Your Guide to Student Information System Software for Higher Education Institutes

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Mark Britton
by Mark Britton 2 January 2019

Who’d have thought we’d live in a time when some universities are rumoured to be close to bankruptcy? With growing competition within the UK’s Higher Education sector, demand continues to grow for robust and feature-rich student information systems that can help attract and retain increasingly fastidious students.

In this guide, I outline the key players in the market, what to look out for in choosing your next system and other important consideration in directing a successful long-term project.

The times they are a changin’ for students and universities

Not long ago, many universities were satisfied with a reasonably simple database to manage student data. But over the last ten years the requirements from individual departments has grown significantly in order to keep up with changing behaviours, expectations and technologies.

Today the average millennial expects to be able to interact instantly across multiple communication channels. But in trying to keep up with shifting demands many universities have created new problems for themselves, not least acquiring multiple systems to cater to the differing needs along the student lifecycle.

In our own experience it’s not unusual to find a university having adopted 10-20 different CRM (customer relationship management) systems. Such ‘shadow IT’ scenarios create obvious issues, included siloed information, and diseconomies of scale that impact IT budgets. And now that GDPR has become a reality, IT teams are also grappling with data compliance issues.

The pace of digital transformation is not slowing either, as I outline later on.

The rise of cloud-based student information systems

As consumers we are all familiar with the technology that is effortless to use and interact with; think Amazon or Facebook, for example. Yet many universities still have to deal with outdated technology that is unable to communicate with other tools, and user interfaces that baffle a younger generations now entering the workplace unaccustomed to an ever connected digital world.

Things are changing though, and a newer cloud-based student information systems, such as Crimson’s own solution that’s built on Microsoft Dynamics 365, provide a more intuitive interface and a platform that can more easily integrate with third-party tools and add-ons.

While Cloud promises many benefits (lower cost of ownership and fewer IT infrastructure requirements, for example), data security and availability should be high on a buyer’s criteria to ensure that the promise of cloud comes with reliability and a safe environment to store personal data.

Questions to ask potential student information system suppliers

In assessing your options for a new student information system we first have to consider what such a system needs to do.

In Crimson’s view, student information systems are now bleeding into other parts of university business life. There are just too many touch points to list for this guide, but in short, the aim should be a system that has the potential to deliver a 360-degree view of a student – before, during and after their time studying with you.

Many people claim that data is this century’s oil. Yet without a robust, integrated system that can give you a single version of the truth, the promise of new riches will remain elusive.

Moreover, the potential to capture greater data volumes than ever before is opening up the possibility of artificial intelligence and machine learning that can observe, for example, behaviour that suggests a student may be at risk of dropping out. Higher education is ripe for such technology and it’s a matter of time before pioneers begin to take advantage of it.

However, first, you need to fix the disparate data problem. Here are some important considerations when assessing your options for a modern student information system:

