March 19, 2015
When I first started in student affairs in 2002, technology support was primarily focused on desktop applications. Even most database solutions were local, with very few vendor-provided systems to manage. Since then, the number of commercial software solutions for student affairs specialties has exploded and many departments within student affairs now use niche solutions that work well for very specific needs. Thirteen years later, we manage separate, specialized, systems for career services, housing (on and off campus), student conduct, student organizations, event registration, assessment, health education, student elections, dining, student health, counseling, event ticketing, and more. We have reached a point where multiple, independent systems produce confusion and dissonance. While each individual system may streamline work in any one unit, at a division level data collection and analysis with the goal of understanding the entire student experience is nearly impossible.
The major issue is that current software solutions aren’t built with data sharing in mind, making assessment almost impossible. Reporting features are limited and full access to the data through APIs is rarely implemented. We’ve even experienced difficulty in sharing data between separate solutions from the same vendor! We strive to make data-driven decisions, but when the data is incomplete or non-existent, how do we accurately plan for the future?
Additionally, the uncertainty and continual change resulting from working with so many vendors is an obstacle to success, negatively impacting services to departments and ultimately to our students. While some companies have been providing solutions for many years and have reached a level of maturity, a significant number are relatively small operations less than fifteen years old. Over the past five years, the industry has seen many of these smaller vendors acquired by larger companies, or even file for bankruptcy. Each time this happens our staff must rebuild relationships with new vendors and client specialists, taking time away from the critical day-to-day work within student affairs.
I’m not sure what the best solution to this problem is, but I do know that we can’t continue on the current path. One idea is for all vendors to support a central data repository, providing a single location for data sharing, extraction, and analysis. This would allow current vendors to continue to focus on providing the best niche solutions while making data accessible to the rest of student affairs and the campus. But even if everyone adopts this solution, and that’s unlikely, this seems to be only a patch to a larger issue.
A more strategic, long-term, solution is for a major vendor of higher education software systems to step in to this space either by expanding their current student services solutions or creating entirely new products to fully document the learning that takes place outside of the classroom. This would not only require major changes from current vendors, but would also necessitate a culture change within student affairs in order to adopt a large-scale system in place of niche solutions.
We still have a log way to go to solve this problem. We’ll need input and cooperation from student affairs professionals and vendors in order to identify and implement a solution. I had some discussions on this question with Eric Stoller late last year, prompting his blog post (and some interesting comments), Connecting Technology Buckets in Student Affairs (https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/student-affairs-and-technology/connecting-technology-buckets-student-affairs)
Is anyone else considering these issues? Are any large vendors planning to incorporate all of these functions in a single solution? Is anyone working on a central data repository for student affairs related system? I haven’t heard of anything, and I’m not sure anyone is even talking about this growing issue? I’d like to continue this discussion, so please let me know your thoughts.
 I’ll list just a few of the acquisitions, bankruptcies, and other legal issues that have impacted our work in student affairs.
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