The data migration process to a new student information system is complex.

Implementing a new student information system can dramatically improve your school’s technology stack and data management practices, but to get the new system up and running optimally, your team has to find the right data migration option to move data from the existing platform or database.

This process takes a significant investment of time and resources but there’s a payoff to the hard work: Data migration is an opportunity to clean house and establish new routines, policies and procedures for better data management practices.  

In higher education, reliable data is no longer a nice-to-have, but an essential component for record keeping, recruitment, operations and maintaining a competitive advantage over other schools. Strong data integrity helps your team make better decisions, helps students and parents stay organized, and produces greater accuracy for your own analytics and government reporting. 

The challenge is to find the right data migration process that fits your school’s needs and budget. A small career school typically has less data to migrate (and less resources to manage the project) than a large, multisite university with a larger student population. The approach each school takes will be different. 

This is where an experienced student information system implementation partner will help you evaluate the options and choose the data migration process that works best for your organization.

In this article, we’ll cover the following topics to help you find the best approach to migrate your school’s data:

Finding the Best Approach to Data Migration

A student information system is only as good as the information it runs on. If the data is properly organized and classified, then administrators, staff and faculty can quickly find and use the information they need. 

Upgrading from an legacy student information system or database to a cloud-based, integrated system is a positive step toward better data management practices. A modern student information system provides better cybersecurity measures, improves staff efficiency and productivity, and gives students a better user experience. Everyone works from a single source of truth and all information is kept off-site on a secure network. 

What to Know – and Do – Before a Data Migration

When you implement a new student information system, stakeholders will need to determine the best data migration process for the existing data. You’ll have to port at least some of your legacy data into a new system. The good news is there are different options depending on your school’s size, budget and data integration needs. You may not want to take all your data with you, or you may not need it all to start. 

When it comes to migrating data, you first have to decide what to keep. This might include: 

  • Spreadsheets and documents on your legacy system
  • Archived emails
  • Student and school records
  • Third-party app information
  • Course information
  • Financial aid data and reports
  • Registar data

Next, organize the data based on groups. Schools typically sort their information into  prospects, students, parents, organizations and alumni. From there, you can separate each subset in the following way:  

  • Biographical (name, email, phone number, etc.)
  • Admissions (application forms and activity history)
  • Student Record (transcript, billing, financial aid, student attendance)
  • Career Development (career tracking, gifts and contributions, activity history)

It’s possible that each type of data will require a different treatment. You might be able to sort through some files quickly, while others will take more research. Try to assign several staffers to look over data, so multiple sets of eyes get to view the information, which will improve accuracy. Not to mention, the buy-in will help with adoption. 

There are also opportunities to save money. For instance, your student information system vendor might import biographical data into the new system at no cost (Campus Cafe Software does this) because it’s a relatively standard process. 

Three Data Migration Options
(and Examples!)

For specialized data relating to your school’s admissions, student records and alumni, there are three migration options to consider because these aren’t standard fields. It requires a bit of creativity and teamwork.

1. Manual Data Entry

For small career and trade schools with a few hundred students, manually entering data in your new system is a manageable process. This option works well if you can input your current student records before the system goes live and then go back later and add historical data. That way, you have critical information at your fingertips to support your enrolled students, and the less essential data can be entered later when your team has more time.  

When you’re setting up the new database, work with your implementation partner to define the new guidelines. Make sure your staff understands the data fields and sticks to them so you don’t carry over bad data management practices to your new system.

2. Attach and Upload Files

Another option for document management is transferring important information by uploading individual files such as PDFs, Word docs, JPEGs or Excel sheets. These documents can be transcripts, student ID pictures, schedules or resumes. Your team can combine manual entry with attaching important files. Once uploaded, these files can be attached to student records and be available for downloading or to print. That’s convenient for your staff and students.  

This method is efficient, but there’s a downside: Attached files can’t be imported into spreadsheets or documents for reporting, such as financial aid reports. So your team may still need to manually enter data or have data converted. 

3. Data Conversion

The third option to consider is data conversion, which is the process of mapping, scrubbing, de-duping and porting the data into the new system. Schools with more than a few hundred students that matriculate over multiple years of study find this option to be the best return on investment.

Chances are, if you are in need of a new student information system, then it’s likely that your data is not as accurate as you want it to be. The right system and change management process should help fix the root causes going forward. The data clean up process can eliminate errors, duplicates, inconsistent formatting and missing information. This means that you start the new system with the best possible data integrity.

Cleaning your data is also an opportunity to toss out incomplete or obsolete information. Think duplicate student information, former course information, old emails and contact information. 

A Word of Caution

If you’re going to do a data conversion, then it’s best to have a few eyes on the project and work within a group. The better the data that you pull into the new system, the more accurate and organized it will be. When multiple people work on the data conversion, you’ll also reduce the likelihood that important data gets accidentally erased.

