) centrally manage the responsibility.
  • Nearly three quarters (74%) set the program completion time limit the same for all programs, degrees, majors, and student levels.
  • Seventy-three percent (73%) set program completion time limits by credential level exclusively (e.g., certificate, associate’s, bachelors).
  • Almost half (44%) somewhat agree with the following statement: "Students have easy access to their program completion time limit and are well-aware of the limit."
  • Just under half (46%) report that when a student changes their program he gets a new program completion time limit for the new program.
  • About one third (35%) require a student who returns after stopping out to complete the program within the original timeframe.
    • 30% set a new catalog and time limit.
    • 11% extend the time limit to exclude when the student was not enrolled at the institution.
  • Eighty-seven percent (87%) allow students to apply for a program time limit extension.

Admissions Practice Snapshot

The final 60-Second survey of the year focused on updating the research about admissions practices; the first was in July 2015. The survey received responses from 500 members who answered one or more of the questions in the survey. The survey logic enabled respondents to select that they were reporting on practices for undergraduate, graduate, or both populations. This branching logic resulted in 433 undergraduate and 207 graduate responses. Due to changes in the way data was collected by student level in this year’s survey, the results of the 2015 survey cannot be directly compared to this year’s results. However, the current data differentiates undergraduate from graduate practices whereas the 2015 survey did not. This year’s survey also breaks out questions about the use of technology from inquiries about practice and includes a question for institutions in the United States about the request for criminal justice information on the application for admission.

Key Findings

Undergraduate practices

  • Slightly more than half use holistic admissions methods.
  • Less than one quarter use a self-reported high school GPA for an initial admit decision.
  • Nearly one third use an admissions waitlist for high demand programs.
  • 60% require an enrollment deposit, and, of those, more than half require one that is $250 or less.
  • One in ten is using a chatbot.
  • More than three quarters are using a CRM.
  • More than half make an admissions decision within a week once the application is considered actionable.
  • 78% use enrollment projections to determine admissions targets.
  • Less than half have a practice for the admission of undergraduate applicants who do not meet traditional admissions criteria because of displacement.

Graduate practices

  • Less than one quarter allow a student to enroll with an undeclared/undecided program of study.
  • Slightly more than one third use a waitlist for high demand programs.
  • Sixteen percent use a self-reported undergraduate GPA for an initial admit decision.
  • One in ten is using a chatbot.
  • Less than half require an enrollment deposit, and of those, 46% require one that is $250 or less.
  • More than half take two weeks or less to make an admit decision once the application is considered actionable.
  • Fifty-six percent use enrollment projections to determine admissions targets.
  • Less than one third have a practice for the admission of graduate applicants who do not meet traditional admissions criteria because of displacement.

Criminal Justice Information – United States Institutions Only

  • Half ask criminal justice questions in the admissions process.
  • It is more prevalent for private, not-for-profit institutions to do so than public or private, proprietary.
  • Lower division institutions are the least likely to ask this information.

Registrar’s Career Profile

This is the second AACRAO registrar career profile report. The first was completed in 2015 and was limited to U.S. institutions; this iteration was not. Although the respondents are predominantly from the United States, there are also respondents from Canada, Armenia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United Arab Emirates. The AACRAO career profile series consists of reports on chief enrollment management officers (CEMO), chief admissions officers, and registrars. As states in the 2017 CEMO report, the two primary purposes of this series of reports are: 1) to build a longitudinal understanding of the career profile and position responsibilities for these three positions; and 2) to provide those seeking an equivalent position an understanding of the typical career path for doing so. 

