Feb 05 2020

Do Student Information Systems Need a Tuneup?

Evolutions in the student journey prompt institutions to rethink legacy student information systems.

Imagine you are at a higher education conference and several attendees from IBM take the stage. They have big news. They announce that they have developed something called the University and College Information System: a system that promises to provide “a total approach to the information needs of all elements of the institution.” 

While this announcement sounds as if it could have been made recently, it was actually made in 1964. Eduventures research indicates that the student information system (SIS), the decades-long standard for collecting, tracking and reporting student data, may once again be poised for evolution. 

Most Institutions Rely on Legacy Student Information Systems

If the SIS were a car, many institutions would be driving a midsize, early 2000s sedan. It would likely be in a state of disrepair — duct tape keeping the bumper intact, oil light always on — and the recipient of various types of customization, such as tinted windows or a new set of tires. Last year, the automaker released a specialized roof rack for something we’ll call “nontraditional” activities. 

For better or worse, the owners of the car are attached to it. It’s familiar. It gets them from point A to point B. And most important, the car payment stays the same. 

But what happens when it’s time to consider a new ride? You could always stay with the same manufacturer and trade in for an upgraded model. Or perhaps it’s time to switch to something entirely new. Maybe you are ready to embrace new technologies that automate formerly manual processes. Least clear may be the most important consideration: How can you ensure that the car’s drivers and passengers will be best served? 

This analogy isn’t so different from the situation that many SIS owners now find themselves in.

As the system of record for most colleges and universities, the SIS is a mission-critical solution used by most students and staff, affecting nearly every part of the institution. In our recent report, “Market Analysis: Student Information Systems,” Eduventures made two key findings: Many institutions are leaning on a legacy SIS to get the job done and, in recent years, the implementation rate of new systems has slowed to a shadow of its former self. 

The data we collected from our partners at LISTedTECH on SIS implementations across the U.S. indicates that nearly 75 percent of institutions are operating a system that is more than 10 years old. The rate of new implementations has dropped significantly in recent years, from a high of 16.3 percent in 2011 to slightly more than 4 percent in 2018.

Budgetary pressures, the resilience of on-premises solutions and bureaucratic malaise will likely continue to inhibit the rate at which institutions replace their SIS. But these two findings indicate that in the coming years, institutions will have to make critical decisions about their SIS solutions. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Discover the best practices for using student data to achieve student success.

Student Journey Evolution Prompts a Need for New Systems

In the past, Eduventures has likened the confluence of various student journeys that institutions must be equipped to serve to a freeway system. Like the paths that students take through college, freeways are not always single, straight lines, with a predefined starting point and terminus. Rather, numerous routes wind throughout the institution — often ending up in different places

The SIS has made important changes to facilitate transformation, in providing more student-centric functionality and in expanding the ability to collect, analyze and store more data. But increasingly, institutions are preparing for an even more engaged student experience with students who take varied pathways through higher education, both of which require different functionality and accompanying processes.

Michael Miller, senior analyst for Eduventures Research.
In the coming years, institutions will have to make critical decisions about their SIS solutions.”

Michael Miller Senior Analyst, Eduventures Research

For the SIS to not only transform with institutions, but to also serve as a catalyst for transformation, it must allow for more flexibility and a more holistic understanding of students. Flexibility is important to ensure that an off-ramp or on-ramp can exist along a continuum, rather than necessarily result in a starting or ending point. A continuum, for example, takes into account that many students arrive at college with skills and experiences they’ve already acquired. A holistic understanding will look more like a comprehensive student profile comprised of all the relevant information gathered across an institution

READ MORE: Keep Windows 10 campus devices up to date with these notable best practices.

Colleges Look Beyond Traditional Systems to New Solutions

The SIS is under pressure from competing systems, within the SIS segment and outside of it, that have blurred the defining lines of SIS functionality. The emphasis on customer engagement and experience in multiple sectors beyond higher education is influencing SIS. Customer relationship management solutions give institutions the clearest path forward toward integrating with the existing SIS and leveraging SIS data to realize actionable engagement strategies across the institution. In some cases, primarily among nontraditional institutions, the CRM has been customized to replace the legacy SIS.

On the other side of the same coin, vendors offering lightweight solutions with SIS functionality are helping institutions add to what their SIS is already doing. Much like CRM, it is important to note that use cases appear to be particularly appealing to institutions already offering diverse program offerings and serving diverse populations.

This is not to say that legacy SIS vendors are not making strides toward working with institutions and their products to meet institutional needs and to be an equally (if not more) impactful transformational partner. They are. It is simply the case that as the SIS is asked to do more, institutions have a wider variety of rides to choose from. 

Digital Transformation Creates an Opportunity to Rethink SIS

The mission-critical functions of the SIS, like the physical infrastructure that supports transportation, cause great pains when suffering any downtime, making changes all the more complex and difficult. Many indicators show that the SIS, as it was envisioned more than 50 years ago and is in use today, is doing what it set out to do. Institutions and vendors alike, however, may start to consider how best to transform technology and processes to plan for changes in work and learning that are moving from the horizon to the fore. 

Today, for many institutions, the existing SIS is increasingly in need of replacement or repair. At the same time, institutions are being asked to help their students achieve success, however that may be defined by both the institution and that student. That makes this an excellent time to consider a new approach to the SIS and how it serves the institution and its students.

Laurence Dutton/Getty Images

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