The Emerging Role of the Registrar in Enrollment Management

May 16, 2019
  • AACRAO C&U
  • AACRAO Publications
  • registrar

By Rodney Parks and Alexander Taylor

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and robotics in recent decades have caused significant disruption in the contemporary workforce. While fears about job displacement have led to negative public opinion regarding many of these developments, Bob Ubell, Vice Dean Emeritus for Online Learning at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, believes such fears are unfounded. In a 2014 Pew Research Center article, Ubell said, “As history tells us, once initial destructive tendencies displace workers, some industries emerge with greater economic power beyond the overturned industry, creating large-scale new industries requiring an even larger labor force than the one displaced” (Smith & Anderson, 2014, 36). Although technology’s future impact on work remains uncertain, humans consistently adapt to find jobs that complement the capabilities of new mechanical coworkers. The same can be said of the increased automation occurring in registrar’s offices today.

The role of the university registrar is unquestionably changing. As automation eliminates manual data entry and paper forms, campus constituents often fail to understand the registrar’s role. The modern registrar’s office functions more like an office of information technology than of service. Our work is at a crossroads: Should we remain technicians of registration and records, or is there inherent value in the data we harbor? When faced with job displacement, existing sectors adjust or rebrand to find new purpose in the workplace. While registrars are being outcompeted by technology in processing forms and reporting, we continue to find value in our human gifts of entrepreneurship, creativity, and systems thinking. These skills provide a natural foundation for the emerging role of registrars as enrollment managers.

Recently a provost remarked that registrars lack the necessary skills to be enrollment managers. If we consider only the traditional definition of enrollment management, that may be correct—to some degree. When we think of enrollment management, we tend to think of admissions offices: recruiters strategizing how to attract and matriculate a diverse range of students. However, while those tasks are essential, they are just one part of the equation.

Registrars and other university offices are integral to students’ full life cycle, from prospective students to alumni. In this more encompassing definition of enrollment management, registrars perform a number of duties that overlap with the objectives of enrollment management.

This perspective paper analyzes the changes in the historic responsibilities of the registrar and presents new insights into the emerging role of the registrar as a leader in the field of enrollment management. The registrar profession is naturally one of systems thinking: utilizing technology to create systems and communications among offices to achieve intended outcomes. Because registrars operate between the worlds of academic and student affairs, they are able to make connections among various initiatives and strategies on campus. Effective registrars are self-aware regarding their place at the institution and are willing to test new strategies and technologies to improve operational efficiencies for students, faculty, and staff.

Advancements in technology have liberated our work beyond operational management, providing the opportunity to begin evaluating policies and systems in order to engage and connect students, academic instruction and curriculum, and campus support services.

University Withdrawals

A long-held role of the registrar with regard to enrollment management has been to uphold the policies and procedures regarding student withdrawals from the institution. A longitudinal study by Shapiro et al. (2018) found that of the 2.8 million students who entered college for the first time in fall 2011, 38 percent transferred to a different institution at least once within six years. Students reported academic, social, and financial reasons for transferring, among others.

Historically, the registrar’s office has been responsible for developing systems to track students at risk of transferring or dropping out of the institution. A common practice is to use midterm grades as a method of identifying and tracking students who are struggling academically. Using the same system, faculty can report at-risk students who are struggling in their classes. In cases of at-risk students, any details related to why a student may be struggling academically can help ensure that the student receives necessary support and guidance. Thus, an effective communication system allows faculty to provide notes detailing why they believe a student may be struggling in their class. This in turn can prompt the registrar’s office to communicate with available resources and support channels (e.g., academic advising, counseling services) for assistance.

For students who do drop out of the institution, policies implemented by the registrar’s office can help streamline the process for withdrawal (as well as for re-admittance). Registrars must also consider how the institution handles the student record after a student has dropped out. What does the institution do to retain students who are thinking of dropping out? What institutional policies exist to encourage students who do leave to return?

For students who decide to return, registrars must consider how the institution readmits them. Any of myriad circumstances—from a family emergency to an internship or employment opportunity—may cause a student to leave school for a semester (or more). A  cumbersome readmission policy may dissuade students from returning to the institution. Registrars must seek ways to streamline the process to encourage persistence toward degree completion. This gives students some relief from uncontrollable life events that risk derailing their completion of a degree.

