Use this guide to find the best student information system for your higher-education institution.

As colleges and trade schools expand their program offerings to grow enrollment and appeal to a wider range of students, CIOs and school executives are looking to student information systems to modernize back-office operations and streamline student services.

The market for these systems has experienced rapid growth: last year more higher-education institutions purchased student information systems than in any year since 2013. This 98 percent increase isn’t coincidental; it directly results from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But the pandemic was just the tip of the iceberg. From changing demographics to shifting priorities among students, higher education institutions recognize the need to prioritize resiliency, maintain business continuity, and provide competitive offerings to attract right-fit students while addressing historical staffing shortages. 

Choosing the best student information system for your school depends on many factors. For smaller schools, a cloud-based student information system may provide better security, convenience and affordability than an on-premise system. And to accommodate the demand for both online and in-person instruction – especially if your school operates multiple campuses – staff, students and administrators need an easy-to-use interface. 

In choosing a student information system, you’re not just selecting a new piece of software, you’re also aligning with a technology partner. To help you decide what’s best for your school and simplify your search, our informative guide will explain the key components of a student information system and how to compare student information system vendors.

Our guide will answer your questions about student information systems for higher education:

This guide will also provide some helpful resources on selecting a student information system:

What is a student information system?

A student information system is software that schools use to manage student data. A comprehensive system covers everything from admissions to registration, financial aid, student services and alumni relations. The best student information systems follow the student lifecycle from their first inquiry to life after graduation.

Here’s another way to think about it: A student information system is like a giant electronic filing cabinet with a digital folder on every prospect and student who engages with your school. 

The software operates from one centralized location so everyone – admissions, registrar’s office, financial aid, billing and student services – can access each folder. Schools use student data (or prospect data) to inform business decisions that impact funding, satisfy government requirements and help students succeed.

In short, a student information system keeps all of your institution’s most important information in one place.

What are the key benefits of student information system software?

The primary function of a student information system is to create a single source of truth that facilitates the seamless exchange of information. This is foundational for a clean, organized system for data management. It should unify your school and its various constituents on a single technology platform, producing accurate and easy-to-access data that is continuously updated.  

A student information system stores and processes information that is used by key stakeholders on your campus, including executives, administrators, staff, instructors, students and parents. When optimized correctly, here’s how it can benefit your school:

Streamline operations
Improve compliance
Meet and exceed enrollment goals
Better decision making
Maximize cash flow
Reduce student dropouts

When student data is mismanaged and inaccurate, it can impact everything from budgets to compliance. Here are some of the risks:

  • Disorganization: When different departments use their own software, the systems might not “speak the same language” and create data silos that reduce visibility for stakeholders. This slows down operations and can cause costly mistakes. 
  • Inefficiency: It’s a waste of time when administrators have to search multiple sources for information. Centralized data saves time and improves efficiency. 
  • Negative User Experience: If users can’t intuitively navigate the system, it can lead to errors and incomplete processes. This has a trickle-down effect that can impact financial aid reporting, application processing or attendance monitoring.
  • Mistakes: If reports can’t be easily generated, it can lead to accreditation or funding issues. Similarly, if staff can’t find information on specific students, it can impact a student’s ability to enroll, register for classes or collect financial aid.

What makes a higher-education student information system different?

Choosing a student information system vendor with a focus on higher education will ensure the specific needs of your school are met. If a vendor also serves K-12 schools, the system may include too many modules, features, and options that can overwhelm and confuse users. Even worse, it may not include certain features for taking clock-hour attendance, managing financial aid, course registration and degree audits, or engaging alumni. 

Higher-education software specifically manages the main functional areas of the school that drive a school’s operations and revenue, which is why it’s essential to have a software solution that addresses these critical areas: 

  • Recruiting and Admissions
  • Student Services
  • Registrar’s Office
  • Financial Aid
  • Billing
  • Business Office
  • Alumni Relations 
  • Career Planning

The system takes the records and reports on individual students – such as academic progress, course selection, financial aid and demographic information – and processes the data into visual dashboards. Stakeholders and administrators can track key performance indicators, opportunities for improvement or alignment, flag at-risk students, and measure the ROI of marketing campaigns for both recruiting and alumni giving. 

