Tina Travis, Senior Business Consultant at Campus Guild Consulting

Tina Travis is a seasoned business consultant with over 30 years of expertise in implementing ERP, SIS, and CRM solutions in the public sector and higher education environments. In addition to being a process consultant, Tina’s career spans pivotal roles such as Global Director for Campus Solutions at Ataway, Higher Education Manager at Alithya, and ERP Solutions Manager Public Sector at Prairie Quest. She spearheaded successful ERP implementations and training initiatives across multiple platforms including Microsoft and Oracle, specializing in enterprise implementations for SIS, HCM, and Finance pillars. Adept in business development and solution delivery, Tina is committed to providing clients with tailored solutions that drive their goals forward.


On a basic level, a student information system (SIS) performs as a transactional repository for student academic data. However, the quickly evolving needs and demands of a varied and savvy end-user population as well as the developing available technology are rapidly exposing the obsolescence and inefficient designs of current systems to support a contemporary student experience. Likewise, the predicted looming drop in enrollment worldwide and industry-wide disruption is forcing us all to take a harder look at the next steps needed to support our students, faculty, and staff through these major changes in higher education. As a result, institutions are looking for that proverbial “magic bullet” that will save money, boost staff productivity, and increase student engagement and success. On the supply side of the student information system equation, we have SIS providers scrambling to invest and transform their solutions to leverage the cloud platform. While cloud solutions sing the siren song of long-term cost gains of less overhead and maintenance, the early results seem to be solutions that provide less functionality than the current on-prem solution, a hefty implementation price tag, and the looking promise of regular license and subscription fees. Consequently, institutions are left in a bit of a conundrum to continue to 1) capitalize on their familiar, yet declining technology (and resource skillsets), 2) heavily invest in the unfamiliar emerging technology and the change impacts or 3) stay status quo and wait for a new SaaS SIS to be better equipped.

So, what are the pros and cons of each of these approaches, and which one is right for your institution? First, let’s look at the traditional, best-of-breed, first-tier student information systems. Most of them are on-premises and have been serving the higher education community for over 30 years. Due to their longevity in the space, these systems are workhorses, they scale for high-volume transactions, and they can be configured to support complex academic structures; these systems have the most robust functionality available. They can support core requirements for the end-to-end student cycle as close to sincerely out of the box as you can get. They are great at collecting data and easily extracting the data. However, configuring these behemoths to support seamless communication, collect engagement information, and respond with the next best action logic while it can be done, it is a cumbersome and expensive endeavor. Additionally, the in-house skillset needed to maintain these systems is proprietary and waning.

That is where the next-generation SIS solutions pick up the pace. There are also a few of these SaaS offerings that are trying to meet the functionality of their predecessors, but again with a high price tag and what is technically now referred to as “configuration” but often means customization effort with a delivered toolset. Another option is up-and-coming SIS solution offerings that are based on a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platform. Currently, these solutions lack the full-breadth functionality available in their predecessors, but they thrive in their configuration toolsets that allow for new functionality to be quickly and easily developed, tested, and deployed to production. Further, because they are based on a CRM system with core SIS functionality, the system is already wired to provide a smooth, intuitive user experience based on seamless communication and capturing data specifically designed to respond quickly and naturally.

So, what are the additional benefits of being willing to make the compromise of implementing a second-tier solution? Cost-effectiveness: second-tier systems are usually more affordable than first-tier systems, which can be prohibitively expensive for some institutions. By using a second-tier system, institutions can save money and still benefit from a specialized solution that meets their specific needs. Flexibility, second-tier systems are typically designed to be more flexible than first-tier systems. It is a function of a more configurable toolset resulting in specialization being addressed through system configuration versus customization. Eco-system compatibility, second-tier systems are often built on more widely accepted platforms, such as Microsoft or Salesforce, making it easier to find skilled personnel to maintain and develop them. This means institutions are less likely to experience issues with compatibility and can more easily find personnel to support their entire eco-system not just one business area. Scalability, a second-tier system can easily scale as needed to meet the diverse and changing needs of a school. Implementation time, due to less scope and more simplified configuration a second-tier system can be quicker to implement. If customization is required, the newer toolsets provide a quicker development cycle and turnaround time on system enhancements. Second-tier systems are quicker to adapt to client demand, and product evolution making the system development lifecycle from development to production much quicker and efficient.

Conversely, what are the risks of choosing to implement a second-tier SIS solution? First and foremost there is a limited functionality. A second-tier SIS may not be as comprehensive as a first-tier SIS solution and may not be able to handle all of the aspects of student data management out of the box. This means that institutions using a second-tier system may need to use multiple systems to manage student data, which can be time-consuming and inefficient. To be fair, however, we see this same limitation in first-tier systems as the business requirements evolve over time, there is just a longer adjustment period. Further, there may be integration challenges. While a second-tier SIS is designed to integrate with other systems within an ecosystem, there may still be integration challenges, which can lead to data discrepancies and other issues. Don’t forget the support and maintenance need post-deployment; support and maintenance for a second-tier solution may have to rely on multiple vendors for support and maintenance, which can be challenging to manage; this can also make it more difficult to troubleshoot issues, as there may be multiple systems involved. Depending upon which solution you choose, a second-tier solution may not be as scalable as a first-tier SIS, meaning that it may not be as readily able to handle large volumes of data or support a large number of users. This can be a problem for institutions that are looking to grow or expand their student data management capabilities. Finally, the total cost of ownership of the system can still add up over time. While a second-tier SIS solution will be less expensive than a first-tier SIS to implement, additional licensing fees and support costs for each system they use can add up over time.

In conclusion, when reviewing which direction to move towards when selecting a next-level student information system is extremely important to review the institution’s technology architecture and engagement approach holistically. Is the technology architecture organized via business silos or is it based on a more enterprise/ecosystem approach? Further, is the institution more single solution-driven or platform-driven, and does the current state represent the vision and direction of the institution? As technology and institutions evolve to support a more personalized experience for students and other institutional constituents alike, having a platform to support a comprehensive, yet streamlined SIS can become a much more strategic tool than the traditional “one size fits most” mechanism.  With technology quickly catching up to meet the demand to provide a student-centric experience means that the nearly three decades old, traditional student information system can rightfully take its place as a single-purpose data repository for key academic data. It no longer needs to try and perform as a student data panacea and can more effectively play a key role that more nimble and comprehensive platforms provide with the ability to leverage an entire data ecosystem that presents a more holistic view of our students.

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles