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The top 10 criteria for evaluating a new student information system

Posted by  Jami Morshed

Is it a comprehensive solution that tracks the entire student lifecycle?

As an institution’s core system, Student Management should help to accelerate growth, boost student success and improve institutional effectiveness. However, it’s probably one of the oldest systems on campus, providing students, faculty and staff a digital downgrade compared to the technology experience they have in their personal lives.

While higher education has evolved massively over the last 10 years, there simply hasn’t been a lot of innovation in student information systems. To keep pace, most institutions have invested in expensive customizations and integrated an array of third-party bolt-on applications.

Today we are seeing the first comprehensive cloud-delivered systems for Higher Education that support growth strategies across the entire student lifecycle. One system should deliver everything required to successfully manage a prospective student all the way through to a life-long relationship with alumni, and everything in between. A single cloud solution should deliver on 100 per cent of the core capabilities for institutions, even providing the ability to tie CRM-like workflows to non-traditional students, informed by analytics and predictive tools.

Modern systems extend beyond traditional Student Information Systems (SIS) and provides much broader coverage of the student lifecycle in areas like student life, campus services, advancement, and more. The richer big data you have on the students’ interactions on campus, provides a much better ability to improve the student experience, retention, and success. It improves institutional collaboration as departments are all on the same page sharing the same system and data. It ultimately improves the student experience which in many cases today is fractured on-campus because of the silos of information that exist. This also simplifies IT by not having to manage as many integration points between systems.

Does it have built-in analytics and a data warehouse?

Your student information system should help you improve productivity and performance across the campus, and support strategic initiatives with actionable data. The student system therefore, should deliver advanced analytics capability designed at the same time as the transactional system was developed, rather than it being an afterthought. This means that institutions benefit from, for example, being able to see real-time analytics on institutional goals at the same time they are entering and processing data. Built-in analytics is sophisticated today. You should be able to collect and present information through easy-to-use visual user dashboards with drill-down and data slicing capabilities. As well as supporting what-if scenario tracking and tracking student characteristics and behaviour, you should be able to quickly analyze and demonstrate improvement on key institutional metrics.

A built-in data warehouse solution, that captures their history so they can do trend analysis with integrity of data, is also essential. Finally, institutions should look for interfaces that address all level of users and needs from standard reports, adhoc queries, and dynamic data visualization tools, centered around the needs of higher education today with pre-built content. There is no need for third party BI tools and development of data warehouses, which greatly simplifies the management of this system and costs.

Does it meet the needs of both traditional and non-traditional learners?

You need to be able to expand your program offerings for today’s non-traditional learners if you want to grow. Your student system must provide unlimited course enrolment flexibility so that you’re no longer tethered to just term-driven enrolment processes and can offer any type of course registration.

Most SIS today were built in a different era when typical academic models were term based and delivery was on campus. Now we have significant growth in more flexible academic offerings that are date driven and tailored to the needs of the student (e.g. adult learning, corporate training, continuing education, lifelong learning) and delivery modes (online, hybrid, self-paced, Moocs, competency based, etc). Most SIS cannot support the requirements of these new models or require that users purchase a separate SIS to manage these “non-traditional” offerings which will become the new normal.

Does it provide CRM capabilities across the entire institution?

A CRM system, built exclusively for higher education, should today be available for everyone, covering the entire student lifecycle. Most investments in standalone CRM in education have targeted the use of the software at Recruiting, Student Support, and Alumni. These are all very relevant, but extending that out across the institution delivers real value. A registrar needs a rich set of tools to manage communications and tasks just as someone in the billing office or financial aid does. This ensures seamless experience and avoids the need for multi-integrations, or a separate CRM system that creates islands of information and does not support collaboration between departments. Admissions staff should be able to set up unique, yet automated communication tracks based on individual prospect behaviour, plus automate the application and admissions process. By managing the entire recruitment process from the prospect stage all the way through admissions, recruiters can spend more time with prospects, and less time on administrative tasks.

In addition, any department user of the Student Management system should be able to benefit from CRM functionality, using interactive communication tools to connect with students regarding their academic dealings with the institution. This delivers a true 360-degree view of an individual as they progress through the student lifecycle.

On top of this, institutions should have access to targeted marketing tools to build relationships with alumni, attract lifelong learners and improve long-term retention rates for repeat donors.

Is it flexible to adapt to your current and future needs?