The data on your students is also used to create government reports for 1098-T forms, Title IV financial aid, compliance, career placement and more.

An integrated system, as opposed to a best-of-breed tech stack, transmits data seamlessly among all departments. Some departments will utilize the same features, such as a CRM tool, while other features will only be accessible by certain personnel or departments, such as information pertaining to student finances.

Student Information System Features Checklist By Department

Whether it’s back-office operations or a student-facing role, there are seven key features to look for in a student information system that can help departments stay connected and engaged.

1. Recruiting and Admissions

Admissions is the lifeblood of any higher-education school. From the initial inquiry from a prospect to enrollment, the process requires communication, coordination and technology to keep track of it all.  

The admissions process begins the first time a prospective student visits your website, encounters a piece of marketing collateral, or sends an email or text for more information. 

For small and medium-sized schools, a small staff often has to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities. A student information system can help streamline managing leads, follow-up tasks, and communicating with prospects, parents and other stakeholders. 

Here are some notable features that help admissions teams track prospects and process applications quickly:

  • Customer relationship management software: Manage contacts and status of applicants; track marketing and recruitment activities; send email, text communications and advertisements without having to switch between different CRM platforms.
  • Website forms: Create and embed customized forms that transfer contact information directly into the CRM so recruiting staff can follow up quickly.
  • Application management: Let prospects complete an application and submit their forms and documents via a secure portal on their own time. Administrators and staff can pull data from the system and coordinate with other departments, such as student affairs, financial aid and athletic departments to customize communications.

2. Student Services

Parents, prospects and students don’t want to make phone calls, they need an easy-to-use self-service portal. This improves communication and frees your staff from time-consuming calls and follow-ups.

If a parent or student encounters a problem or has a question, your staff should be able to quickly find a solution. Here are some examples of student information that you’ll want to be able to filter and search for:

  • Student transcripts and report cards: With immediate access to updated academic performance reports, students can track their progress and administrators can smoothly manage official transcript requests.
  • Discipline records: Notes about judicial matters can be recorded and can trigger specific actions to ensure that incidents are resolved and students are not slipping through the cracks.
  • Forms and waivers: Using online forms and upload options, students can submit their necessary paperwork. This frees staff up from collecting, processing and tracking forms manually. Students and staff will see the status in real-time and the system can generate notifications for missing material.   
  • Health records: Keep accurate records of individual and campus-wide health issues by tracking immunizations, allergies, illnesses and other information essential to the well-being of your students. When forms are missing, the system will trigger a notification.
  • Housing: Track historic and current housing and roommate assignments, make future assignments and monitor residence hall capacity.
  • Parking registration: Access to live records of authorized vehicles on campus ensures public safety and cuts down on the workload of facilities management.
  • Student/parent portal: Parents and students can quickly view personal, academic and financial information anytime, anywhere through a password-protected FERPA-compliant portal.

3. Registrar’s Office

In most registrar’s offices, staff are stretched to handle course selection, registration, plans of study, and program and degree audits. The simple act of inputting a student’s schedule into an outdated software system can require tedious, manual data entry and introduces the possibility of errors.

  • Plan of Study: This tool creates a roadmap of a student’s educational plan, including their major, minor and graduation requirements, and is updated as they progress. The registrars can use this to help students select and enroll in required classes, monitor their progress and track course completion

With a web-based portal, students can self-serve their course selection, check on course and major requirements and monitor their academic progress. On the backend, registrars can make sure students are in the right classes, manage class size and waitlists, and keep track of enrollment. 

