As higher education leaders survey the impact of COVID-19, they are beginning to determine a strategy for their institution’s transformation to compete in a post-pandemic economy. For many, modernizing tech infrastructure to support improved digital experiences is a high priority.
In turn, we’ve heard some campuses revisiting their evaluations of the Student Information System (SIS) marketplace, where existing and emerging vendors promise transformation on a platter. But are these administrative displacement projects—paving cowpaths, so to speak—really the right use of limited campus resources in this moment of reinvention? In this post I’ll lay out three reasons to reconsider evaluating SIS vendors as part of your post-pandemic strategy.
The state of the SIS
As of 2018, the average SIS implementation took 30 months—with some taking over five years. When you consider the average age and customization for student information systems, these numbers aren’t surprising. In the years preceding these migrations, the average SIS in U.S. higher education had been implemented at the turn of the millennium, and 86% of institutions were maintaining at least some customization in their system.
The same Educause study found that this relationship is self-reinforcing: every additional year of age is associated with a 5.5% increase in the likelihood of substantial customization. Through this growth, the SIS has calcified as the center of a sprawling technology ecosystem, and the effort involved in ripping and replacing these systems is directly proportional to the role they’ve played in our last two decades of evolution. And the risk of failure in these projects is not insignificant; the examples of migrations grinding to a halt are painful to explore.
The labyrinthine complexity of an existing SIS and the multi-year efforts required to disentangle it results in multi-million-dollar migration costs for most institutions. Other factors increasing the cost include:
- Technical consultants and change management support
- Licensing-as-a-Service systems while sun-setting on-premise server farms and database
For some, the need to migrate will certainly outweigh the risks. But before you head down this path, here are three reasons to put your SIS evaluation on hold—and consider a different path forward in your transformation.
1. You need to focus on near-term student value
The switch to remote instruction in Spring 2020 saw an expansion of services previously reserved for online students and adult learners, like virtual advising. Data from EAB’s Navigate student success management system indicates that with broadly available virtual advising, undergraduate students made and kept more appointments than they did before the pandemic. Will institutions continue to offer virtual advising after the pandemic?
As the higher education and employment landscapes continue to change in this recession, institutions need to be able to pivot quickly to differentiate themselves and meet emerging student needs, whether that’s through virtual advising or expanding access to training for unemployed and underemployed workers or other initiatives. But as the herculean effort of switching to remote instruction proved, most of our current data systems aren’t built to adapt quickly. Rather than updating legacy systems, we should focus our resources on data investments that will directly improve institutional agility.
2. You need to improve your processes first
Part of the shifting journey of higher education, even pre-pandemic, has been in discovering the value proposition of our institutions. In addition to meeting our students’ immediate needs more effectively, today’s leaders are tasked with generating a deeper understanding of the different value propositions we bring to bear for our students and stakeholders, and building the appropriate set of programs and processes to deliver on those needs.
As colleges and universities wind their way through this journey of reinvention and determine what will and won’t work in their emergent niche, business process adaptation will be a core component of their efforts. The nature and structure of the SIS as we know it is likely to shift significantly through this evolution. With that in mind, spending millions to replicate the status quo—often mapping and redeploying current processes in a new environment—is a poor use of institutional funds.
3. You can’t afford an expensive misstep
Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating higher education institutions have shed a tenth of their employees since the pandemic began. Data from the National Student Clearninghouse Research Center also indicates undergraduate enrollment is down 4.4% compared to last year, with freshmen enrollment down 13% and community college enrollment down a staggering 18.9%.
As the pandemic continues, exacerbating budget and enrollment pressures that existed before COVID-19, institutions are likely to face more and steeper budget cuts. Every single resource will count as institutions rebuild themselves in the wake of the pandemic. And in this environment, it’s hard to justify the SIS as an institution’s dominant transformation expense.
Take back control of your campus data
If sticking with the status quo is the right path for our back-office software, how can we deliver on the transformation mandate? How can we update our infrastructure to support the future we’re building? The answer lies in liberating the data. Freeing data from legacy transactional systems can eek out their lifespan in service to our student-centric agendas at a much lower cost, while at the same time enabling the cross-functional analytics required to inform existential decision-making and strategies.
In the decade to come, campuses may differentiate their missions, and business models will undoubtedly shift. At that point, codifying our processes in the workflows of back-office technologies might make more sense. But for today, an investment in taking back control of campus data is the best step towards playing an active role in shaping your institutions’ tomorrow.
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