What is a Student Information System (SIS)?
A student information system (SIS) is like a giant electronic filing cabinet with a digital manila folder on each of your students. It’s housed in one central location, allowing all the key players like admissions, registrar office, financial aid, billing and student services to access and add pertinent data to each student’s folder. In short, an SIS keeps all the most important information, all in one place.
The Main Benefits of an SIS
Also called student management software or school administrative software, an integrated SIS enables schools to manage all operational data in a single database (not to be confused with a learning management system, which can be integrated with an SIS to manage the classroom experience). A comprehensive schoolwide student data system covers everything from admissions to business operations to student services and alumni development, effectively following the students’ lifecycle from inquiry to long after graduation.
An SIS is essentially an open line of communication between all parties on the higher education spectrum, tracking and transacting data in a clean, organized fashion. The goal is a more seamless exchange of information between departments and constituents, including students, faculty, staff, advisors, parents and budget administrators.
Having integrated, accessible data remedies the common issue of siloed information, streamlines manual and otherwise outdated processes, and allows accurate real-time reporting. It enables schools to have a complete, thorough understanding of each student, including all facets of their educational experience.
The Main Features of an SIS
SIS features vary in size and scope, but generally cover the students’ progress from enrollment to retention to outcomes. The higher education software will address the main functional areas of the school, including Admissions, Student Services, Registrar’s Office and Business Office, Alumni Relations and Development.
With heightened pressure on enrollment numbers, particularly for small and mid-sized schools that may be more dependent than larger institutions on tuition revenue, it is critical for your SIS to support you in reaching your goals. Your SIS needs to work for you, not create more work for you.
Starting with the admissions funnel, a good SIS not only helps you manage prospects, but allows them to manage their own progress along the way. For students that means inquiring and applying online, eliminating unnecessary paperwork and processing time for your team. Through a secure password-protected web portal, they can also monitor the status of their application and view missing requirements in real-time, freeing your admissions team from the slog of missing requirements letters.
For administrators, an extensive duplicate checking process reduces what can be a time intensive process. A travel management component helps your staff strategically plan their school visits and communicate with students. Workflow and contact management features keep the admissions process streamlined and effective.
- Inquiries: Responsive, customizable forms can live on your website, where interested students can complete them without needing to login. Form submissions then go through an information validation and duplicate management check to ensure that the data in your system is clean and accurate.
- Applications: Using a secure portal, students can apply online with a customized form or upload the common application. Administrators can then access an applicant profile that pulls information from other areas, like financial aid, to get a complete picture of a student.
- Enrollment: A comprehensive, well-organized database keep students moving through the funnel to the enrollment stage, supporting your efforts to reach your growing goals.
More than offering options for online course registration, an integrated SIS helps your institution build a complete record on each student, which, beyond courses can include health records, financial holds, conduct records and room assignments. A self-service interface allows key constituents connected to each student to see and update that very information based on varying permission levels. Providing easy, anytime access for parents and students improves communication and frees your staff to focus their time and energy on important tasks.
- 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: Administrators can be released from unnecessary paperwork by collecting and processing enrollment requirements online, with real-time reports on missing materials.
- 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.
- 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 information anytime, anywhere through a secure, password-protected, FERPA-compliant web-based portal.
This complex area of administration has many overlapping and interconnected pieces, for which an integrated SIS is an ideal solution. Students can easily view and select courses; registrar staff can cross-checks for conflicts like holds, prerequisites and full classes; faculty can view rosters and schedules, and correspond with their classes; and advisors can email their advisees and adjust permissions for self-registration.
- Academic audits and alerts: Alerts can be added based on certain criteria to trigger follow-up tasks to ensure that students are staying on track. Academic audits help students and their advisors develop a plan for meeting all their requirements.
- Attendance: With the ability to track attendance, performance and participation, faculty and administrators can monitor trends and catch at-risk students early on.
- Class roster: Faculty can more seamlessly manage their classes by viewing rosters—including photos and profiles on each students—and emailing or texting individual students and/or the entire class.
- Course registration: Using an online portal, students can easily choose their courses and avoid registration conflicts.
- Faculty/advising portal: For faculty and advisors who wear many hats, having a one-stop-shop makes a big difference when it comes to time management and retention.
- Recording grades: Faculty can enter grades directly into the system.
- Student schedules: Students can view their full schedule, including instructors, class sizes and locations.
With the general ledger at the financial core of many institutions of higher education, having a system that works within that architecture is key. A good SIS cuts down on data duplication and batch transfers by allowing your business office to integrate operations and reporting with other offices. It also provides the necessarily flexibility to set up projects such as campus construction outside of the general ledger with separate budgets and long timeframes.
- Accounts payable/receivable: Your system should be robust enough to accommodate your volume of students and vendors, but flexible enough to accommodate necessary exceptions.
- Financial aid: Parents and students can view their award and see cost estimates in real-time, and administrators can view pending and verified financial aid as well as details of payments. Beyond packaging and billing, detailed and accurate government reporting is critical for Title IV eligible institutions.
- Student billing: Automated mailings and notifications streamline the workflow for administrators. Students can view billing statements and financial holds, and make payments online (at once, in installments or at a later date).
Alumni relations and development
With complete information on each student from inquiry to alumni, an integrated SIS increases your capacity to strategically engage with them long after they graduate. And beyond alumni relationship management, your staff will be better equipped to manage relationships associated with those alumni, such as parents and siblings, who could prove to be crucial to development efforts.
