Thoughts on outsourcing IT to us vs. going in-house

As we're wont to say here, we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges. We do that, in part, by giving them access to high-octane technology, otherwise out of reach to most schools, but made affordable by the wonders of economies of scale. This lets our customers offload much of their IT burden—infrastructure, processes, and maintenance—to us. Of course, there's more. Gliding atop those servers and databases and terabytes of storage is some elegant, easy-to-use, ever-improving software that helps a small school do more with its data. And, there's yet another layer: the people who use Populi have access to the people who run Populi. Need help with something? Wanna know how something works? Did something break? Support is always near at hand.

That, in a paragraph, is what's for sale here: high-end technology, excellent software, and people to back you up. And if it doesn't work for you, there's no long-term contract forcing you to continue.

Every now and then, we lose a sale not to an established competitor, but to a school's in-house IT staff. Now, don't get us wrong—if Populi doesn't fit, don't try to wear it (to abuse the old proverb). If a school needs something different than Populi, we're the last ones who'll try to talk you into signing up. But the decision, from what we've heard, usually has little to do with service or functionality. A lot of times when a school says, "We're gonna build it ourselves..." the next line is usually something like, "...because we wanna keep expenses down."*

Now, on the surface, this might make some sense. Your 400-student college didn't get that way without some sort of IT staff and technology investment. And if IT is already baked-in to your institution, then you already have a lot of what you need covered. A little extra development time, judicious use of free open-source technology, a stopgap Access database in the meantime...

Yeah, it could be done. But what will you end up with? Going by our experience, here's the bare minimum of what you'd need to build something comparable to Populi:

  1. A team of ten to twelve full-time employees.
  2. Ultra-conservatively, about a million bucks.
  3. Four years of continuous design, development, implementation, and refinement.
  4. A roadmap for the next several years of the same.
  5. Dedicated support staff, including a full-time writer to manage documentation (we'll assume you won't need to maintain a blog or a Twitter feed).
  6. A well thought-out approach to user interaction design.
  7. Top-end, incredibly secure servers, data centers, backups, file storage, etc.

Here's some of what you'd need to make the month-to-month cost comparable:

  1. No dedicated staff on your payroll (but wait... what about point #2, above?).
  2. Server and infrastructure costs shared among 90+ other colleges.
  3. The ability to deal with problems quickly so your operations don't grind to a halt.
  4. Nimble, proactive security protocols to ward off information thieves.
  5. Justin Bieber haircuts for your staff.**

Now, let's put this in stark economic terms. Say you take a look at what Populi would cost your 400-student college over a five-year period:

  • During the 9-month academic year, you're sending us $2,899 a month (under the Medium pricing plan)
  • During the 3-month Winter and/or Summer downtime, you opt for Small, and send us $199 a month.
  • So, for the year, $26,688. Over five years, you've parted with $133,440, give or take.

So, over five years, you've spent on Populi what you'd spend on—let's assume your saintly staff works for peanuts—three annual IT salaries. All you need now is another seven people, items 2-7 from the first list and 1-5 from the second list. And someone to take over what your three IT guys were doing before you pulled the trigger on a new, in-house system.

So, yeah: we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges... because the service we offer—taken as a whole—is generally out-of-reach by other means.

Post script: Read about our own approach to outsourcing software here. To summarize, don't outsource just to outsource—make it part of your strategy to focus on your core competencies.

*The decision to build in-house sometimes comes down to finances, but often also hinges on a perceived need for a different kind of feature or a different way of handling a certain workflow. We'll look at that in another blog post.

**Isaac and Toby like to get their hair cut every three days! It's a good thing that expense is spread out over 90-something customers.

Videos of some upcoming Financial Aid workflow changes

Covering Aid by Year, Batch Disbursement, ISIRs Imports, Aid Classifications, and Aid Year Schedules

We recently posted a brief rundown of the exciting new financial aid features we will soon release. And now, here's a couple of videos demonstrating how we are improving the process of adding and disbursing aid on student accounts. To summarize, currently we treat Financial Aid as a payment method managed strictly on a by-term basis. But soon Populi will let you handle Aid more accurately: you'll be able to manage awards on the by-year basis and manage disbursements on the by-term level. This will permit all kinds of really handy automations and ought to really speed up your financial workflows.

Coming Soon: a refresh for Populi Financial Aid

Some big updates are coming to Populi Financial in a few weeks. In addition to moving Financial over to our simpler, cleaner layout (which works great on mobile devices), we're expanding Populi's Financial Aid capabilities. Soon, you'll be able to:

  • Download ISIRs and automatically integrate the wealth of information they collect about prospects, students, and their parents
  • Manage financial aid awards at the year level
  • Automate batch disbursements at the Academic Term level
  • Automatically calculate Pell awards
  • Let students and prospects view and interact with their financial aid applications
  • Let students and prospects accept and decline awards online

Here's an overview of what's coming to Populi Financial:

Billing & Accounting

No big surprises in Billing and Accounting—we're simply updating them to the tabbed layout.