Today’s systems should not date like the old legacy systems that have hampered institutions for the last 10 years. The reality is that most institutions are moving away from the mindset that they are totally unique, and have a desire to adopt industry best practices. But also they need a flexible and agile Student system that will allow them to leverage it to maximize the business processes that do help them differentiate and provide that unique student experience, and also helps insure them against change, as higher education academic and delivery models evolve.

Systems should be easily adaptable to specific processes from the user interface, not the other way around, no longer needing to get into the system and write custom code, or do database triggers or stored procedures. To future-proof the system, organizations should ideally be able to whiteboard what they want their business process to be, and design it from within the application themselves, without the need for expensive external consultants.

Importantly, today’s systems should allow institutions and their partners to extend the application without fear of creating custom code that will break the system when updates are provided for the core system. So they can tailor the application as they please, secure in the knowledge that they will always be using the most current release of the product delivered in the cloud.

It’s important to also have the ability to run multiple, independent configurations from a single instance. Whether that’s running separate configurations for individual schools or for individual campuses across a multi-campus system.

Does it have actionable retention solutions inside the framework?

Student success is the key objective for all institutions. The right Student Management solutions must improve student success initiatives by helping identify and intervene with at-risk students. By tracking student characteristics and behavior over time, it should be possible to create a comprehensive risk profile which allows intervention while there’s still time to turn things around using collaborative interaction plans.

Students who are at risk of dropping out usually exhibit red flags, long before they make the final decision to leave your institution. Early intervention with these students gives them the resources they need to succeed in school, all the way to graduation. Big data technology looks at many student metrics to identify red flags far faster than a manual review could. Some indicators of at-risk students include mid-range GPAs that won’t qualify for graduation, decreased class attendance, an inability to afford off-campus or dorm housing fees and lack of a declared major. Once the system identifies these students, you can reach out to them and find out the challenges they face, and then determine solutions to prevent the student from leaving school.

By providing students with a clear understanding of what they need to do to progress towards graduation with a degree audit tool, they can be supported to stay on track. Students require a full understanding of the steps needed to complete their degree. If their academic advisor is overburdened or otherwise can’t provide the assistance required, students can get frustrated. When they don’t know the right classes to enroll on for their degree, they may consider other schools and transfer. Consider implementing a technological solution that offers students clarity into their degree path. If you can tie in such a system to your class scheduling tools you can also let students proactively plan out their next few semesters. Many institutions have limited availability on classes, and visibility into these potential issues allows students to avoid having to return an extra semester for a single required class.

Does it have an integrated ERP?

Through integrated ERP on the same cloud platform, an institution can benefit from campus management unified with finance, HR, payroll, projects and procurement, increasing financial transparency while reducing costs through improved workflow processes and productivity-enhancing self-service tools.

The beauty of this approach is that you can see the true cost of delivery of education and optimize your back-office so that you can spend more institutional resources on serving students better.

Is it true cloud architecture?

A true cloud architecture will help you create the experience that students and staff demand, while future proofing the institutions systems. It eliminates the unnecessary expenses and worries of operating an IT infrastructure. You should no longer need to worry about hardware, infrastructure, disaster recovery, failover, security penetration, software updates and managing databases. All you need is a license to the system and access to the internet, and your users are good to go.

Does it provide a ‘touch first’ mobile and consumer-grade experience for students and staff?

You should be looking for a truly mobile solution that not only puts a mobile front-end on a PC-based application, but where every aspect of the system was developed with a touch-first design philosophy so it’s simple to navigate.

You want to impress your students with a student portal where they can manage all their academic affairs in one place, which is built with responsive design standards geared towards today’s tech-savvy mobile user. A consumer-grade user experience that automatically adapts its layout and content based on the user’s device. And you should be able to customize it to match the look and feel of your website and branding. We’re even seeing new digital assistant technology that helps and guides students through their everyday chat application. This ability to significantly upgrade the student experience is a game changer.

Does it offer a rich API layer?

While you should be looking for an end-to-end solution that covers the full student lifecycle, there will be times when you need to share data with other applications. For those circumstances, any system you choose must offer a very detailed and well documented API layer that allows for the exchange of data and information with other systems.

Jami Morshed

Jami is vice president of global higher education at Unit4. My mission is to help colleges and universities improve student success and institutional effectiveness. I’m responsible for everything we do at the Unit4 Global Center of Excellence to help institutions prepare for the future through scalable and comprehensive software solutions that streamline and modernize core business processes while eliminating the burden of managing ever-changing technology.

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