In fall 2018, Elon University instituted a new policy that allows students to take a leave of absence for any of various circumstances. Prior to the policy change, all disenrollments from the institution were classified as either regular or medical withdrawals. This policy failed to properly classify students who chose to take a hiatus from their studies for reasons such as family emergencies or internship opportunities, among others. In all such cases, the registrar’s office “froze” all withdrawn students’ individual academic programs and denied the students access to institutional resources. Further, all students who withdrew were required to undergo the same readmission procedure, regardless of reason for withdrawal. This created a barrier for students seeking a short-term hiatus from the institution.

Under the new leave of absence policy, administrators classify students either as having withdrawn, which indicates the student’s permanent departure and results in freezing the student’s record, or as taking a short-term leave of absence. When the leave of absence status is activated, a student may take up to two consecutive fall and spring semesters off. Students may receive an extension of the initial leave of absence with approval of the registrar and the dean of students.

If a student taking a short-term leave of absence subsequently chooses to leave the institution or fails to return by the designated return date, the student’s status changes to withdrawn, triggering permanent withdrawal procedures that disable the student’s institutional access. 

Withdrawal data should be used to identify trends shared by at-risk students and to help identify potential barriers to success. Elon University uses a Qualtrics survey to collect information about why students transfer out and to determine what the institution needs to do to help retain students in the future. It is worth noting that students who withdraw seem to provide candid responses to questions about the institution and the challenges that resulted in their transfer.

Academic Planning Aids Retention

As record keepers, registrars have extensive knowledge of the academic programs and courses offered by their institutions. We can seamlessly capture the state of the institution through reports, enrollment data, and curriculum planning. These reports help us spot linchpins in programs and deficiencies in course offerings. Proper data aggregation is crucial when analyzing course efficiencies. Without proper aggregation methods, we may collect data that prove unusable or, worse, that misrepresent course offerings. We can pull from information systems a breadth of course data, including high-demand courses and low-demand meeting times.

In addition, the registrar’s office must serve as a bridge for communication between students and academic programs. Registrars traditionally have produced degree audits and academic catalogs to achieve this. While these tools are vital to academic success, we can dig deeper by producing interactive tools for students. One such initiative at Elon University is the development and launch of a new degree audit system that helps students visualize their academic programs for effective four-year planning. The new platform allows students to select courses for their four-year plan and immediately see how the plan interacts with their degree audit. The application also has the capability of recording students’ interests and identifying courses that match particular keywords or descriptions. This functionality opens the door for exploration across disciplines and provides advisors with insight into how an academic program may inform students’ academic and co-curricular activities.

Changes to Traditional Credit Hours

Another enrollment management strategy that registrars can implement to improve retention is variable course credit. Institutions traditionally run course sections at a standard, fixed credit-hour rate. However, this can be an archaic policy for students who need only one or two credits to complete a degree requirement. This is common, for example, among transfer students whose originating institutions operated on a different credit-hour system and who often require a small number of credits to satisfy their degree requirements.

Another barrier is the “overload rule” that limits students to a maximum number of credit hours per semester and that may penalize students who exceed that limit by assessing a surcharge on their tuition. Registrars should encourage faculty to modify credit options by offering course sections with variable credit hours. Like registering for courses that are split level (e.g., upper/lower level), a student could register for variable credits (e.g., two or four credit hours). Faculty would provide different versions of the syllabus to reflect the appropriate workload for the course. Contact minutes would remain the same, with out-of-class assignments variable according to credit load.

Elon University’s Office of the Registrar has used variable credit hours to increase participation in global education (study abroad) programs. Study abroad programs can be a transformational experience and a means by which students expand their worldview through intercultural learning. Such programs typically constitute an enormous investment by students, both financially and academically. The applicability of study abroad course credit to a student’s degree program varies widely, and a program that doesn’t fit perfectly into an individual’s course of study may increase time to degree completion.

To resolve this issue and encourage global engagement, Elon University offers variable-credit, travel-embedded courses. As they do for other study abroad experiences, students apply for the travel-embedded course through the Global Education Center, which includes a credit-based course and non-credit travel abroad. Students choose to register for the course at the two- or four-credit level, with variable coursework. Such options allow students to have an experience abroad while completing a full course load that applies to their major.

