Bridging the technology gap in the Registrar’s Office

December 2, 2019
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Competencies
  • Data Stewardship
  • Meetings, Workshops, and Trainings
  • Operations Management
  • Recordkeeping Compliance
  • Records and Academic Services
  • Reporting and Research
  • Student Academic Records and Academic Policy
  • Systems Management
  • Technological Knowledge
  • Technology
  • AM2020 Data Exchange
two smiling people working on computer code in office

Like many student service offices, Registrar staff are facing greater demands for technological and analytical savvy. But the demand for these skills is high, which can make it difficult to locate, afford, or retain IT professionals.

“So how do we bring in the technical expertise we need? How do we bridge the gap between functional and technical staff?” asked Leesa Beck, University Registrar at University of California - Santa Barbara. “It’s becoming clear that this is a challenge for many institutions, some of which are handling it better than others.”

The increasing technification of the office presents challenges such as:

Troubleshooting and testing. Whether the institution’s SIS is homegrown or commercial/customized, registrar staff tend to do a huge load of troubleshooting and testing.

“One of the heaviest burdens on my team is that when things go wrong, we need functional experts to troubleshoot and highly technical people to correct the software code,” said Michael Andersen, Registrar at the Naval Postgraduate School. “It always seems to come back to the registrar’s office with the need for testing and troubleshooting.”

“Our institution recently went through a new SIS implementation, and once we got over the hump of initial implementation, the true IT folks move on and leave it up to the registrar’s office to sort out how new functions work and how to role it out,” said Bryan Jones, Associate Registrar, Harvard University - Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “But students in the age of Amazon are used to finding what they want and getting it. We need staff who, though not programmers and software engineers, aren’t afraid to try new things and connect the dots.” 

Project (pain) management. Staff in the registrar's office are often asked to do the project management for new systems. They may gather and write the project requirements for the technical staff. 

In addition, after implementation, technical staff tend to move on, leaving the follow-up work, including pain management, to the functional staff. Sometimes registrar staff are responsible for training others on campus in how to use and troubleshoot new systems, and for bringing back problems to the technical staff when they arise. 

Data analysis. “In addition to managing systems, we’re getting a lot more requests for data and making more internal decisions on data,” added Shonna Marshall, Yale University Deputy University Registrar. “Finding staff who can understand and apply data is becoming another big challenge.” 

Classifying, paying, and retaining qualified professionals. On the HR side, issues around this shift include:

  • Getting the right job classifications for the roles and responsibilities.

  • Paying competitively for technical skills with pay scales oriented toward clerical/customer service roles. (Also, lack of control over pay scales.)

  • Enticing qualified people to stay when the private sector pay is higher.

  • Perpetuating the skill set as jobs turnover.

3 ways to deal with technificiation

1. Develop a skill set from within. “Rather than hiring a technical expert and training them to understand the registrar’s office, we’ve had good luck developing our functional staff’s technical skills,” Beck said. “Our campus CIO recently told me, referring to our Associate Registrar for Information Systems, Anthony Schmid, who has a reputation University of California system-wide as being someone who effectively brings together the functional and technical worlds, that he was a ‘unicorn’ -- meaning it's impossible to find and hire staff like him. To this I replied, ‘I've got at least five other people in the office who are approaching Anthony's level, and could step into his job if he left it.’ Now our CIO thinks of Registrar as the office that breeds unicorns!”

If these staff become quite proficient, they may get poached. But Beck considered that a potential benefit, rather than a loss -- sort of like being a “farm team” for campus of professionals with student service, project management, and IT skills.

“Being a training ground for staff, we’re perpetuating a skill set and building allies throughout campus,” Beck added. 

2. Documentation and knowledge management. “There’s nothing like having knowledge of procedures wiped out by an upgrade or by losing the people who understand how to do something,” Andersen said. “Increasingly, registrars need to understand how to preserve knowledge, train staff and keep knowledge fresh.”

Jones’ office even created a new role of Documentation Manager. Everyone agreed that it is incredibly important to be proactive about documentation in general so that if there is staff turnover, another person can step in and still run the process.

3. Manage expectations. “People these days are used to technology being easier because of what you can do at home online,” Andersen said. “The education market is necessarily the same. Sometimes the registrar has to manage the expectations of students and even faculty about what we can and can’t do, and how quickly.”

These four professionals will come together to discuss these changes, their offices’ solutions, and lessons learned in a roundtable session at AACRAO 2020. Learn more about the data & transcript sessions at the meeting, and register now.