Legal language

We recently announced some upcoming updates to our various legal documents. All in all, the revamped documents are a good step forward for us and our customers: they're better organized and do a better job of defining some key terms and relationships.

But one thing we're not crazy about with the new documents—or our outgoing Terms, for that matter—is the general tone of the language. Legal language, in its quest for absolute clarity, is wont to produce real mouthfuls. Dig this one from Section 4 of our Acceptable Use Policy:

"You hereby grant to Populi a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicenseable, worldwide, royalty-free license to use, copy, modify, create derivative works based upon, distribute, publicly display, publicly perform and distribute your User Content in connection with operating and providing the Services and Content to you and to the Customer where you are or were employed, engaged, enrolled, or applying to be enrolled."

I don't know about you, but my eyes start glazing over about six letters into the word "sublicenseable"—and I'm the guy they pay to read and (re)write stuff like this! But that's the thing about legal language: it has to cover every possible situation. Without the above, a student could sue us for saving his course discussion comment so his professor could read it later. If that happened often enough, we'd have to just fold this thing up and go home.

So, the legal language is there to help us color inside the lines, and it's there so you know exactly what the arrangement is. As the old saw goes, "Good fences make good neighbors."

But... yeah, this stuff, frankly, is a solemn read, and its detail and precision can get in the way of you understanding what we're trying to say. For that reason, we've included brief, plain-English summaries above each main section of the official documents.

1-18-13 this means

Each section is prefaced by a "This means that..." blurb that elucidates the official text that follows. These aren't legally-binding clauses of the policies; if you can think of the policies as fences, then think of these summaries as notes tied to the gateposts saying, "This fence means that that there is yours, and this over here is ours."

For example, the summary of Section 4 of the AUP distills the above-quoted mouthful into this crisp little sentence:  "We make no claims of any kind to your Content, but you give us the right to make that Content useful to you and others at your school." Much better, right?

We got this idea from some other web-based services, including 500px and Shopify. Evernote took a different approach but in the same spirit: it rewrote its Terms as a Q&A in plain-ish language. It's a good notion. Legal language can be dense and intimidating, and while there's some justification for it to be so, we nevertheless wanted to help de-mystify it a bit for our users.

Upcoming changes to our Terms of Service

We'll be making some changes to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy soon, and in the interest of forthrightness and transparency, we wanted to let you know about them ahead of time. You can find them on this preview of our new legal page, where we will soon collect all four of our various official documents. Those documents include the Customer Terms of Service, Acceptable Use Policy, Privacy Policy, and Copyright Policy. The new Terms and Policies will go into effect on April 1, 2013 (and, noooo, this isn't a prank...).

Before we get into the changes, we want to emphasize a couple fundamentals that are not changing—things that are basic to how we do business and serve our customers:

1. Your data is yours

And it always will be. Our business is simply to provide you with a tool to collect, store, manage, and use your information for the benefit of your school, staff, faculty, and students. And should you choose to move on to a different system, we give you the tools to easily take all your data with you. We won't sell or otherwise traffic your information—our mission is to give you a safe, secure way to take care of it yourselves.

2. Pricing works the same way

We're not doing anything new or different here. You'll still pay a monthly base rate and per-student price, together with any extra file storage and SMS fees. These are all still plainly spelled out on our completely public pricing page. If we need to raise prices, we'll still give you 90 days' notice (we reserve the right to keep price drops a surprise!). And implementation, support, updates, etc., are all still included for free.

Okay. So what's new?

Well, for one, all the wording is gonna be different. For the most part, though, it's just a more precise way of saying the same things we were saying before.

That said, our current (soon-to-be-old) TOS had a few gray areas that we wanted to clarify:

Customers and users

First, we wanted to better distinguish between our customers and our users. Customers are the schools that do business with us (i.e., that send us payment every month). Users are the individuals authorized by those schools to make use of Populi—whether staff, faculty, students, or prospects.

Accordingly, we have now divided the Terms into two chief sections: the Customer Terms of Service (CTOS), and the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). The CTOS defines the business relationship—what we provide with our service, the customer's responsibilities for use and payment, how to set up an account and terminate use, and so on. The AUP defines the rights and responsibilities of users in relation to Populi—rights to content and data, restrictions on use (no hacking or illegal stuff), general responsibilities, and dispute resolution.

Pricing and payment

The only novel element in our new Pricing and Payment section is a change in nomenclature: we're replacing "active student" with "billable student". The problem we would run into is that "active" has a few potential meanings. It could mean "a person with an active Student role" or "a Student who is an active user". Because our services' definition of "active" is somewhat different from that of our Terms, our customers sometimes assumed the wrong meaning.

So, for clarity's sake, we felt that the students we actually charge you for deserved a unique term, one that isn't used anywhere else in Populi: they are now called billable students. Everything else, however, remains the same: billable students are students enrolled in or auditing one or more courses for seven or more calendar days in a given month. Nothing sneaky, no sleight of hand here: we're just changing a word so everyone understands our pricing better.

User-generated content and data

As Populi has developed since the adoption of our Terms of Service some years back, user-generated content has assumed an even greater role than it has before. And given the swirl of concerns regarding copyrights, distribution, piracy, privacy, and so on, we needed to make sure we A) did a better job of defining user content, B) clarified your ownership and rights over it, and C) sought all the proper releases from you to make it available to you via our service. Again, nothing substantial is changing here: you can still use Populi to store, manage, and distribute (within the rights granted to you by any copyright holders) data, files, audio, video, documents, etc.—but now the legal fencing around this part of the service has received a fresh coat of paint and new hinges on the gates.

Dispute resolution

Our outgoing TOS implicitly assumed that any disputes between us and a user or customer would be handled via civil litigation. But the thing about litigation is that it's a very public, time-consuming, and expensive process that can prove incredibly destructive to entities with limited resources—not just us, but also our customers. Our incoming AUP specifies that disputes that come to that point will be handled in arbitration, which is private, less expensive, and swifter than dragging things into the courts. Of course, we hope it never gets to that point with any of our users or customers! But should things go south, we feel this is the best way to enter into a formal dispute both for you and for us.

Revamped Privacy Policy

We also refreshed our Privacy Policy. Just as with our TOS, nothing substantive changed:

  • Your data is still yours
  • We still take every reasonable measure to protect it and back it up (unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the absolute security of any information)
  • You can volunteer personal information confident that we will never sell it or otherwise share it
  • For purposes of customer service, system maintenance, diagnostics, usage patterns, and marketing (i.e. taglines like Now serving over 20,000 students!) we may use non-identifying aspects of your information in aggregate form
  • We share some information with third-parties so they can perform services on our behalf (such as credit card processing)

It's pretty standard stuff, really, but now it's better-organized and explains our policy with greater clarity than before.

The heart of the matter

Think of this as an overhaul of the user interface of the TOS. Yes, some things have moved, some things look totally new, but the substance is the same.

Again, the new policies are slated to go in effect as of April 1, 2013. Before that time, we may make minor tweaks to some of the wording, but we don't anticipate anything major.

And, of course, we welcome your questions and comments.

Feature Spotlight: Payment processing

One of our favorite value-adds in Populi is online payment processing. Schools can link a merchant account or payment gateway account with Populi and start taking online payments for tuition, fees, and Bookstore purchases. Populi Billing already eases the processes connected to charging students, recording their payments, and settling their account balances. Credit card processing takes it even further: it lets your school use Populi to collect actual payments, helping your students pay their bills on time and helping you get money in the door.


Populi directly integrates with Chase Paymentech* merchant accounts, which include everything you need to process credit card payments and channel the funds to your back account. It also works with payment gateway accounts, which serve as a bridge between Populi and your existing merchant account.

To get set up with Populi credit card processing, we put you in touch with Chase Paymentech or send you over to After completing the application process with your choice of provider, we plug your credentials into Populi. On your end, you configure a few settings to make sure credit card payments hit your General Ledger the way you want them to. Then you're good to go!


There's nothing to it. Just invoice your students as normal. When a student logs in, he'll see an alert on his Populi Home page.

Clicking the alert takes him to the Pay Now page. He can pay there, or send a link to the page to someone who wants to pay on his behalf.

You can also go to his Profile's financial dashboard and enter payment information yourself (as well as send a Pay Now link to someone else).

With Bookstore purchases, it comes up as a payment option. If you've set your Bookstore to public, anyone can come shop and place orders with you—and then pay by credit card.


As you probably know, credit card processing ain't free. Your payment processor takes a percentage of every credit card payment you accept. But Populi doesn't take any sort of cut whatsoever—we simply provide this functionality, free of charge, as part of our service to you.


As of this writing, Populi has processed over $15 million worth of credit card payments on behalf of our client schools. Reducing the obstacles for students and parents to pay their tuition and fees is a great way to benefit your bottom line, and we're happy to make that easier on our customers.

* Interested in a Chase Paymentech account? Contact Populi Support and we'll get you started.

Release trickle: January 2013 edition

Happy third day of 2013, everybody! Here's a quick update on what we've released over the past few months:

1098-T updates

Just minutes ago, we updated how Populi handles IRS 1098-T forms. Previously, we generated them only for students who met the exact IRS qualifications; we also had a muddle of export options. Here's what we changed:

  • We now generate 1098-T forms for all students enrolled in a given calendar year—by default
  • We give you the option to disable 1098-Ts for individual students on their profile
  • We broke out Release to students from the basic export options
  • Export options have changed: the PDF (IRS, College, and Student Copies) and e-File exports now only include forms that have been released to students; the XLS export includes all students shown on the 1098-T report
  • To make e-Filing easier, Populi can now remember your TCC, EIN, and Financial Aid phone number (via Financial Aid > Settings)

These updates should make 1098-T reporting even less of a miserable quasi-governmental-body-induced headache.

