US campuses quickly embracing online student services platforms

Leap into advanced cloud-based system doubles in single year, though big costs and complications still leave larger institutions on the sidelines

June 14, 2022
Athens, Georgia - August 27, 2021 Students walking on campus at the University of Georgia. As of the beginning of the Fall semester, the university was recommending but had not mandated the wearing of masks or vaccinations against COVID-19.
Source: iStock

US campuses last year doubled their jump into modernised online student services platforms, signalling a belated embrace of an essential change delayed by Covid and cost anxieties, an industry analysis has found.

Years after the technology started spreading in other industries, at least 131 institutions took the leap in 2021 into modern cloud-based systems that fundamentally end reliance on paper-based forms or their relatively crude online replications, up from only 66 in 2020, the technology research firm Tambellini Group reported.

Such transformations appear inevitable in US higher education, said the organisation’s chief executive, Vicki Tambellini, because students have become accustomed in their lives to simple on-demand online interfaces, usually using their phones, that work reliably and at all hours.

Yet the decision to move ahead remains a major hurdle for most universities, Ms Tambellini said, because initial implementation costs can run from $5 million (£4 million) to $10 million for mid-sized institutions, and far more at larger campuses, with those numbers quickly multiplying in subsequent years.

In addition, she said, once institutions start down the pathway of adopting advanced cloud integration to help their students sort out, choose, register and organise their class choices, many other aspects of campus operations – in such areas as human resources and finances – quickly get folded into an even bigger-stakes decision.

Few bigger campuses are yet taking that big leap, Ms Tambellini said. But rising labour costs and a growing comfort with the technology – along with, in many instances, federal pandemic relief money – now appear to have put decisive pressure on many smaller campus leaders, she said.

“When it was brand new to the market, colleges and universities were afraid, and nobody wanted to be first,” Ms Tambellini said. Now, she said, “the business transformation for most institutions is not optional because people are becoming a scarce resource”.

The Tambellini Group said it based its analysis on interviews and proprietary data from more than 3,600 US colleges and universities.

The 131 institutions that signed contracts last year for new student-facing systems were mostly smaller campuses, and will spend only about $450 million in total over the coming one to three years, the analysts projected.

Among bigger institutions, one of the most recent cautionary tales is Ohio State University, which late last year pulled back from its implementation with the services company Workday. Ohio State acted after making an estimated initial investment of tens of millions of dollars, citing the unexpectedly heavy “amount of change” it turned out to require.

That and other cases, Ms Tambellini said, reflect the significantly higher complexity of creating systems for major research universities, given their far more complicated mixes of workers and students and activities.

“Until these newer solutions are more mature, it’s going to be difficult for the very large publics to move forward, knowing how much the systems are going to cost them,” she said.

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