The Evolving Role of the University Registrar

Matthew Pittinsky explores what the rise of academic computing teaches us about a 500-year-old position that could increasingly transform higher education.

September 10, 2019
 
 
Istock/vaijira Thongson

Last spring, staff from the registrar offices of 20 or so colleges and universities met on the campus of Georgetown University to share best practices. The keynote that kicked off the event was delivered by Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. His talk covered a lot of ground, given the many policy issues and trends facing higher education. Indeed, it was ACE's full plate that made me take notice when he said, "I couldn't be a registrar these days."

He meant it as a compliment.

What is it about the registrar's role today that makes it particularly challenging, which is to say particularly important and central, to a campus and to higher education? On the surface, the registrar's work on course catalogues, registration, curriculum management, degree audit, credit transfer, transcript fulfillment and the like represent a pretty stable core to the job. Dig deeper, however, and the answer is clear. Registrars are located at several intersections: 1) academic life and administrative life, 2) protecting student data and making student data actionable and 3) supporting student-led pathways and scaffolding them. Those intersections, among others, are fundamentally transforming the profile of the registrar.

There is a precedent for this type of rapid role change. It can be found 20 years ago across campuses in a very different function: academic computing.

In 1997, when my co-founders and I started Blackboard, we encountered a very different university information technology organization than exists today. Two separate professional organizations, Educom and CAUSE, represented administrative computing and academic computing. On most campuses, administrative computing and networks were the prestige work of IT and where institutions invested the vast majority of their resources. There were exceptions of course, most notably the work of Carol Twigg and Educom's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative. But for the most part, what we take for granted today as the learning and learner-centered focus of campus IT was not the norm back then.

By 2000, it was becoming increasingly clear that technology adoption was highly aligned with the key strategic imperatives of higher education: addressing issues of instructional access, cost and quality. The "front office" of a university -- instruction, supported by academic computing -- offered the potential for a multiple of the value created by the "back office." Leading and managing the adoption of instructional technology was crucial to executing on the president's or provost's strategic plan. (Think everything from online programs to personalized learning.)

Fast forward to 2019, and the strategic imperatives of higher education increasingly intersect with the traditional role of the registrar, amplifying that role and elevating it into an even more central position on the leadership team of a campus. To be sure, institutions differ in the particular priorities affecting the registrar, but across higher education, three common examples are particularly worth highlighting.

Keeper of the credential. Registrars are responsible for academic records and credentials, from the transcript to the diploma (usually). That places them at the center of two interrelated priorities on many campuses: 1) growth in certificate and micro-credential programs that are expanding the types and formats of credentials issued under the seal of an institution and 2) efforts to make credentials more comprehensive as learner records and more insightful to employers and other stakeholders.

The registrar is perfectly positioned to be the keeper of competencies and to connect what courses teach, how students perform and how best to represent what students know and how well they know it across a variety of program formats. Learners and potential employers are driving these priorities. They are asking for more responsive credentialing that communicates outcomes and makes transcripts, certificates, diplomas, and badges more easily understood and actionable.

Simply put, if presidents and provosts are focused on program innovations aimed at improving the employment outcomes of their graduates, the credentials that translate those innovations into signals for employers become vitally important.

Conductor of intra- and extra-institution degree pathways. I can't prove it, but two of the 10 most cited stats by the higher education cognoscenti must surely be: 1) the number of American adults with some credit but no degree (37 million) and (2) the six-year graduation rate at U.S. colleges and universities (57 percent). When combined with the demographic trends that will put stress on recruitment of first-time, full-time freshman at many institutions over the next several decades, those stats make clear why retention, completion and improved credit transfer pathways are top priorities on many campuses. Enter that illustrative (if underdefined and overused) term: "Pathways."

The registrar's traditional responsibilities for degree audit, transfer evaluation, course scheduling and registration -- as well as so many other critical processes and technology systems -- put them front and center in this area. Technology is a driver here, as older solutions from larger companies are rapidly giving way to newer offerings that are radically simpler to use, apply data to personalize student experiences, and break down the barriers between functions that are really part of one integrated process.

Rare is the registrar with whom I've spoken who isn't evaluating, kicking off or wrapping up (for now) a system and process evaluation related to improving students' experiences registering for courses, understanding their path to degrees and more.

Guardian of data privacy. The effect of technology on university operations and classroom learning is profound and a net positive story. But it certainly comes with its challenges -- student data privacy being chief among them. Yes, personalized learning is a powerful concept, and there are great third-party tools to be adopted. And, yes, the same is true of academic analytics and student candidate discovery tools for employers. But each of these trends raises important questions about student data access, management and privacy. And they are but just a few examples.

In their traditional role of record keepers, registrars have become experts in the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), student record policies and a range of related privacy concerns. That expertise and the professional tradition and culture of registrars position them well to play an even larger part in navigating the issues associated with ever-expanding data models of student learning and administrative activity.

While these three examples are far from exhaustive, they more than explain why Ted Mitchell won't be applying for a registrar position any time soon. More to the point, they illustrate the remarkable impact registrars are increasingly making on their campuses.

Of course, one crucial difference between the role of academic computing in 1997 and the role of registrar today is that the registrar has a 550-year history, with references in university records to officials carrying out registrar duties as far back as the 15th century. The registrar's role already begins with a long-established and respected title. It's a distinct role in that it sits at the intersection of key administrative processes that are vital for student success and the academic life of the university. As the University of Maryland assistant professor Ethan Hutt notes, registrars have long been the "figure-it-out" leadership role on most campuses, not least because they excel at cross-institutional coordination and consensus building.

Before closing, I should acknowledge that while I have been a tenure-track faculty member and engaged in higher education issues for many years, I'm also a "vendor," given my leadership role at Parchment, which serves registrar offices. Some people might say I'm overstepping to look at the role of the registrar and to speculate on some of the major ways in which it can and will evolve. But what I lack in direct experience, I hope I make up in offering a broader context.

Back in 1997, faculty members were just beginning to embrace the idea of course websites, eventually leading to the adoption of enterprise-wide learning management systems after 2000 that, in many ways, were the systems that suddenly changed the entire profile of academic computing. Similarly, today's focus on learner pathways leads directly to the expectation that we will communicate more meaningful information in terms of competencies, as well as share more personal and dynamic types of learning records with different types of audiences, from enrollment to employment.

On any campus, it takes a village to turn ideas into action. But we should recognize that at the center of enrollment and employment pathways is the registrar, whose evolving role encompasses challenging and important work with transformational impact.

Bio

Matthew Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment and co-founder and former CEO of Blackboard Inc. He is on the faculty of Arizona State University and also serves on the board of trustees of The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

 

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