Other stuff

Everyone now has the By Term tab on their Profile's Financial tab—among other things, you can now add room and meal plans to anyone (great for those folks who spend the summer in your dorms).

We added student age to the IPEDS completions report.

For our ABHE customers, there are a few new preset report items for the ABHE annual report.

You can now find students with $0 balances in Billing > Current > Student Balances.

Course assignment descriptions now let you include live URLs. Link away!

A few new custom transcript variables let you show earned units that count towards the student's GPA.

Aaaaand, some back-end speed optimizations on course evaluation reporting.

Soon to come: we're closing some loopholes regarding grade locks for students who haven't yet completed their course evaluations.


Selling is what selling sells/The lonely saints of the seven avenues/Could sell the seven hells!
—The Clash, "Car Jamming"

“The key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction… If everyone were satisfied no one would want to buy the new thing.”

Thus wrote Charles Kettering, inventor and ersatz philosopher, in 1929. Kettering spent a goodly chunk of his professional life in the employ of General Motors as head of research; his work spanned a number of disciplines, including marketing. To American businesses, it was a potent, irresistible thought: if people are satisfied, they won't buy our things... so we'll just make them dissatisfied with what they have. This thought molted into consumer-focused advertising, now so familiar to us that we don't notice how pervasive and intrusive and habit-shaping it is. Some words from William Cavanaugh really get at it:

In fact, most contemporary marketing is based not on providing information but on associating products with evocative images and themes not directly related to the product itself. Non-commodifiable goods such as self-esteem, love, sex, friendship, and success are associated with products that bear little or no relation to these goods. The desire for these goods is intensified by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, what General Motors’ research division—in a reference to changing car models each year—once called "the organized creation of dissatisfaction."

Products are sold to solve problems; Kettering's genius was to locate the problem in the person, rather than in the material situation. If the problem is that you don't have a car, any car (or even a city bus pass) will take care of you. But if the problem is your self image, your independence, your virility... well, this year's model has a bigger, throatier, more emotionally-fulfilling engine than that old thing you're driving, fella. This psychology bruntly manifests itself in the housewife hectored by her sister-in-law because of spots on her dishes; it is more subtly and appealingly deployed by Apple, the single most effective creator of dissatisfaction ever.

This is simply the way marketing is done now: aim the pitch not at the need but rather at that psychological pressure point, that emotional vulnerability, that underlying hunger that motivates all other actions. It's used on individual consumers, and it's also used on institutions. Higher education institutions have particular desires, insecurities, and goals that motivate them, and software is nowadays pitched as the panacea to nearly every problem—including these deeper issues.

As evidence, we proffer marketing quotes from a variety of education software companies. Read them, and ask yourself what they're really selling:

Prestige and hipness
Relevance and community
Institutional identity and uniqueness

All of these products solve certain problems for schools and educators—they track data, keep records, pull reports, handle grading, email donors, and so on. But look at where the copy actually tries to make contact with you. All of these quotes leap from saying some form of "this product does that" to "we'll make your school everything you wish it could be". "We build software that lets you... be a leader... change learning... be complex and unique... be the answer to all your students' questions..." and so on.

And just like what's promised you by that emotionally-fulfilling muscle car engine, those results are something a software program simply cannot deliver.

Populi is a tech company that serves higher education and solves particular problems for small colleges. But one of our fundamental beliefs is that technology cannot even begin to replace institutional vision, competent and committed faculty and staff, and most of all, meaningful communication with students. World-changing leadership, depth of community, institutional pride, and whatever else is implicitly promised in the above copy—these things take decades to develop, decades during which one year's Latest Technology will inevitably fossilize into next year's antiquated dinosaur.

Hopefully, then, our own marketing copy holds up to that belief. We try to stick to this basic story: Populi exists, it does these things, you get it for this much, so wanna try it out? In a lot of places, we have to strike a balance between describing the functions it performs and the more intangible elements—ease of use, visual design, and so on—that invite bloviated copywriting. Here and there we promise things like, "a more usable and accessible dataset that will do more for your college": we should perhaps soften that to, "...that can do more for your school...".

Our yardstick for our own writing: if there's anywhere in our copy redolent of Charles Kettering, we want it gone.

Populi handles critical operations for a school, and our customers depend on us to make sure a lot of essential things happen. In view of that relationship, we simply can't afford to over-promise regarding what we do. Matters of prestige, community, relevance, identity—software can help, but it can't make it happen. If you don't like where your school is at, Populi might help with your change of course. But it isn't that change of course itself.