Technology Research

Do Student Information Systems Need a Tune Up?

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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— student information systems that promise 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 world of student information systems (SIS), the decades-long standard for collecting, tracking and reporting student data, may once again be poised for evolution.  

Today’s Student Information System

It would likely be in varying states of disrepair—duct tape keeping the bumper intact, oil light always on—and the recipient of various types of customization, like a new set of tires or tinted windows. Last year, the car maker released a specialized roof rack for, let’s call them, “non-traditional” activities. For better or worse the owners are attached to the car. It’s familiar. It gets them from point A to point B. And most importantly, the car payment is low. 

But what happens when it is time to consider a new ride? 

You could always stay with the same manufacturer and trade it 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 is not so different from the situation many SIS owners may be finding themselves in.

SIS at a Crossroads

As the system of record for most colleges and universities, the SIS is a mission-critical solution that is used by most students and staff, impacting nearly all parts of the university. In our recent report, Market Analysis: Student Information Systems, Eduventures made two key observations: many institutions are leaning on their 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. 

Our data indicates that nearly 75% of the U.S. higher education market is operating an SIS that is over 10 years old. As Figure 1 indicates, the rate of new implementations has dropped significantly in recent years.


New SIS Implementations (2008 - 2018)Figure 1.


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

The Pressure to Evolve

Much of the need for change is coming from the varied student paths, or journeys, students take through higher education. In a previous Wake-Up Call, 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 school, freeways are not always single, straight lines, with a pre-defined starting point and terminus but, rather, numerous routes that wind throughout the institution—often ending up in different places. 

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

For the SIS to not only transform with institutions, but be a catalyst for transformation, it must allow for greater flexibility and a more comprehensive understanding of students. Flexibility might mean that an off-ramp or on-ramp need not necessarily result in a start or end point, but exist along a continuum; one that, for example, takes into account that many students arrive at college with skills and experiences they’ve already acquired. 

A more comprehensive understanding could look more like common student profiles comprised of students' academic and extra-curricular experiences that are understood across an institution.  

Pressure for change is also coming from solutions with proven track records outside the “traditional" SIS space. As we noted in our recent report, competing systems have blurred the lines that define what the traditional functionality of the SIS is—much of this being driven by the emphasis on customer engagement and experience. 

Constituent relationship management (CRM) solutions like Salesforce provide institutions with a clear path forward toward integrating with the existing SIS and leveraging its data to realize actionable engagement strategies across the institution. In some cases, primarily among non-traditional institutions, the CRM has been customized to replace the legacy SIS altogether.

Other vendors offering lighter-weight solutions with SIS functionality, such as Kuali, are helping institutions like Arizona State and Southern New Hampshire University add functionality to their SIS solutions. These solutions appear to be particularly appealing to institutions that already have diverse program offerings and student populations.

These examples do not mean that legacy SIS vendors are not making strides in these areas. They are. It is simply the case that as the SIS is being asked to do more, institutions are finding a wider variety of rides from which to choose. 

The Bottom Line 

Many indicators show that the SIS, as it was envisioned over 50 years ago, is still doing what it set out to do. Institutions and vendors alike, however, may start to consider how best to transform the technology and processes to prepare for changes in work and learning that are moving from the horizon to the fore.  

What better time to consider this change than when the current system, at least for many institutions, is increasingly in need of replacement or repair and as the pressure to ensure student success has never been greater. 

Join us in Boston, June 3-5, 2020, as we convene eminent thinkers, leaders, and practitioners from across the higher education spectrum to examine and showcase the best ideas, old and new. If there is one event in higher ed you attend in 2020, make it Eduventures Summit.

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