Your institutional technology plan is analogous to how you decorate your personal living space.

Educational institutions exist to accomplish a purpose, teaching young adults life skills as a pathway to future success.
The types of educational institutions and the programs they teach are varied as to content and process. Whether you are teaching a trade or continuing education skills or providing a degree-based credential. How you teach, clock hours or credit hours, whether you administratively process year-round enrollments or semester-based class starts, variations in administrative workflows create different demands on your technology plan and infrastructure.

Your choice of living spaces is similar and varied.

Whether it is a one-bedroom studio in Manhattan or a four-bedroom colonial in the suburbs, the infrastructure is designed to provide shelter from the weather and a place to exist.
Your institutional curriculum is like your choice of where you want to live. How you choose to accessorize it is a function of space, lifestyle, and budget.
Your technology within the institutional living space is driven by the same decisions.
Your email ISP, staff computers, classroom networking and student bandwidth are all decisions affected on location and mission factors. Just like the paint, rugs and window treatments are driven by the needs of the residence.

The individual choices are all driven by your style and budget.

Your School Information System (SIS) is a part of this decorating decision process. It is like your seating preferences after the surroundings are selected. A one-bedroom studio in Manhattan has different seating needs than a four-bedroom colonial.
Without seating you spend all your time standing, so chairs provide important comfort for personal enjoyment. A seat has fundamental design functions and choices.
The primary first decision are the legs. A one-legged stool provides some relief but still relies on the individual to provide stability.
A three-legged stool provides more stability but less comfort than a four-legged chair. Add a back and padding and you will soon have a much better level of comfort.
Your SIS decisions are like this basic seating choice. Some institutions start with spreadsheets and MS Word documents as a low-cost record keeping solution. Some choose to look to a CRM to provide student management and compliance tracking.
Both technology choices are like choosing a stool to provide chair like comfort. If one leg is missing or less supportive than the others, then you have a lean or a wobble that can cause long term aggravation.

The four key legs of an SIS are Admissions, Education, Accounting and Compliance.

Each of these legs need to be supportive of the overall goals of the educational institution. They are tied together by a base for shared dependencies.

Let’s review each of these legs and define the fundamentals for support.

The basic task of a strong admissions leg is capturing leads and documenting the workflow to enrollment. This includes tracking correspondence, meeting minimum enrollment standards and documentation for credential verification. A key linkage to other legs is capturing data in support of the compliance and education functions since core tasks of those legs are driven by compliance and program curriculum design under accreditation review.

In addition, admissions needs to support the accounting leg by providing documentation related to the cost of the program and sources of funding to offset student out of pocket cash payment plans. All this needs to be clearly outlined, documented and explained to students in an upfront manner before the student is enrolled. This becomes even more important today with changes in the regulatory environment surrounding pending “Borrowers Defense” rules and regulations.

Core linkages to the accounting leg as part of the admissions process is an important consideration, since contract execution and tracking cash flows are critical tasks of the accounting leg.

An important system design feature is supporting staff working within it to conduct all correspondence, calls, emails and text messages. A staff member initiating an action from within the system should automatically document date, time and individual conducting the activity as part of a workflow of lead follow up. It should be supported with a note taking work ethic to capture dialogue and notes within the documented interaction and have an ability to create follow up tasks either part of a pre-defined admissions workflow or individualized for the prospect’s needs.

Enrollment forms and documents should be pushbutton generated with pre-filled fields from the contact record and or with program fees and payment options all using pre-formatted and legally vetted language in compliance with the accreditation and institutional standards. These documents should be system generated, emailed and eSignable with date and time stamps in support of the legal standards for the Accounting and Compliance legs.

Many institutions decide to only employ a contact manager or CRM as a student information system. A CRM is very strong in support of the Admissions process, but especially fails in support of the education department. To address the needs of the education leg many institutions employ spreadsheets and google forms to track required data for grades, attendance, and course completion. This then puts the administrators in the role of managing and monitoring student success towards program completion.
This substantially lessens the strength of this leg.

Some commercial off-the-shelf CRM’s can be utilized with customization capabilities to build education components requiring institutions to either add or maintain IT professionals to build curriculum and compliance reporting support. Not only adding a hidden long-term expense but weakening the Compliance leg. It also burdens the institution with the continued upkeep of these reports to ensure future changes in compliance are incorporated into the custom CRM solution.

A traditional SIS includes the education management needs to capture student progress through the curriculum. The core tasks required of this leg include creating class instances, enrolling students and capturing grades and attendance. The key measurement of the strength of this leg is the ability to produce a transcript when a student completes and graduates.
There are two challenges to this strength requirement. First is program design. Most systems are designed for credit hour institutions and adapting these systems to support the basics of clock hour programs and year-round enrollment tends to be a major source of frustration.