Elon’s registrar was the first faculty member to pilot a travel-embedded course offering variable credits. Of the 22 students in the course, twelve utilized the variable credit option without having to register beyond the credit overload. The course counted for only elective credit for all twelve students using the option.

Six of the students who took the variable-credit course had never participated in a global education program, so their engagement in this opportunity helped the institution meet its goal of increasing participation in global education. Variable-credit courses have also been tested during Elon’s summer school, yielding similar results. Summer courses offered for variable credit can be marketed to students who need to satisfy a general education requirement as well as to students who want to take an interdisciplinary course for two or four credits. Variable-credit courses such as Sociology of Suicide and Grief and Loss with Children have been popular among the student body and have generated new income.

Experiential Learning and Enrollment Management

Co-curricular activities constitute an element of the student record that continues to expand. While most co-curricular activity was the province of student affairs, it has found its way into academic affairs as institutions increasingly recognize the value of learning beyond the classroom. This shift can best be explained through the development and implementation of Kuh’s high-impact practices, which foster greater engagement between students and faculty in addition to facilitating various methods of learning (Kuh & O’Donnell 2013). As curricular and co-curricular activities continue to blend, so, too, does the collaboration between academic and student affairs. The registrar’s office is at the heart of both.

As for academic performance, most institutions have the metrics and systems with which to track co-curricular activity. We can now accurately assess the outcomes of students who participate in co-curricular activities and compare them to the outcomes of those who do not so as to evaluate the impact of these practices on retention and other behaviors. These data are especially valuable for new students. Often, institutions implement first-year seminars or other experiences in order to foster a stronger sense of belonging. And while we have traditionally assessed only academic performance, we now can also evaluate levels of engagement in high-impact practices.

Gallup’s (2014) Student Survey consistently finds that students who participate in engaged learning activities such as semester-long projects or faculty mentorship are confident in their ability to succeed in school and, later, in the workplace. Student engagement also correlates with students’ understanding of a degree’s relevance and how higher education will inform their life beyond the classroom. Strada-Gallup (2018) found that students who believed their degree was highly relevant to their career and life were more likely to report that college was worth the cost and that they received a high-quality education.

In 2017, the Office of the Registrar at Elon University began to mine co-curricular data in an effort to track student engagement (Taylor et al. 2018). Elon’s co-curricular data include five of Kuh’s high-impact practices: global education (study abroad), internships, undergraduate research, service learning, and leadership. From this data set, we can analyze the academic performance of students (by considering GPA, retention rates, etc.) who participate in co-curricular activities as compared to that of students who do not. The results inform crucial insights into the behaviors of first-year students and confirm that co-curricular experiences are vital to institutional retention.

While student behavior beyond the classroom is important, it is equally important for students to understand the value of these experiences. Even engaged students struggle to understand the relationship of co-curricular experiences to meaningful skills related to the workforce. With large percentages of their time dedicated to academics, many students fail to consider how their co-curricular experiences may be equally important in the scheme of a four- year degree. This is where registrars have an opportunity to connect with students and positively influence retention.

Registrars have a role to play in further connecting systems to improve the student experience; artificial intelligence has begun to help them blend technologies for this purpose. Already, systems can alert students when they are missing prerequisites or co-requisites, inform them when courses are offered, and allow them to chat with an advisor at any point in their development of a four-year curriculum. New functions—like adding co- curricular elements to a four-year planner, previewing four-year plans as they relate to specific jobs, and linking course descriptions with outcomes/competencies, syllabuses, and faculty videos about a course—are all resources that will enhance the student experience.

Academic Calendars

Creative enrollment practices allow many institutions to offset some of the revenue lost each semester due to students withdrawing or studying abroad. Admissions offices now have processes that allow students to start in any academic term. And with the growth of learning communities, linked courses, and faculty-in-residence programming, institutions are intentionally creating environments of engagement and belonging for incoming students—including transfer students.