Here are some key features that help registrars work more efficiently:

  • Academic audits and alerts: Alerts can be configured by criteria to trigger messages, helping at-risk students get on track. Alerts also notify faculty and staff of students struggling academically. Academic audits help students and their advisors develop a plan for meeting all their requirements.
  • Plan of study: This tool charts a student’s path from their first semester to graduation, including prerequisites and courses necessary for their major, minor or certificate, as well as general education requirements. This helps students and their advisors track progress, and allows registrars to advise on class availability and scheduling.
  • Digital attendance: Students can log their own attendance via an app, or faculty can enter attendance online. Clock-based attendance helps career and trade schools monitor and verify student work and participation.
  • Class management: Faculty can manage their classes by viewing rosters, photos and profiles, and emailing or texting individual students or the entire class.
  • Course registration: Using a portal, students can choose their courses and avoid registration conflicts.
  • Faculty/advising portal: Faculty and advisors can access students’ academic and personal information and contact them via email, phone or text within the system, which saves time and promotes proactive communication. 
  • Student schedules: Students can view their full schedule, including instructors, class sizes and locations.

4. Integrated Financial Aid

With the cost of college and professional schools soaring, many students rely on Title IV financial aid and your school plays an important role in helping students access it. This process not only requires mandatory reporting by the federal government, but schools also need to generate data for internal reporting purposes. 

A student information system with integrated financial aid makes it easier to manage and properly administer financial aid rather than utilizing a third-party provider or external integration. 

When financial aid is integrated with your student information system, it pulls data information from one centralized location instead of from various APIs and integrations that may not be compatible. 

A student information system with pre-built reporting templates simplifies the process. Here are some notable features to look for:

  • Government reports: These include gainful employment, NSLDS/ Clearinghouse enrollment reports, FISAP Data, IPEDS, 90/10, 1098-T Tuition Statements and Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) reports.
  • Real-time notifications: Staff and students can be notified when aid is disbursed, receive entrance and exit counseling, get alerts for verifications and reconcile funds. 
  • Financial aid packaging and disbursements: An integrated financial aid module lets staff package, originate and disburse aid. Students and parents can see cost estimates, view their pending and verified financial aid, accept aid and make adjustments or corrections. 

5. Finance Office

For many schools, the business office is the financial core of the school. Support those operations and your school can maximize cash flow with better data management and coordination between departments, students and parents. Here are the features you’re back-office team will need: 

  • Accounts receivable: Process your volume of students and vendors and integrate with outside bookkeeping systems like Quickbooks.  
  • Financial reporting: Create dashboards and reports that show unearned revenue, accounts receivable and accounts payable aging, and bank reconciliation. 
  • Student billing: Students can get alerts about missing or upcoming payments, view billing statements and financial holds, and make payments online in full, in installments or at a later date.
  • Payment collection: Automate the process by integrating with a CRM for emails texts, reminders and notifications
  • Integrations: Look for integration with third-party apps for accounting, online payments, digital signatures, financial aid, billing, and notifications by email, text or phone call.

6. Alumni Relations and Development

After students graduate, your alumni relations team needs to track their progress and keep contact information up to date. This information is useful for marketing your graduates’ placement and success, as well as future giving campaigns. It is also helpful for the admissions and alumni teams to work together to connect prospective and current students with alumni who share similar interests. 

Similar to the process of tracking students through the admissions process, you also want to keep information on graduates with the following tools:

  • Campaign management: Plan, track, and evaluate outreach and fundraising campaigns, and organize gift-giving, donations and fund management. 
  • Career placement: Collect information for gainful employment reporting including place of work, salary, wage, title, and placed-in-field data. 
  • Centralized CRM: Recruiting, admissions and alumni can work together and see information related to alumni, including information from their time as a student to career placement.

7. Faculty Portal

Today, faculty and teachers need to be able to digitally manage their classrooms. These are the features that help students and faculty communicate better:

  • Class roster management: Faculty can communicate with their classes by email or text messaging, manage student rosters and see information to improve student retention rates.
  • Real-time grade book and attendance: Faculty can enter grades and attendance directly into the system. This promotes accuracy and timeliness of grading.
  • LMS integration: The ability to integrate with the LMS your school uses is essential. Look for software that connects with your current LMS or connects to a variety of leading LMS applications.

