Student Information System for Higher Education – The Guide

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Having integrated, accessible data remedies the common issue of siloed information, streamlines manual and otherwise outdated processes, and allows accurate real-time reporting.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.

Admissions process

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.

Student services

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.

Registrar’s office

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 rostersincluding photos and profiles on each studentsand 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.

Business office

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 contactcall, email, text, mailingbut 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.

Other Considerations

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.

Reporting Tools

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

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.

Security

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.

Vendor specialty

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.

Time

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.

Personnel

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.

Integrations

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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Selecting a Learning Management System (LMS) – What You Need to Know

A Learning Management System (LMS) is software that universities can use to plan, develop, deliver, and assess the online portions of an educational program, whether that is an extension of an in-person class, or native eLearning.

An LMS provides tools to

  • Create, manageand deliver educational content
  • Monitor student participation
  • Assess student performance

A good LMS should have an easy-to-use interface for instructors to do these things, be able to use third-party modules for specific tasks, and have a robust reporting function. They increasingly support things like video conferencing, discussion forums, and extensive data analysis, allowing for customization to account for individual student needs.

But it’s easy to get lost in the vast number of options. What do you need to know to choose effectively?

How an LMS differs from an SIS

A Student Information System (SIS) manages institutional administrative operations, including admissions, enrollment, exams, attendance, and credits. An SIS integrates with accounting and admissions, and manages student records.

An LMS manages and delivers the instructional content. It extends the classroom to online, and connects students to the instructor and each other.

Some functions of highly featured LMSs might overlaps with an SIS, because teachers are also administrators, but the two platforms have very different purposes. An SIS enables an educational institution as a whole to manage its administrative relationship with a student. An LMS enables faculty to manage their instructional relationship with a student.

Together, an SIS and an LMS work together to create an effective educational relationship with each student. Understanding the differences between them, and what features your SIS already provides, will help narrow down what features your LMS must have.

How to use an LMS

An LMS is a highly capable tool’one that requires training and experience to use fully. Many organizations implement an LMS, only to find that both students and faculty use the basic features, but don’t take advantage of other features, particularly those intended to increase collaboration. Despite the notion that modern students are digital natives, they do not actually seem much more adept at picking up highly capable software than previous generations.

Increasingly, faculty wants to see solid evidence that increased technology has a positive impact on student learning. A lot of that depends on the clarity of the interface and the provided training.

An Open Source vs. Proprietary LMS

Open source software is distributed under terms that make it free and modifiable by the licensee, is built by developers who are passionate rather than purely profit-driven, and does not lock the purchaser into a relationship with a particular vendor. For an educational institution, it has the additional advantage that the term open source has real cachet with students, even those unsure of its meaning. Moodle is an example of an open source virtual learning environment.

An open source LMS isn’t free, even if it has no purchase price. It requires a platform running applications like Linus, Apache, and PHP, and a lot of time from skilled IT staff to implement and maintain it. And even if you are not tied to a vendor, switching to another LMS will still require vast amounts of training and procedural changes.

Proprietary software is software purchased from a particular vendor. Proprietary software has a lot of that IT work built in, and is more of a known entity than a given open source product. Its costs and capabilities are more easily known. Blackboard is an example of a proprietary LMS.

Institutions need to examine their own resources, ambitions, and capabilities before choosing between open source and proprietary for their learning management system.

Some Learning Management Systems to Consider

Many competitors have left the LMS market, and while there is always a possibility of innovative entrants, the market is dominated by four large LMSs. Are there any meaningful differences between them?

Moodle

Moodle is the flagship of open source LMSs. It is supported by a large development community, which has created many specialized modules and plugins. It is extremely customizable, and many third-party vendors have grown up around it to provide additional services.

Skilled management of Moodle can give a low total cost of ownership. But skill and experience are essential in achieving a well-functioning Moodle installation. Flexibility usually comes at a cost, and Moodle is complex and hard for the uninitiated to set up and operate.

