Navigating the Emerging World of Student Information Systems

Bill Balint, CIO, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Perhaps the best news about student information systems (SIS) is that there are more robust, practical options for colleges and universities than at any time in history. Perhaps the worst news is that finding the ideal combination of SIS tools is probably the most challenging in history.

"Traditional SIS vendors are taking varied approaches to emerging SaaS and cloud-hosted era, trying hard to gain new customers and perhaps even harder not to lose current ones"

There have technically been many SIS choices for more than a generation now. In fact, more than two dozen companies claimed to provide some SIS functionality during the pre-Y2K era of the Late 1990s. But many were built to address specific institutions based upon size, staffing, and financial situation. The choices for any one institution were limited in most cases.

Indeed, most of the largest institutions implementing SIS’ tended to congregate around one solution and mid-sized schools around another. The most diversity occurred at the smallest institutions. Using the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education as an example, the 11 largest universities are split between two SIS’, while the three smallest institutions each utilize an SIS unique to themselves within the State System.

But the landscape that dominated the past two decades is changing rapidly. Software as a service (SaaS) and the lift-and-shift of traditional on-premise SIS’ into vendor-driven cloud hosting are all the rage. The days of an SIS running on premise within an institution’s data center are fading in a hurry. Agile development techniques have helped ignite an arms race of functionality to the world of SIS’, each hoping to outdo the competition’s latest enhancement. Since a vendor selling SaaS no longer must worry about an institution’s limitations regarding hardware, upgrade timing or IT staffing, responding to a competitor’s new functionality should eventually occur in a relative instant.

These trends also continue to lower the bar for potential vendors to enter the SIS space (especially for ancillary applications) and this further adds to the institution’s options. Most higher education IT leaders probably have their own version of the story in which an end user returned from a conference touting a product they saw in the exhibit hall. The user was typically sold the joint promise of a fast implementation requiring no new hardware without a need to even bother the IT staff—all wrapped into a simple subscription fee. From the latest student-centered customer relationship management (CRM) to sleeker financial aid systems, more comprehensive student life software and most everything in between, this might be the golden age for best-of-breed products looking to ‘bolt on’ to an SIS.  

Of course, reality does not always align with vendor claims. It is true that federated identity management has opened the door to more universal single sign-on opportunities that can ease the user experience desiring yet another niche product. But the often-expected data integrations can take time, be complex and need on-going attention. Vendor promises for universal integration have yet to be realized.

So, what is the best way forward?

The first consideration is to stay the course with the institution’s current SIS at least for the present or perhaps simply extend functionality instead of pursuing a rip-and-replace strategy.

Maybe consider an upgrade to a more modern and intuitive user interface with the current product, perhaps adding CRM, advising, co-curricular tracking or student life tools to further extend its life.

The grass is not always greener in the SIS space to be certain. The best product combination in 2018 and the best in 2019 may not be the same. The evolving combination of SaaS, vendor-hosted options and best-of-breed ancillary systems is a far cry from just a decade ago when just 3-4 players owned much of the market.

It is against this moving backdrop that many institutions must do ‘more with less’ and the pressure on higher education leaders to produce added efficiencies has never been higher. But that does not mean an institution should change just for the sake of change.

But for those situations where the need for significant SIS change is obvious, gaining consensus as to what problem needs solved is a great place to start. An inability to find such consensus can be very telling and may signal that a hiatus is warranted while further self-study is conducted.

Is there general agreement that the loss of key staff, the need for IT staff to be redeployed on other priorities or maybe the pending major expenditure for a hardware upgrade is enough of a problem that a new SIS is warranted?

Cases in which the current SIS’ core functionality simply no longer meets the needs of the institution are the most challenging. This includes cases in which the current SIS vendor abandoning the institution’s product or is failing to update the look-and-feel to meet user expectations.

Institutions will want to be careful not to rush the decision when abandoning their current system. Traditional SIS vendors are taking varied approaches to emerging SaaS and cloud-hosted era, trying hard to gain new customers and perhaps even harder not to lose current ones. But SaaS is also opening the door to new vendors and systems and it will take time for them to mature. In both cases, a little delay could be of benefit.

It is early in the game to know which of these will prove to be the best long-term choice for an individual institution. As always, the best choice for an institution with 25,000 students will likely not be the best for one with 1,500 students.

But there are issues beyond core SIS functionality and company stability warranting much consideration. “How broad is the vendor’s partner catalog?”, “How robust is the integration platform?” and “How well can an institution create its own integrations without the vendor’s involvement?” are just three of the critical questions.

Finally, institutions will likely want to find a customer that “looks like them” who is already successfully in production with the proposed system prior to signing up with any solution. One lower-risk key to success can probably be found with choices that are both “modern and mainstream”.

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