What to Consider When Evaluating a Student Information System

A best-in-class student information system will include features that improve your school’s organizational systems and produce more accurate and reliable data. As you evaluate systems, here are some other considerations to include.

Reporting Tools

From academic progress to federal financial aid, schools are required to track, measure and report data in a timely fashion. If information is disorganized, inaccurate or late, it can jeopardize your school’s operations and your student’s education. 

Organized reporting tools help your school and students stay on track. A modern student information system should include reporting tools for each department:

  • Title IV federal financial aid 
  • Accreditation audits
  • Degree and program progress and completion
  • Attendance 
  • Admissions and recruiting

A student information system with an integrated financial aid module saves your team time by using pre-built reports for government and school reporting. Pre-built reports also reduce errors because your staff simply plugs information into the report templates. 

If your school prefers to use its own reports, your staff can build custom reports and then update them by semester or module. That greatly reduces time and legwork in the future.

Integrated vs. Best-of-Breed Systems

Not all student information systems are built alike. Some systems are designed for particular types of schools, such as an international school or a specific activity, and these are unlikely to meet the needs of your entire campus community. 

An integrated student information system serves the needs of your administration, staff, faculty and students. It offers modules that service specific departments, such as admissions, financial aid and registrar, and offers functions and workflows that are accessible and beneficial across your teams. 

Additionally, an integrated system allows your departments and stakeholders to collaborate and share information. An integrated system typically offers a user interface that is accessible to stakeholders of varying technical levels, allowing for broad usage.

In contrast, best-of-breed models may specialize in niche aspects of the student lifecycle or function. A best-of-breed system may be rich in functions that serve a specific niche, such as admissions or financial aid. However, the downside is that your school may need to deploy multiple systems to accomplish all your needs and those systems may not work together. Moving data between niche systems can be costly and introduce errors.  

Alerts, Notifications and Workflows

Automation is the key to working more efficiently. Alert systems, notifications and workflows help your stakeholders communicate and stay on track. Users can easily access this information in their portals and messages can be configured to be sent by email, text and phone. These are popular features to look for:  

  • Attendance alerts: Notify staff, students and administrators when students are missing class or fieldwork. 
  • Progress alerts: Warn students, faculty and administrators when students are struggling academically or missing deadlines and assignments.
  • Billing alerts: Notify students and parents when payments are upcoming, due or late. 
  • Audit alerts: Help faculty and administrators monitor student progress and identify at-risk students and alert students to unfilled requirements.  
  • Workflows: Administrators can design workflow tools that assign triggers and reminders based on the criteria input into the system. This is a great way to break out from siloed data and negative data management habits. 
  • Employees access: Staff across departments can collaborate on projects and access information from a single source of truth, reducing duplication and errors. For example, when a staff member contacts a student about a concern, they make a note in that student’s file, which can be viewed by other offices. 

How to Compare Onsite vs Cloud-Based Student Information Systems

There are many student information systems on the market, but they’re not all built alike. Here are some important considerations to help you narrow down the options and choose the best system for your school.

Migrating to the Cloud

Following trends in consumer technology, many—but not all— student information systems have shifted to web-based systems with remote access and cloud storage. A few big-name vendors are still relying on older, on-site systems. Cloud-based systems offer flexibility, better cybersecurity and cost-savings.

More than 75% of new student information systems being sold in 2021 were cloud-based, and with good reason. A cloud-based system eliminates many of the problems that schools have struggled with while using legacy systems.

Onsite vs. Cloud-Based Information Systems

Legacy/onsite student information system
Cloud-based student information system
Requires servers and software that need to be maintained locally.
Information is stored remotely, and security and software updates are also managed remotely.
Expensive to implement, manage and maintain.
Less time to implement and reduces the school’s exposure to cyber-attacks.
Requires personnel with the technical expertise to implement, troubleshoot, and update the system and its equipment.
Reduces hardware-related expenses and is less of a strain on IT teams.