Financial Aid

Financial Aid, on the other hand, will look quite different.

Currently, Financial Aid is organized under Current (which shows Alerts, Disbursements, and Aid Applications), Reporting (which shows Aid by Year/Term, Disbursements, and 1098-Ts), and Settings (Application Components and Award Types). This reflects our earlier approach to Financial Aid as, primarily, as simply a way to pay down student balances in Billing.

After the upcoming release, Financial Aid will be organized under Awards, Aid Applications, Reporting, and Settings.

Awards

The new Awards tab will track awarded aid by year and student (effectively replacing the old Aid by Year and Aid by Term reports). It will also give you more useful tools for tracking Disbursements (including aid refunds) and enable Batch processing for awards and refunds.

Aid Applications

Aid Applications, once covered by a single report, now get a dedicated tab. In addition to the Aid Applications tracking tool, there's a new interface for Application Questions, which lets your Financial Aid staff interact with students puzzling over parts of their application.

Reporting

In Reporting, you'll find Academic Progress and 1098-Ts. Academic Progress will replace Financial Aid Alerts and give you filtering tools to quickly find any students who've run afoul of any GPA or Credits/Hours requirements. 1098-Ts, of course, will be as simple as ever, with some improvements to how it collects and reports the relevant data.

Settings

Settings will be expanded. In addition to Application Components and Award Types , you'll be able to create Aid Classifications and Aid Year Schedules. Aid Classifications are "templates" which automatically add certain data and application components to your financial aid applicants. Aid Year Schedules let you set up batch disbursements set up for your Academic Years, allowing different schedules by Classification and Award Type.

Student Profiles

To accommodate the new functionality, we're giving the Financial tab on student profiles a new Financial Aid tab (and making some according changes on By Term). The new tab is devoted to Financial Aid information and summarizes Awards and Applications by year. It lets view all aspects of the student's (or prospect's!) aid application, manually manage disbursements,  and even print award letters. Students can come here to interact with their financial aid application—to ask questions, review their app, and accept or decline awards.

Of course, we're still hard at work on the new features, and so some of what's pictured here may change. But you get the general idea—soon you'll be able to use Populi (together with proprietary FSA* software like EDExpress) to manage the entire Financial Aid process for your students, from application all the way to disbursement.

We'll be following up with some more posts and some videos explaining the new workflows as we count down to the release.

*That is, Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. It's a necessary evil, unfortunately.

Library Links

We released Library Links earlier this week. Now you can add organized lists of useful links and make them available to all your patrons. Very simple and, judging by our users' response to it thus far, very useful.

Populi Library

We're pleased to announce that we just released Populi Library to all our customers.

Populi Library is simple, lightweight library software designed with small colleges in mind. It lets you manage resources for multiple libraries and lets your patrons—students, faculty, staff, and others—find those resources, place holds, make recommendations, and leave reviews.

Multiple Libraries

Many schools, in addition to their main library, let their students access faculty and other libraries. Populi Library lets you manage as many libraries as you have and gives each Library the same features and abilities as the others. By treating each library as distinct but uniting them through one central, web-based point of entry, Populi Library makes things like advanced searching and Inter-library loans simple for staff and patron alike.

Community

Every one of your library patrons—whether students, faculty, staff, or friends of the school—gets a library profile. Library profiles show a complete circulation history, so it's easy to see what resources anyone has on hold, checked out, or overdue. They also collect all of the Patron's reviews and recommendations. Reviews also feed into the Activity Feed on the Profile, so if a student is following a professor, the student will see a feed of that prof's reviews and recommendations.

Loan Policies and Fines

Populi Library tracks multiple loan policies for different libraries, resources, and patron types. If one of your patrons incurs a fine—for an overdue book or a lost resource—Library automatically keeps the tab and lets your patrons pay what they owe right at the counter.

Search

Most Library searches are slow, dreary affairs. But Populi Library is search-centric and made to help you find things quickly. Fast and forgiving, it returns relevant results even if you misspell a search term. Search tools include a basic search field, an advanced search that lets you specify particular resource data, and an alphabetical subject search.

Resources and Circulation

Add new resources to your library just by typing or scanning a barcode, ISBN, ASIN, or other accepted code. Populi Library instantly retrieves basic resource information—title, author, cover image, and more—from Amazon.com or Open Library. Resource circulation puts all active loans, transits, and holds front and center so you always know what is where.

Keeping it Simple

We approached Populi Library the way we approach everything: by focusing on simplicity and ease of use. Your patrons need a simple way to search your catalog and find resources. You need an easy way to manage your collections, communicate with your patrons, stay on top of loans, and track fines. And that's just what Populi Library does.

Getting Started with Populi Library

To get started with Populi Library, submit a help request to let us know you're interested. We'll get to work on importing your MARC records, setting up your loan policies, and training your Library staff.