- Campaign management: A careful and strategic communication plan is critical to the success of your campaigns. In addition to contact and moves management, an integrated SIS can also assist in gift processing, third-party affluence ratings and fund management.
- Career services and outcomes: Having access to the full view of student lifecycle undergirds institutional research. Your alumni tell your school’s story, so tracking them adequately is critical. By better understanding where your alumni end up, you can remain engaged and leverage those connections to help with future career prospects for students.
Workflow, contact management and reporting
An integrated SIS not only keeps data centralized, but communication too. Strategically plan your communication flow and recruiting messages in advance and avoid the time-intensive task of corresponding with prospective students, particularly about items (like missing requirements, deadline reminders and campus visit invitations) that can easily be automated. Workflow tools can assign triggers and reminders based on criteria you set, and contact management features not only log all points of contact—call, email, text, mailing—but allow you to deliver targeted messages to specific markets to increase the effectiveness and personalization of your recruitment communications.
With an integrated SIS, rekeying data becomes a thing of the past. Customizable and standard base reports allow you to search any data field to see real-time information for tracking leads and other activity. In addition, audit logs track all changes to field values in the database, providing you with more informed intel about campus operations and making it easier to resolve issues.
A good SIS will integrate well with other targeted systems, such as learning management systems for online learning and digitized instruction and assessments. It will also offer features that not only help you organize information, but manage that information well. Alert systems allow you to flag students based on specific information within their file related to, for example, billing or academic performance. Communication reminders prompt you to connect with inquiries and applicants at specific points in the process, and allow you to track those touch points in a single location. Reverse audits, or predictive audits, can help you identify and address at-risk students early-on.
In an age when reporting is king, the strength of an SIS is correlated with the quality and timeliness of the information it delivers. Reporting poor data can be disastrous, and could ultimately put your accreditation and Title IV student financial aid funding eligibility in jeopardy. Conversely, good reporting can not only keep your school on track but also lead to improved results.
Having the ability to synchronize information about student performance and admissions demographics can give you intel into which regions and programs are performing best for your school, allowing you to address existing issues and better target your efforts moving forward. Through the aggregation and alignment of data, schools can achieve more effective allocation of resources and more streamlined reporting.
Integrated Versus Best-of-Breed
Best-of-breed models may specialize in niche aspects of the student lifecycle and offer an improved look and user experience. While this sort of highly specific approach is likely appealing to individual departments within your school, the benefits come at the cost of data accessibility.
Best-of-breed options are rich in function-specific features, and offer many bells and whistles for operations like admissions and financial aid. But the draw of an independent, function-specific system ends up adding layers of complexity when it comes to data exchange. Moving data between independent systems can be costly, error-prone and sometimes impossible.
On the other hand, an integrated SIS, while unlikely to meet every department’s every need, is about priorities, not perfection. What schools give up in terms of bells and whistles they gain in efficiency through the organization of day-to-day operations.
See a full analysis on integrated versus best-of-breed.
Considerations for Choosing an SIS
There are countless SIS options on the market, and while there’s no right answer, there are several factors to consider as you narrow down the right option for your school.
On-premise versus the cloud
While the increasingly prominent shift is toward more web-based systems, some databases can still be housed on a physical central server. The main consideration here is staffing capacity. Because the vendor does much of the heavy lifting for cloud-based solutions, they tend to be ideal for small to mid-sized schools running on a lean staff.
Cost will vary depending on whether you choose an on-premise or cloud-based system. Variations include purchase structure (subscription or lump sum), equipment (virtual or hardware), installation and configuration, customization and integration of other systems, data migration, training, maintenance, personnel, security and backup options.
See a full analysis of student information system cost considerations.
Data integrity is critical with any database, particularly ones containing sensitive information in student records, so whether it’s your IT staff handling the central server or it’s rolled into your cloud-based SIS product, make sure the best security practices are employed and FERPA compliances are met.
Broad education software might not be specific enough to meet your needs, as K-12 schools may have some very different needs than higher education. Consider what tools, customizations and features will meet your specific needs.
Scope and scalability
Small and mid-sized schools may end up struggling under the weight of costly, complicated products designed for large institutions. It’s important to assess whether the size of the product suits the size of your school, and also whether the system can grow with you and meet your future needs, five or ten years down the road.
The process of searching for, deciding on and finally implementing an SIS can take several months or even years. As you weigh your options, consider how much flexibility you have for a lengthy, labor-intensive implementation versus opting for a lighter system that could be up and running quickly. Also consider how much time are you saving in the long run by streamlining efforts and improving efficiency.
Though it may at times feel like a herculean effort to bring all the key players on board with a decision about an SIS, consider how well the system works for everyone involved. And be sure to scope out what training, resources and support the vendor provides for onboarding and upkeep.
An SIS manages administrative needs for schools, but there are other aspects of the educational experience that it doesn’t cover. For those, understanding common integrations will ensure that you get the most out of your software selection.
- Learning management systems. An LMS (such as Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas or Brightspace) helps faculty manage the classroom experience, including content delivery, attendance monitoring and achievement tracking. Here’s what you need to know about choosing an LMS.
- 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.
- Wealth screening. If you plan to use your SIS to its fullest capacity, covering the full student lifecycle through alumni and development relations, integration with third-party wealth screening will help focus your campaigns.
- Financial Aid. An SIS may have the full capacity to service financial aid—including billing, packaging and government reporting—but third-party financial aid software (EdExpress, Powerfaids and BEN) can also be integrated.
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