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Build It or Buy It: Student Involvement Tracking Software

“Do what you do best and outsource the rest.”

A legendary business innovator and consultant, Peter Drucker believed in deliberately deciding on and completing tasks where teams are most productive, and outsourcing tasks where they are less so.

Professionals in higher education strive to provide best practices for students and need to outsource tasks or projects to businesses (including software companies) to better utilize their strengths, focus on building relationships with students, and accomplish tasks in the most efficient way possible.

For example:

Once or twice a month, you like to go to the downtown coffee shop before work and order an espresso, and with it comes a fancy foam design on top. You enjoy them so much you consider buying your own espresso machine (which are quite expensive, we checked) to make espresso on your own.

However, you realize that you don’t know where to start when it comes to making it. How to grind the coffee beans, how to make the foam and the neat designs, and you don’t get to see one of your favorite coffee baristas. You come to the conclusion that it’s more beneficial to have a cup of coffee made by someone you consider an espresso specialist and get the perfect espresso every time rather than make it on your own.

Like this example, student affairs and IT departments should both focus on what they do well, which is supporting students and other professionals on campus.

When student affairs and IT departments decide to create things like engagement and involvement software on their own, they often consider going to software specialists (vendors) further down the road.

When choosing the right software to onboard to your campus, there are many stakeholders to consider, including Dean of Students/Vice President for Student Affairs (VPSA), or Information Technology (IT) staff — all individuals who play a large role in solving some of the toughest issues in higher education.

When institutions decide to create a software in-house with resources at hand (i.e. knowledge of software or budget) they inadvertently make it more difficult for their staff to focus on their primary job responsibilities. While there may be benefits to creating software yourself, higher ed tech specialists offer valuable insights into the pros and cons of institutions creating their own homemade software solutions for student involvement tracking.

Factors to consider


1. Specifications, features & software experience

One of your first thoughts is that you should create a software on your own so it can be built the “right way” or a particular way.

Typically there is more than one right way to create an involvement tracking software for any institution.

It can seem counterintuitive to introduce a third party to something that seems second nature to you. Why would you take the time to research, implement and onboard a software when you could take the time to build a software platform yourself? It’s comforting to know that if you have a specific issue with your own software, it may be easier for your team to address the issue and fix it.

Higher education institutions have the reputation of being slow to change and still using technologies that are resource-intensive to maintain and upgrade. The staff who create the software often don’t have the time to support student affairs professionals once the software is built.

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For example:

You’ve created a software solution to track student involvement for student affairs professionals on campus. The student affairs professional coordinating the event pick-up a laptop and USB swiper for their large event: they expect hundreds of students to attend a concert they’ve planned for a pre-finals event in April. You explain that they’re able to swipe students into the event and will obtain student information and how many people have attended the event. The student affairs professionals are excited because they’ll finally be able to review outcomes of the event and analyze data for departmental assessment.

On the day of the concert, the administrators who collect the information are excited because the software is working and student information is populating a spreadsheet with their information (first name, last name, and student ID).

After the event, the student affairs professional in charge decides what to do with the spreadsheet full of student data. Some of the questions that pop into their head include:

How much time can I afford to spend on this?

What data are we concerned with analyzing?

How do I manipulate a spreadsheet to only pull the data I want to see?

Who’s responsible for manipulating the data or pulling additional data on students?

Although this is only one example of using a homemade software, it can help illustrate some of the challenges that both IT and student affairs divisions may run into when developing something entirely on their own. Card-swipe technology has made it easier to record student data, track involvement, and utilize student data important to student affairs assessment.

Software companies have specific customer service and onboarding personnel who take the time to facilitate discussions with IT departments and other stakeholders to help onboard software. Software companies often offer services like 24/7 support (with multiple people to manage each account) and offer solutions quickly — at no extra cost — as part of the software service. This model supports all stakeholders and helps if any concerns arise.

Specialists often focus on one specific area, which forces them to innovate and stay-up-to-date with their target audience. Ask vendors about future features and what their company is creating next. Align your institutional or departmental values, and communicate your pain points to see if they’ve considered all perspectives when creating or rolling out new features.

