Higher education institutions and leaders have become increasingly focused on improving student outcomes. The field is on the hunt for ways to break down access barriers and empower students to pursue their academic and professional goals. Despite this push, a fundamental element is often overlooked—academic operations. 

Academic operations is a blanket term used to describe numerous rudimentary functions that are essential for higher education institutions. Curriculum management, catalog administration, classroom-space management, class-section scheduling/timetabling, course/program demand analysis, and degree-audit management are all considered academic operations. These basic processes are what allow students to access their education. 

Academic operations is a complex system of policy, practice, technology, and human resources. The level of complexity associated with these processes in association to departmental silos often contribute to barriers to student-centric academic operations. The student experience suffers when these processes aren’t optimized for their needs. Striving for academic operational excellence helps break down barriers to success by making these functions accessible. 

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) recently conducted a survey that sheds light on the current state of academic operations. As a leading voice in higher education, AACRAO’s vision is to cultivate a community that is concentrated on learner success powered by professional excellence and leadership in both enrollment and academic services. The survey aims to uncover maladaptive practices in academic operations and to serve as an aid for institutions in streamlining their processes. 

The survey creates a benchmark for the field of higher education, illuminating where institutions can evaluate academic processes to optimize functionality and, therefore, student success. The results of the academic operations benchmarking has the potential to serve as an institutional benchmarking tool and setting a reference against which future research can build upon. 

Responses for the survey were collected from 281 undergraduate-serving institutions. Key insights related to technology data, function and structure, catalog administration, and student barriers are explored below:

Technology Data

  • Although there are some common threads to academic operations between institutions, the policy, practice and use of technology varied widely
  • Other AACRAO research has found this description to be representative of several other benchmarked higher-education functions 
  • Complex technology stacks are used to support academic operations at most institutions
  • It is challenging for most institutions to use data effectively to support and evaluate academic operations

Function & Structure

  • On average, each academic operation is supported by one to four full-time-equivalent employees
  • 19% report that these functions differ at the graduate and/or professional student level

Catalog Administration

  • Fifty-four percent of institutions do not have an approved institutional course/program catalog before students are recruited or admitted to that catalog
  • 84% publish the catalog once a year; 45% of those do so in the summer
  • Students are most often made aware of their catalog of record when they meet with an academic advisor

Student Barriers

  • Limitations on how institutions make students aware of the related policies and practices was cited by 51% of respondents as a barrier to student-centric academic operations
  • 47% site a lack of technology to support academic operations as a barrier to student-centric academic operations
  • 46% note a lack of clarity in related policies as a barrier to student-centric academic operations

The goal of this survey was to not only highlight the complex ecosystem of how academic operations are conducted, but to also to call attention to areas for improvement and illustrate how students are impacted. The data in this report confirms that academic operations impact student success. Of the over 280 respondents, 90% agreed that academic operations practices at their institution lead to student barriers in some way.

While many resources are expended to increase student success by improving services performed by the registrar’s office, recruitment, admissions, financial aid, student life, and the bursar, academic operations are often left out of the discussion. Higher education institutions will do well to address the functions associated with academic operations, examining how the practice, policy, staffing, and technology of academic operations at their institutions ultimately contributes to student success.