Because registrars help create the academic calendar, our office can help implement programs that support student engagement as well as an institution’s enrollment management initiatives. For example, institutions could consider admitting cohort-based transfer students at the half term (i.e. midway through a semester) and linking these cohorts to core courses. Institutions usually have residential capacity during the spring term because of students studying abroad, medical withdrawals, and academic dismissals. While it can be difficult to create a living-learning community on the half term, linked courses and a cohort structure may help institutions overcome these challenges.

Transfer Articulation on Steroids

Transfer classes have always been a challenge to registrars everywhere, and concerns about transfer credit often impede enrollment by students hoping to transfer. While some schools give the registrar’s office authority to make the initial determination of transferability, others rely on faculty to process transfer equivalencies. Technology has helped by providing national databases of courses and institutional equivalency tables, but more attention to this challenge is needed.

Most institutions don’t invest resources in prospective students until they apply and are admitted. Even the standard systems many of us use don’t allow a degree audit to be viewed until a student is admitted and ready to be advised. New systems being developed will allow prospective students to use articulation tables, save catalog pages under a log-in, and build four-year plans without even applying. Imagine the power of providing students with the ability to make an informed decision and then having student-initiated plans migrate to the student system upon application. Such systems not only will aid in recruitment but also will reduce the surprises and frustrations that transfer students often experience when they matriculate.

Registrars are also being asked to do more at the national level to showcase institutional credentials. New initiatives like Credential Engine hold promise for students seeking more information about credentials, competencies, and programs using standard search engines. As data are aggregated, students will be able to compare what institutions have to offer long before they apply to any programs. These systems also have the potential to create value in other credential types, such as certificates, by aligning outcomes with skills employers seek in specific jobs.

Summary                                           

In 1995, David Lanier, then university registrar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote, “As a result of technology, the registration and records functions are becoming more automated and the registrar is becoming a data manager . . . However, there is danger lurking in the lure of technology. Technology can turn the registrar into an invisible entity on campus.” For the past two decades, registrar’s offices have grappled with the advancement of automation as they seek to define their ongoing meaning and purpose on college campuses. Should registrars become merely an extension of information technology offices, specializing in the transactional operations of records and registration? Or can the registrar’s office grow to influence policy, drive change, and build systems across the institution?

The role of the registrar is increasingly analytical rather than transactional. Our objectives align closely with those of enrollment management as we support our institutions’ goals of matriculating and retaining students. If the artificial intelligence revolution is any indication, higher education will need to adapt its business model and instructional approaches in order to educate a diverse student population. Technologies regulated by the registrar’s office foster communication and interactions among students, staff, and faculty. Policies developed by registrar’s offices will promote flexibility in students’ academic programs, encouraging increased exploration and promoting experiential learning. Finally, registrars will be the catalysts for institutional change as higher education continues to support the demands of an uncertain future.

References

Gallup, Inc. 2014. Great jobs, great lives: The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report.

Kuh, G., and K. O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Lanier, D. 1995. The mission of the registrar today. College & University. 70(2): 64–71.

Pew Research Center. 2014, August. AI, robotics, and the future of jobs. Available at: pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs

Shapiro, D., A. Dundar, F. Huie, P. K. Wakhungu, A. Bhimdiwali, A. Nathan, and H. Youngsik. 2018, July. Transfer and mobility: A national view of student movement in postsecondary institutions, fall 2011 cohort (Signature Report No. 15). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Smith, A., & J. Anderson. 2014. AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2014/08/Future-of-AI-Robotics-and-Jobs.pdf

Strada Education Network. 2018, May. From college to life: Relevance and the value of higher education. Available at: https://stradaeducation.gallup.com/reports/232583/from-college-to-life-part- 2

Taylor, A., R. Brown, R. Parks, J. Parrish, J., & Hayes, C. 2018. Innovation to inquiry: Creating additional value from credential expansion. College & University. In Press.


Alexander Taylor
is an Assistant Registrar for Communications at Elon University, where he has served since 2017. Mr. Taylor has published articles on numerous topics including dual enrollment, alternative credentialing, and strategic enrollment initiatives, among others.

Rodney Parks, Ph.D., is Registrar, Assistant to the Provost, and assistant professor of human services studies at Elon University, where he has served since 2013. He has published numerous studies on unique student populations, and is perhaps best known for his work on the AACRAO/NASPA Expanding the Academic Record project.