Many basic systems can only support one style, clock hour or credit hour. They can’t support institutions that run both or easily switch when a program evolves from clock to credit.
Second, many basic systems can’t handle students that graduate from a program and then decide to return for additional programs, courses or degrees.
Some SIS solutions require returning students to be tracked as a new student record and this creates havoc when it comes to compliance reporting or producing a consolidated transcript.
This is a frequently stated reason which drives institutions to seek an upgrade from a bargain SIS to one more robust and capable as the student population increases and the increased burdens of compliance reporting is fully understood.

Sometimes institutions overlook the support requirements of this leg when selecting an SIS. Many institutions decide to do all billing and student accounting in disconnected accounting software, like QuickBooks.
This requires staff synchronization of student enrollment data in support of billing and payment collections. It is one of the main reasons the Compliance leg is weakened since many times the coordination is a manual process reconciling reports from both systems into a compliance submittal. It negates a core strength requirement of this leg of the chair.

A good SIS has a system generated compliance report that can be run, debugged, verified and then submitted.

Most of these reports have an accounting driven compliance requirement and disconnected data collection in this leg is a substantial weakness.
Another core task for this leg is the ability to create individualized enrollment agreements and documents including payment plans based upon current tuition and customizable sources of funds.
This is a very important support to the admission leg since clear and documented communications to the prospective student of accounting information in the enrollment decision is imperative.

In many SIS solutions the weakest of the legs is compliance reporting. In my years of meeting with institutions looking to replace their existing SIS, most of the expressed pains are all evidenced in this leg.
Typical system reports can provide students affected by circumstances, but not easily identify students requiring attention. It leaves it to the administrators to glean from the reports the actions needed to improve student success. Many of these are legacy reports from when the system was initially installed.
Most of the needs for the compliance leg are driven by regulatory demands. And these demands are dynamic and constantly changing. Rather than creating a ticket for a customized report addressing changes in the regulatory environment, many administrators will choose to create tracking mechanisms outside the SIS to support legacy SIS data collection. This then relies on the individual rather than the system as the overseer of compliance.

Drilling into reports is an important feature administrators need to look for when selecting an SIS solution. The advent of modern cloud-based systems designed natively for the web makes this intuitive and user-friendly. One should never have to page through a report of the affected students to find something requiring attention. Being able to run a report of only those students that require attention and then being able to click into the detail of that student/situation is an important system feature. It is also the best way to keep problems from falling through the cracks.

When evaluating the compliance leg of any SIS it is important that you first look at the ability to easily run supporting reports and drill into the detail. And secondly, evaluate the SIS experience within the regulatory framework for which the institution is required to comply.
Two important questions to ask. What is the breadth of reports supporting compliance? What is the process for changing these reports as regulations dictate?

We talked a lot about the legs of the chair, but we didn’t talk much about overall seating options. Four legs attached to a base is called a stool. Add a back and we can lean back and increase comfort. Add a seating pad or maybe widen it to a loveseat or couch and you have many variations to support seating in the chosen living space, Manhattan studio or suburban colonial. Bigger spaces need more seating and options.
Technology can be the same. Strong legs of the seating plan need to support core tasks. But a good selection is based upon space and budget. Some may desire a chair with added features like a recliner or theater seating for entertainment center comfort. These are considerably more expensive than a good chair with a pad and back. They don’t work well at a kitchen table.

An SIS system that can allow accessorizing with features and third-party improvements is as important as adding comfort upgrades to a chair. Larger institutions may need more varied seating options like a Loveseat or reclining chair. These optional features are driven by the institutional needs related to size, budget and project scope.

Some common examples:

- A third-party CRM with improved automation and lead management solutions can provide greater comfort if it is synchronized to the other three legs by a good seat construction. Leads need to have synchronized data capture into the SIS as the prospect advances from lead to enrollment.
- The education leg may need to be augmented by connecting a third-party LMS like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas or several other top Learning Management Solution providers. The key is automatic synchronization of data. When a student is enrolled in a program or class, then that student record needs to be automatically pushed into the LMS from the SIS. At the conclusion of the course the completion data for the student needs to be pushed into the SIS.

Systems best accomplish this through API’s, Application Program Interface(s). A good SIS needs to demonstrate sufficient expertise through an existing library or open architecture supporting easy integration. These are much more easily, and cost effectively optioned in natively designed cloud-based SIS solutions.

Your technology plan as an educational institution needs to be thought about as a support for your institutional size and goals.
First and foremost, it must support the four legs of the institution.
It must provide basic needs for institutional success.
And it must be within the budget of the institution.

There is a common misconception that a fully capable SIS is a huge expenditure. With the advent of web-based SIS solutions this misconception is easily dispelled.
The challenge in the selection process is understanding the key institutional needs of a fully capable SIS and then seeking out and identifying capable providers.

This paper is an attempt to provide the reader with a construction guide in support of this selection process.

Editors Note

The author, Paul Rutledge, Director Sales and Marketing with Campus Cloud Services, has been supporting SIS implementations in postsecondary education since 2007. By all estimates he has met with over 1,000 educational institutions searching for a cost-effective cloud-based SIS system to support campus operations tracking student success.

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