Cloud-based solutions can be an advantage for small and mid-sized schools that do not have large IT departments (or any IT professional at all). If you don’t have onsite servers and hosting, you are freed from costly and time-consuming maintenance. 

Also, your technology partner will handle any upgrades, updates and security concerns remotely. This allows your IT team and tech-savvy staff to focus on other mission-critical or strategic initiatives to support the school’s operations.

Cost

A student information system is a major investment and the costs vary considerably. The size of your school, the amount of data, your customization and third-party integrations, and the scope of your data migration and implementation all factor into the price of a new system. 

Another consideration is the type of system. If you opt for an on-site system, there will be additional expenses down the road related to hosting and maintaining on-site servers, as well as IT professionals to assist. When you opt for a cloud-based system, you’ll save on those expenses, but the amount of storage and scope of your system may impact the cost.  

While cost estimates vary widely by provider, a large university could spend more than $100 million in the first five years on a new system, there are more cost-effective options for smaller institutions with less than 2,000 students that average in the hundreds of thousands per year or less. 

Cybersecurity

Data integrity and protection are critical for every school, particularly when it comes to sensitive information in student records. With a cloud-based system, security updates and upgrades can be continually monitored and executed remotely. To ensure data security, make sure your provider follows these cybersecurity best practices: 

  • Meets FERPA compliance
  • All information is encrypted
  • Each campus/location gets separate databases to protect business continuity in the event of a breach
  • Logins should offer Two Factor Authentication (2FA)
  • All credit card transactions should follow Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance standards 

At a time when students are concerned about their data privacy and security, a cloud-based student information system can help allay those worries. Users access a password-protected system and can only view information that has been approved by the system administrator. The system will continually scan for access violations and any suspicious behavior. 

Comparing Student Information System Vendors

While there are many student information systems on the market, not all of them will be right for your school. Some systems are built for K-12 schools, while others focus on large, four-year universities or international colleges.

It’s important to find a technology partner that specializes in higher education and has experience with your type of school. If you are in a career or trade school, look for a student information system that offers features your programs will need, such as clock-based attendance. 

For small and mid-sized colleges and universities, a student information system with integrated admissions, financial aid and registrar offerings is particularly important because you likely have a small staff with limited resources. 

Here’s another consideration: How big is too big? If you work with a giant technology firm, your school may be one of hundreds or even thousands of customers and the system offerings might be too advanced or overwhelming for staff. 

In contrast, if you opt for a student information system vendor who specializes in smaller school implementations, you will receive more personalized service and technical support, and more options for customization and future updates.

Remember, you’re not just choosing a new tool, you’re choosing a technology partner. In this relationship, the vendor should take time to understand your staff’s capabilities, your school’s resource allocation, goals for growth and metrics for success.

Four Big Questions to Ask a Student Information System Vendor

Landing on the right student information system for your school is only one part of the equation. The next critical component is making sure the vendor can help you successfully transfer your existing data into the new system and provide you with the tools, training and information to maximize its full potential.

Here are four important questions to ask a student information system vendor about data migration, implementation and technical support.

1. What is the process for data cleansing and data migration?

Understanding how your existing data will be moved to the new system is critical because it’s not just plug-and-play. The vendor should help you find the best approach to data migration by recommending a plan to transfer and cleanse your existing information, as well as create a new data architecture. Below is a summarized version of the process:

Data audit: For each department using the student information system, staff will need to determine what information to transfer to the new system. 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
  • Registrar data

Data organization: The data need to be organized by groups and reviewed to remove duplicates and errors. Here are some examples of organizational subsets: 

  • 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)

Data migration: This is the process of transferring data from your legacy system to the new platform. There are three options to migrate data: 

  • Manual data entry: A manageable process for small schools with only a few hundred students.
  • Attach and upload files: Transfer important information by uploading individual files such as transcripts, student ID pictures, schedules or resumes.
  • Data conversion: Best for schools with more than a few hundred students that matriculate over multiple years of study. Data is mapped, scrubbed, de-duped and ported into the new system.