  1. Is the system user-friendly? If providing a more productive system for your existing team doesn’t convince you that a user-friendly system isn’t just a nice-to-have, there’s also plenty of research highlighting the different expectations millennials have about the workplace and the tools they are given to do their job. But what does user-friendly mean in practice? In our view it’s a combination of a modern user interface and workflows aligned with the way your teams already process information; this is a delicate balance, and it’s crucial to get it right early on because it’s at this point you can win hearts and minds and have a change project that moves forward successfully. Ask potential suppliers some tough questions about the workflows in the system AND how the implementation aligns with how your people work.
  1. Can the system be easily customised? Aligned with the first question, you will also want to know how easy it is to personalise the system. However, be careful – customisation comes at a cost because there is not only the cost of making changes now, there are potential pitfalls later on when it comes time to upgrade the system. If you have customised a system too much, then upgrades can become particularly problematic, leaving users frustrated as updates introduce errors and code conflicts. When exploring customisation, consider these questions:
    1. How much of a gap exists between the top 20% of your processes versus the vanilla version of the system?
    2. What is the daily rate of qualified developers? Check out IT Jobs Watch to see what contractors typically charge. Ask previous users of the system for their experience of upgrading software and the actual time required to accommodate customisations.
    3. Ask suppliers how configurable the system is before code-based customisation is necessary. For example, Crimson’s Microsoft Dynamics-based system includes a highly configurable layer that avoids using expensive developers and is baked into the standard Microsoft Dynamics product.
  1. How does the system support student communication? The explosion of communication channels poses a particular challenge when you have the goal of creating a 360-degree student view. Therefore consider exploring how your new system can both communicate and capture interactions across multiple channels (such as social, SMS, email, phone and in-person) and platforms (such as mobile, tablet and desktop). The rise in self-service also makes integrated portals an important consideration too.
  1. What is the scope for integration? You likely have scores, if not hundreds of systems across multiple campuses. While a single source of truth is the ultimate aim, making the transition to fewer disparate systems will inevitably require integration layers that at least provide your users with more seamless user experiences. Therefore it’s worth exploring with potential suppliers how easily their system can integrate with other systems. What tools and APIs do they have to make integration easier and more affordable? For example, Microsoft Dynamics has the advantage of the Azure suite of cloud tools - such as Microsoft Flow – that make integration and master data management a more straightforward project.
  1. What is the total cost of ownership? Cloud software has its advantages over traditional on-premise software, but also consider any additional fees for intellectual property. This is particularly the case when looking at pre-configured solutions based on existing applications, such as those built on Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce. On top of the standard licence costs, some suppliers charge an additional ongoing fee for the use of the configurations they have developed to meet the needs of higher education. Crimson chooses not to charge for such pre-configured accelerators, but others may lock you in contractually.
  1. How future-proof is the system? In a cloud-based ‘software-as-a-service’ world many solutions now benefit from regular updates, leaving traditional on-premise systems lagging behind. Continual updates require many resources for software developers, so it’s worth thinking about how future-proof the companies behind the software are, as well as any third party intermediaries. Are they financially secure? What is the published roadmap of the student information system and what investment has been committed to its continual development?
  1. How flexible and insightful are the reporting tools? With the goal of a richer data set comes the promise of more insight. And while most systems come pre-installed with some reporting dashboards, in our experience every report we create often leads to more questions than answers from users who want to slice and dice that data. Therefore, when evaluating your options try to look beyond the pretty reports in standard demos and ask how that information can be more thoroughly queried by non-technical users. For example, in addition to the reports in Microsoft Dynamics, many of Crimson’s clients like to work with Microsoft Power BI to produce additional reports and dashboards that are more specific to their role and responsibilities.

Student Information System Software Reviews

To offer a fair evaluation of systems other than Crimson’s own Microsoft Dynamics solution, I’ve gathered together the most popular systems, with average scores recorded by Gartner and G2 Crowd as at 2 January 2018. Click on the percentages to go directly to user reviews.

 

Gartner Peer Insights Score

G2 Crowd Score

Overall Average Score

Salesforce for Higher Ed

n/a

90%

90%*

Campus Management

80%

n/a

80%*

PeopleSoft Campus Solutions

70%

78%

74%

Jenzabar SIS

84%

64%

74%

Workday Student

70%

78%

74%

Tribal

50%

90%

70%

Banner by Ellucian

70%

60%

65%

 

As systems grow in sophistication, similarities between systems now outweigh their differences; the biggest challenge remains in managing the people and the change project.

I therefore recommend you spend just as much time scrutinising the implementation team as you will on the actual software. Crimson takes an unusual approach to project implementation, instead taking an iterative and collaborative approach, seeking quick wins that convince sceptical users that, this time, a new student information system will help rather than hinder their progress. It’s an approach we wrote about when I met the University of Salford and talked about the plans they have with Microsoft Dynamics 365.

Attracting Students In Critical Times

Topics: higher-education, student information systems