Going Beyond Student System Market Leaders Might be Worth the Risk

Senior Analyst

Top of Mind: Going Beyond Student System Market Leaders Might be Worth the Risk
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Evaluating alternatives for cost-conscious institutions

Rising costs, dwindling enrollment, and a looming demographic cliff are a recipe for trouble—particularly for smaller institutions that are struggling. While the demand and expectations surrounding technology have increased exponentially in the last few years, opportunities exist for smaller institutions to modernize their technology stack while saving money.

Where We Are Now

The student system (also referred to as the “student information system,” or “SIS”) is one of every institution’s core technology products. In some cases, it also represents one of the single largest purchases from an up-front and annual cost perspective. Many institutions have worked with their current student system for multiple decades and have likely seen the costs to run it greatly outpace the product’s capability for modernization and added functionality. For some institutions, modernization is more or less being forced on them as their legacy products are being discontinued. Others will likely need to jump on the SaaS bandwagon eventually and essentially reimplement their system. Rightfully, all these realities are forcing institutions to rethink their strategy—and if they aren’t, they should be.

Which Institutions Should Consider Alternative Student Systems?

Schools with enrollments under 2,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) and even some up to 5,000 FTE should consider looking beyond the market leaders for their next—and maybe last—student system selection.

There are upsides to selecting a market leader, they:

  • Offer single-vendor ERP solutions inclusive of student, finance, and HCM
  • Have vast resources for sustained innovation and support
  • Have extensive customer bases, resulting in large peer support networks
  • Usually offer more complete functionality
  • Have large partner programs with supported out-of-the-box integrations

While these benefits are real, they come at a steep cost, and small to midsize institutions need to steward their financial resources carefully to survive the next decade.

Does Your Institution Need a Single-Vendor ERP Solution?

Do smaller institutions really need to approach their student system from a holistic single-vendor ERP approach? I don’t think so. Many of these institutions are already using third-party finance and HCM tools and, as such, aren’t tied to a particular student system. Furthermore, these smaller institutions tend to be disproportionally complex for their size because their small nature has limited their ability to update processes over time to remain current with industry best practices. Therefore, they generally are on highly customized student systems, and the thought of eliminating that customization to modernize to a SaaS offering of the same product doesn’t make sense when the result will likely mean spending more for less functionality.

While finance and HCM solutions are certainly part of the discussion when examining the technology ecosystem of an institution, there are two other systems that tend to be a core consideration: CRM and LMS. From a CRM perspective, many of the non-market-leading student systems include CRM functionality as a part of the core student system. This potentially either reduces technology spend by allowing for the elimination of an additional third-party system or increases business function by adding a CRM where one might not have been implemented yet. While most schools are offering robust online programs—especially post-COVID-19—not all are. Some institutions simply need a basic LMS to be able to offer some online content, either as a standalone course modality or as an online extension to an in-person course. Some of the other student systems include an LMS as a part of the student system package, potentially saving institutions money if they can live without a market-leading LMS.

7 Popular Student System Alternatives for Smaller Institutions

Outside of the market-leading student systems exist several powerful solutions. While there are many examples, the following seven, listed alphabetically, represent the most well-known and innovative products, many of which are built upon modern technology platforms such as Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce.

  1. Campus Cafe Software
  2. Jenzabar SONIS
  3. Populi College Management
  4. Student First
  5. Thesis Elements
  6. OneWorldSIS
  7. WDCi Group RIO Education

While there are other products on the market that are suitable for smaller institutions, they are either being discontinued or are more legacy in terms of their underlying architecture.

Tambellini clients can explore the differentiators between these less-expensive student system vendors and their products and strategies in our 2023 Field Guide: Other Student Systems.

Weighing Risk vs. Reward

Straying from the market leaders for your student system isn’t without risks—or rewards.

Risk: Vendor Viability

As smaller institutions continue to struggle and merge or potentially close their doors, the market for these other student systems could dry up with them, leaving current customers in a precarious situation should these smaller vendors be unable to sustain a shrinking market.

Risk: Platform Awareness

Alternative systems aren’t as well known and popular in the industry; therefore, integrations, partnerships, and general market awareness can potentially make constructing a well-integrated ecosystem more challenging. However, these products are generally built on extremely extensible platforms that offer a wide variety of integration and extensibility possibilities, so, depending on what your ecosystem looks like, it may not be all that more challenging than what you experience today with a legacy system.

Reward: Cost Savings

The cost savings could be substantial, and reducing your technology stack might allow you to realize additional savings.

Reward: Modern Architecture and Configuration Capabilities

These lesser-known solutions are generally much more modern at a foundational level than legacy cloud-adapted solutions and are not encumbered by outdated architecture. This allows for greater configuration for unique business processes with less risk of future upgrades and patches causing functional issues.

Reward: Increased Opportunity for Partnership

Beyond cost savings and functional improvements, having a non-market-leading vendor might result in greater institutional attention and a feeling of partnership. With a market leader, you might be one of hundreds or thousands of customers. Oftentimes, the smaller institution’s voice doesn’t influence future development as much as the largest, which represent the market leaders’ most significant revenue stream.

Bottom Line

A half-million dollars a year or more for a student system is a lot to stomach for a small to midsize private institution, especially if the prospect of losing a legacy solution’s customization in the pursuit of modernization leaves the community with less perceived functionality than they started with.

While there are always risks to going outside of market leaders for core technology selections, the capabilities and innovation of these products, based on modern technology architecture, make them a compelling option for a fraction of the initial and ongoing cost. Every institution must weigh the risk and reward, but outright dismissal of these other student systems without serious exploration could be a costly mistake that could have a substantial negative impact on the financial health of smaller institutions as they navigate the uncertainty of the next decade.

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Senior Analyst
As a senior analyst, Dr. Matt Winn focuses his research initiatives on academic administration, LMS, and other teaching and learning technologies. He has led numerous modernization and implementation projects within the SIS, LMS, and CRM landscapes. Passionate about using technology to serve and improve education, he seeks to help institutions integrate disparate systems, create automations, and improve various processes across campus. 

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