A good technology partner assists with all of these steps without added or hidden costs for standard processes such as migrating biographical information. 

2. What is the implementation timeline?

The process of searching for a student information system and then implementing the software can take anywhere from a few months to several years. For example, the Ohio State University had to abandon plans to update its student information system with Workday, potentially costing millions of dollars, due to complications and lack of functionality. 

As you weigh your options, consider how much flexibility you have for a lengthy, labor-intensive implementation versus opting for a lighter system that can be up and running quickly.

Implementation is a multi-step process that includes data organization, data cleansing and data migration, as well as training for staff. The process takes considerable time and resources upfront but will pay future dividends by streamlining operations and improving efficiency. An experienced technology partner will guide you through the steps for a smooth transition.

3. What kind of customer support and technical help do you offer?

When screening vendors, ask questions about how they offer customer support and technical help. Here are some examples: 

  • Do you have 24/7 support? 
  • What is the average turnaround time for tickets?
  • Is the support team U.S.-based or international?
  • Can your team log in to the system remotely to troubleshoot issues? 
  • Do you offer any on-demand tutorial videos or frequently asked questions? 
  • Will you make site visits after launch to help fine-tune the system?
  • Is in-person training part of the implementation cost or extra? 

Your stakeholders need to learn how to use the new student information system. A good technology firm will offer your staff and students online and in-person training. It’s extremely important that your staff participates in advanced training and that they’re held accountable. To help users stay focused and get comfortable with the system, your school can hold off-site training and make sure that sessions are tailored to the needs of specific user groups.

After your new system goes live, be prepared for your users to have questions. You may even have some technical problems. Even with the best student information system, there is a learning curve. You need to have a strong partner on your side to help.  

Remember that not everyone using the system will be tech-savvy and able to navigate the options on their own. With students, parents, instructors, staff and administrators using the student information system, they’ll need varying levels of help. On the backend, your IT team will also need to work closely with the vendor to troubleshoot and configure the system.

4. What third-party integrations are compatible with the system?

Even the best student information system needs to be augmented by other technology. There are aspects of the higher education system that require expertise and some schools may opt to go with specialty software for some functions, such as payments, text messaging or financial aid reporting. 

It’s important to understand upfront what other platforms a student information system can work with and what the limitations might be. Knowing about the common API integrations that higher-education schools depend on will help you get the most out of your software system.

  • Learning management systems: Software such as Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas or Brightspace helps faculty manage the classroom experience, including content delivery, attendance monitoring and achievement tracking. It’s vital to integrate this tool with your larger system to track degree audits, course completion, attendance and grades.
  • Reporting: Some vendors will tightly integrate with a reporting system (like Crystal Reports) to help you maximize your data by providing increased access to canned reports.
  • Payments: To quickly process payments, some schools opt for Paypal or other third-party payment software. 
  • Messaging: Some schools use third-party systems to send messages and alerts via text and email to students, faculty and the school community.
  • Fundraising: If your school solicits donations from alumni, the community and companies, a third-party wealth screening tool can help focus and track campaigns. 
  • Financial aid: Even if a student information system has a broad menu of financial aid services, including billing, communications and reporting, schools may use other vendors for financial aid software and reporting, including EdExpress and Powerfaids.

Finding a Student Information System That Unifies Your School

The higher education industry is becoming more dynamic and competitive. Schools need modern technology and software to collect student data, manage academic programs and keep operations running smoothly. 

A student information system will help your staff be more organized, efficient and productive, and it can encourage information sharing and collaboration between departments. When students have access to an easy-to-use, comprehensive software platform, they can better manage their personal affairs, finances, education and career goals. 

Similarly, faculty benefit from technology that lets them focus on instruction and rather than time-consuming, tedious tasks like attendance and manual grade entry. 

The right student information system can unify your campus and position all of your stakeholders for future success.

Finding the right student information system takes time. Find out how Campus Cafe Software provides a full-service experience to help trade, vocational, and career schools, and small and mid-sized colleges and universities transform their operations.

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