What Factors Influence Data Conversion Costs?

Data conversion can get expensive, particularly if your school has a lot of information to port to the new system. However, it is an investment because it helps the bottom line. Strong data integrity is key to making strategic decisions, generating better insights and complying with government reporting requirements.  

Conversions costs can depend on the following factors:

  1. Volume: This is the number of data fields that need to be converted (not to be confused with the number of records, which is less important)
  2. Type: Examples include biographical information, billing, student attendance, grades and career placement.
  3. Cleanliness: Is there duplicate data, mixed type fields, errors, etc., that need to be accounted for

Once all stakeholders and your implementation partner have fully evaluated the data, there are a series of steps to migrate it over.  

Data Mapping

Every data field needs to be mapped so that the old database fields are placed in the corresponding fields in the new database. Data mapping usually requires a significant amount of time since it might involve hundreds or thousands of fields per student. Also, every organization structures their database differently and various fields can have different purposes based on their operational process.

For instance, one school might use three different fields for a student’s phone number: home, cell and company, while another school might have a generic field for phone numbers. Attention to detail is important here: Sort out what goes where and make sure everything is consistent. 

An intriguing aspect of data mapping is it forces your team to rethink what data is important and how information is defined. It can help eliminate some bad habits from sloppy data entry. That’s where formatting comes into the equation.

Data Formatting and Structure

Once the data is ready to be formatted and structured, your team and implementation vendor need to discuss your workflow and any specific fields. Campus Cafe Software’s implementation team relies on SQL database scripts and algorithms, combined with human decision-making, to complete this step of the process. 

During this time, insights about substandard data formatting and the structure of your database is usually identified. Every school has different needs, so customization is important. Here are some examples: 

  • Course registration data: Courses can be structured in terms, cohorts, semesters, or individually with unlimited start and end dates. Some schools create separate fields for each data point, while others combine them.  
  • Unconventional courses and enrollment: Sometimes students have programs that aren’t part of the standard catalog, such as internships, field placements or independent study. Those options would need to be created and then integrated with the other courses in the database.
  • Managing multiple sites: Some schools operate multiple campuses and each one may have different semester schedules and course offerings. Your system needs to have fields for each option and site, plus accommodations if a student is enrolled in multiple locations. If not, it could be difficult to untangle duplicate data. 
  • Flexibility to change data fields: Over time, your school’s information may ebb and flow and the system needs to accommodate that. For instance, a school could add programs or courses, and then will need new fields and data sets. Also, if different departments need access to the information, it should be able to accommodate new field definitions.  

In each of these instances, the time spent upfront reformatting the fields so they are in the proper structure will save significant headaches and hours in the long run.

Data Cleansing

A new student information system will not automatically clean up your bad data, the data must be cleansed. This process roots out inaccuracies and errors, and outlines consistent fields. Bad data slows down data conversion and makes your new system less reliable.

Here is an example: When collecting student phone numbers, one staffer enters the information with parentheses around the area code and dashes between the numbers, while another simply inputs the digits. That leads to inconsistent data. The same thing can happen with social security numbers and dates of birth. 

If your database is structured with lots of free-form fields, users can enter information however they want. In contrast, if there are drop-down menus with limited or defined options, the data is more likely to be consistent. That means users can find what they need quickly and have confidence in the information. 

Another pain point can be missing data, which can be as disruptive as incomplete or redundant information. If your database has multiple fields, but not all the fields have consistent information, it may require more work. When the implementation team goes to migrate the data, they have to find the missing fields and enter default or dummy information. 

Better data management practices means formatting your database with a drop-down menu to prompt users to enter the information in a specific format, or if it isn’t available or relevant, there is that option too. 

Removing Duplicates

The final stage of data conversion is identifying and removing duplicate records. If your existing databases aren’t integrated or a cloud-based system, chances are high that you have duplicate information or siloed versions. 

For instance, different departments could be working from their own separate data sets. That creates a strong likelihood of having multiple records for the same students or redundant operations data. To create a single, clean database, those records will need to be merged. 

A best-in-class student information like Campus Cafe Software’s system has an algorithm that can identify possible matches by cross referencing multiple fields. These records are placed in a holding table to be evaluated manually before integration. That way, your tech team can ensure the data is the most recent and relevant.

The Bottom Line on Data Migration and Data Conversion

Don’t let the unknown about data migration or implementing a new system keep you from upgrading to a modern, integrated student information system. Yes, higher education data migration takes time and resources, but it’s an investment in your school’s future. 

That’s why it’s important to have a dedicated implementation partner like Campus Cafe Software. We will help you define what data to include, determine the best way to migrate it to your new student information system and help you solve your school’s student data problems.

The result? Faster government reporting, more accurate audits and better day-to-day management of your organization. Now that’s a winning proposition.


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