2. Student data privacy & security

So, you’re worried about student data. You have every right to be worried.

With a number of colleges and universities in the news experiencing data hacks, it’s understandable to be protective of your student data with a third-party vendor.

To clarify, having control over student data by not sharing it is not the same thing as having data security. Student data can still be compromised without sharing it with vendors.

Privacy and data reliability issues are some of the most challenging concerns as administrators decide on projects that incorporate student data on campus.


To put your mind at ease, most third-party software companies now utilize “the cloud.” With the introduction of the cloud, institutions need to be aware that it has extraordinarily high security. Let’s put it this way: companies that operate as Software as a Service (SaaS) depend on not having data breaches or hacks. So it’s incredibly important that all data is safe and secure at all times.

They host on cloud servers like AZURE (Microsoft) and AWS (Amazon Web Services) which include security procedures that are digitally and physically more secure and lead the industry in data security. In fact, companies like Microsoft pour billions of dollars into their world-class security infrastructure to meet, exceed, and to create new ways of protecting data. To give you an idea, NASA and the CIA host on AWS.

Before ruling out third-party SaaS vendors due to control over data, ask questions about the steps companies take to ensure data security.

Additionally, college and university IT departments hold most university data, but most student information is often stored in separate silos (student affairs, registrar’s office, etc) and generally, these offices aren’t intentionally connected to one another, making it difficult to access data and then share it. Software companies have the ability to make data sharing easier on campus by streamlining processes and breaking down those silos on campus, into one software platform.

3. Available resources

You’re experiencing budget cuts. Creating a homemade software solution is the less expensive route.

However, being less expensive does not equate to being a cost-benefit to your team.

The cost of undertaking creating, making, supporting, and innovating a software will take more resources and time than paying for software as a service with a third-party vendor.

Software companies can help create solutions for colleges and universities for the long-term. The upfront costs of developing software, as well as supporting it, takes a lot of time. Not to mention in-house projects tend to go over budget and unexpected bumps in the road may pop up.

The primary focus of software companies is to innovate; having a unique vision and collecting feedback from their customers or potential clients to offer the best solutions and services for higher education. Institutions can focus on providing the best support to their students while software companies provide the best services and tools for professionals.

The truth is: engagement companies often take years to develop and iterate their software. If funding is short and you think you can make the process simplified or take shortcuts, decisions not to outsource may come back to haunt you. After years, institutions have regretted not delegating tasks out to begin with, wasting time, money, and personnel resources.

Weigh all costs, benefits, and resources before making decisions related to developing an in-house software over outsourcing to a vendor.

Still on the fence?

Time is a limited resource and understanding how to save time in the long-run by partnering with a software solution is imperative. There is power in identifying strengths and relying on others to help you accomplish the rest – it reduces stress from the need to “get everything done.”

At Presence, we’re constantly improving our software platform, building upon feedback from thousands of customers and student affairs professionals, and helping institutions understand the value of on-boarding student engagement software efficiently to their student affairs divisions.

Engagement and assessment software is an incredibly important solution for institutions, as software has the ability to simplify the job of collecting, structuring, and analyzing involvement processes and data, as well as to help reach students more effectively, all in one place.

When it comes to building or buying, it’s clear that contracting with vendors provides the best value. When your institution wants to build a new structure on campus, it hires outside contractors to do so, because those contractors specialize in that — software should be no different.

“We looked at a number of other options, including developing our own solution in-house. When we compared the cost to the institution it was a simple choice — hire an expert like Presence who has a real passion for building great software and be free to focus on student development, or struggle through trying to build it ourselves and take time away from working directly with our students.

The best part is, they are thinking of ways to support our students that we never would have anticipated. It just feels good having an expert looking out for us and for our students.”

— Aaron Miltenberger, Director of Student Life and Recreation, Adams State University

Has your institution created their own in-house software or utilized a vendor?

Tweet @HelloPresence to share your stories, insights, or advice! Thanks for reading.

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