For schools with strong internal capabilities and appetite for experimentation.

Blackboard

Blackboard has served many clients since 1997, and its installed base includes 75 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities. This makes it the de facto industry standard. As a result, many other teaching and management services are designed to integrate well with it. This is particularly true of SIS.

It has a large number of built-in features, hosting models, and services. Some find its platform outdated, and its cloud service offering lagging behind competitors. Blackboard’s many product versions and massive legacy platform make rolling out updates a challenge.

For schools seeking stability.

Canvas Instructure

Canvas is an open-source LMS aimed specifically at the academic market. It was designed to be a modern web applicationand provides a lot of support for collaboration and course content authoring. It includes built-in video recording as well as iOS and Android apps.

Canvas is a new player on the market, and thus does not have as long a track record or number of experienced users as some other platforms.

For schools seeking a native Web 2.0 experience and who don’t require a lot of hand-holding.

Brightspace by D2L

Brightspace is known for a good user interface and for its customer support. It has a variety of analytics and communications features, some not matched by other vendors. It provides tools to monitor student progressand interacts with students on behalf of the instructor.

The key differentiator for Brightspace is its analytics, using previous student behavior to anticipate problems and customize learning experiences in response.

After a patent fight in 2009, D2L and Blackboard license each other’s software.

For schools that are comfortable with analyzing and using data.

Choosing an LMS for your institution

There is no substitute for an honest self-assessment, and an intensive testing period. Any system, not just an LMS, has to suit the way you actually do business, the way your students actually interact, and the way your instructors actually teach’not the way you wish things were. The point of an LMS is to help you do what you already do’just better. A good online learning management system will have certain capabilities that include course syllabus, exam generators, online course catalog, lesson planning, student achievement, shareable content and student progress, grades and test scores.

How an LMS supports accreditation efforts

An LMS can provide crucial support for program accreditation by tracking and assessing student learning and providing reporting on student educational outcomes. Having the data collection for immediate student assessment be stored for use in accreditation application saves immense amounts of effort in re-entering data while reducing errors.

Integrating a Student Information System and an LMS

The essential of integration is that you want to have a single student record for all purposes, with no relevant data stored elsewhere. The result is a complete understanding of each student, uniting instructional and administrative information into a complete student profile.

It’s important not to underestimate the difficulties inherent in the systems integration of data. But the results of smooth integration can really power an educational institution to a higher level of performance.

Other considerations that should be assessed when integrating an LMS including whether you want single sign-on (so students don’t need to manage multiple user names and passwords), restful API (real-time data exchange between systems) and identity authentication.

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The Definitive Guide to Title IV Student Financial Aid

Financial aid plays a critical role in making college an affordable option for many families, often rendering it an enrollment lifeline, particularly for smaller, tuition-driven institutions. Federal student financial assistance programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended. So, whether you’re just starting the process of gaining eligibility for funding or looking to better coordinate financial aid management and reporting, understanding Title IV is a necessary starting point.

Overview of Title IV Funding

Every year, 15 million students receive $150 billion in federal student aid through the U.S Department of Education to help cover the cost of college–including hard costs like tuition and fees and room and board as well as variable costs like supplies, computers, books and transportation. These funds are distributed in a variety of forms including grants, loans and work-study programs, and are only available to eligible students enrolled in eligible programs at eligible institutions, of which there are thousands in the U.S.

Types and Disbursement of Federal Student Aid

For students, the financial aid process begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The information reported on a student’s FAFSA determines their financial aid eligibility for Title IV programs, namely grants, loans and work-study. A financial aid award letter prepared and sent by your school notifies students as to what forms of federal aid, and in what amounts, they will receive. Their full financial package might also include additional separate aid through school-administered scholarships and grants based on academic performance and other requirements.