In 2015, we were fortunate to have 703 respondents.  This year, 886 participated, and from them we have concluded that a registrar likely:

  • identifies as a woman
  • identifies as non-Hispanic, white
  • is between the ages of 45 and 49
  • holds a master’s degree
  • has been in higher education his/her entire career to date
  • has been in their current registrar position less than five years
  • reports to a vice president or equivalent position
  • came to their current registrar position from another registrar-related position or registrar position
  • serves on a wide variety of committees

More than 260 provided “words of wisdom” (firsthand comments, observations, opinions, and advice) based on their experience in the position, and 27 volunteered to provide their own story with the following themes in mind:

  • A Day in the Life
  • My Story So Far
  • If I Could Do it Over Again
  • Wow, I Wish I Knew That Before Becoming a Registrar
  • My Path to the Registrar Position
  • And other personal themes

From the words of wisdom, personal stories, and data, it is clear that the registrar position is complex, data-centric, and involves building and maintaining positive relationships throughout the institution.  Registrars need to be both detail oriented and big picture thinkers as well as technologically savvy and flexible. Several recommended needing and keeping a sense of humor. Not one shared a story that they had planned on being a registrar someday, yet almost all find the position and work rewarding. Many advocate seeking a mentor and also being a mentor. Select words of wisdom and personal stories are shared throughout the report.

A look at the next career move data over time-to-next-move provides an insight into the possible percentage of U.S. registrar vacancies that can be expected over time. Based on ballpark calculations, there will be more than 2,100 registrar vacancies in the United States within the next three years.  This calculation is based on the number of degree granting Title IV eligible U.S. institutions (N=6,760).  However, it does not exclude respondents from outside the United States, nor differentiate between college-level registrars and institution-wide registrars.  It does, however, exclude existing registrars seeking another registrar position.  In 2015, the anticipated number was 1,672.

AACRAO intentionally does not gather salary information for administrative positions because CUPA completes annual comprehensive salary studies. Their 2017 Administrators in Higher Education Salary report contains salary data for registrars. Table 1 illustrates some of the salary data points for this position by select institutional or demographic characteristics.


Excess Credit Accumulation: An Examination of Contributing Factors for first-Time Bachelor's Degree Earners


AACRAO partnered with a large public university in the southwestern United States to examine a multi-year data set and to complete a student survey in order to gain insights into variables that contribute to excess credit accumulation at graduation. Until state legislatures began to decrease funding for public colleges and universities, excess credit was not thought to be an issue worthy of discussion or consideration. One of the tactics to reduce full-time-equivalent-based budget funding was to cap the number of credits an institution was eligible to receive for budget allocation. Some states even decided to penalize students who earned credit above a maximum by charging them a higher tuition rate; some legislatures voted not to fund what they deemed excess credit. Institutional responses varied from reducing the number of credits required for a bachelor’s degree to what is now a fairly standard 120 semester hour credits. Engineering, business, and some hard science program credit hour requirements were also reduced but often remained in the upper 120s or lower 130s.

Key findings

  • Most graduates have excess credit accumulation at graduation with a first-time bachelor’s degree regardless of whether they are direct-entry or transfer students.
  • Complex statistical modeling is able to explain only a modest amount of the variance in excess credit accumulation between and within groups. Much of the variance is unexplained by these models.
  • Pursuing a STEM major, participating in an honors program, spending more time at the university, and attending multiple institutions are correlated with having excess credit at graduation.
  • Students with a history of academic probation are less likely to accumulate excess credits.
  • Most students are aware of the reasons they lost credit at transfer and/or have earned more than the standard 120 credit semester hours by the time they graduate.
  • Most students are neither pleased nor displeased with the excess credits and/or credit loss at transfer and know why one or both of these situations occurred.
  • Among students who are displeased, better academic advising was listed as the service that could have helped prevent credit loss and/or excess credits at graduation.


We would like to once again thank our members who regularly participate in our research projects. The information collected and reported back to you would not be possible without your participation. If you have any research ideas or any questions about the reports highlighted here and on the AACRAO research website, please contact wendyk@aacrao.org.


Wendy Kilgore, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Managing Consultant for AACRAO with more than 20 years of experience as a higher education administrator and consultant in the United States and Canada. Prior to her full-time work with AACRAO, Kilgore served as State Dean of Enrollment Services for the Colorado Community College System and Director of Admissions and Registrar for the Pima County Community College District.

[1] See <aacrao.org/research-publications/research>.

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