Grants

  • Federal Pell Grant: Amounts change yearly, but the maximum award for the 2016-17 academic year is $5,815. An individual student’s award is determined by the government based on financial need, school cost and attendance plans. The Federal Pell Grant does not need to be repaid by the student.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG): Specifically for students with exceptional financial need, the SEOG awards range from $100 to $4,000 per year. The U.S. Department of Education provides a certain amount of SEOG funds to each participating school, which can offer awards based on other aid received and availability of funds. The SEOG does not need to be repaid by the student.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant: If your school participates in the TEACH Grant Program, students can be awarded up to $4,000 not based on need, but rather on their commitment to a career in teaching. Students must sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve; if they do not fulfill the obligation, the grant is converted into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan as described below.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant: The U.S. Department of Education provides funds to help pay for the educational expenses of students who lost a parent or guardian in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, based on specific requirements.

Loans

Federal student loans are distributed in two categories: Direct Loans, for which the U.S. Department of Education is the lender; and Perkins Loans, for which participating schools are the lender.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan (Stafford): The U.S. Department of Education pays interest while the student is in school and during deferment and grace periods. Subsidized loans are determined by the school and cannot exceed a student’s financial need. (Loan limit: $5,500-$12,500/year)
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan (Stafford): Unsubsidized loans are not need-based and are determined by the school based on cost of attendance and other financial aid received. Students pay or accrue interest as soon as the loan is given. (Loan limit: $5,500-$12,500/year for undergraduate; up to $20,500 for graduate)
  • Direct PLUS Loans: Given to graduate or professional students or to parents of undergraduates enrolled at participating schools.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: Students can combine multiple federal student loans into one with a single loan servicer and monthly payment.
  • Federal Perkins Loan: School-based, low-interest loans for students with exceptional financial need. (Loan limit: up to $5,500/year for undergraduate; $8,000/year for graduate)

Federal Work-Study

Administered by participating schools, federal work-study allows students to work part-time, on- or off-campus, earning at least minimum wage to help pay for college as they go.

Basic Title IV Eligibility Requirements

Institutions of higher education, proprietary institutions of higher education, and postsecondary vocational institutes can seek eligibility if they meet a series of requirements, including offering associate degrees or higher, programs acceptable toward a bachelor’s degree, or programs that prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.

Schools must demonstrate adequate administrative capacity complete with internal checks and balances, financial aid counseling, and periodic reconciliation of fiscal and financial aid offices. They must also prove financial responsibility, which is in part determined by a composite score of 1.5 or higher and sufficient cash reserves. See all requirements for eligibility >

Accreditation and Title IV

Because accreditation ensures that institutions of higher education remain accountable to a certain level of quality in terms of instruction and training, the U.S. Department of Education considers it when determining a school’s Title IV eligibility. A total of 37 regional and national accrediting agencies are currently recognized for Title IV purposes. Make sure your agency is on the list >

Managing Student Financial Aid

Meeting the eligibility requirements for ample staffing and electronic systems necessary to process and administer Title IV funds doesn’t ensure that the back-end mechanics will be easy. Once a school earns eligibility and begins participating in student financial assistance programs, the challenge of tracking and reporting data mounts.

In addition to the initial disbursement of funds, schools must also grapple with situations of over-awarding (due to a change in students’ financial situation) as well as the return of Title IV funds if a student withdraws from their planned course of study at a certain point in time. Schools must also monitor Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), and take the necessary action toward financial aid probation, and in some cases eventually financial aid suspension, for students who fail to meet the requirements.

Properly managing funds based on federal regulations is necessary for maintaining Title IV eligibility and avoiding costly lawsuits. A student information system with a fully integrated financial aid module can centralize student communication, billing, packaging and government reporting.

Title IV Application Process

Ready to apply? Use the E-App at https://eligcert.ed.gov/. In addition to your online application, you’ll need to provide documentation of state licensure, accreditation and two years of audited financial statements.

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Additional sources:

https://studentaid.ed.gov/

http://www.ed.gov/

https://eligcert.ed.gov/

https://ifap.ed.gov/ifap/byAwardYear.jsp?type=fsahandbook&awardyear=2016-2017