After a turbulent fall launch hamstrung by data errors and scheduling and financial bugs, community college leaders in Washington State are vowing to press on with the multimillion-dollar transition to a new administrative software system.
The rollout of the community college system’s new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, known as ctcLink, began in August with pilots at colleges in Spokane, Spokane Falls and Tacoma, and the issues encountered there could add millions of dollars and months to the project’s bottom line. And as The Spokesman-Review, a newspaper based in Spokane, has reported, politicians in the state are now watching the project closely, with at least one high-ranking legislator suggesting it needs more oversight.
Michael Scroggins, deputy executive director of the community college system’s information technology division, said the system has learned “significant lessons” from the pilots, which should make the next three waves of the rollout less painful. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, he said the system has a strategy and the support to keep the project moving.
“In the history of the community college system, we’re going to look back and say this is the biggest thing we accomplished in the last 30 years,” Scroggins said.
Scroggins isn't exaggerating -- an ERP transition can be a once-in-a-career endeavor. Because of the far-reaching effects of moving from one software system to another, colleges can endure years with a clunky, outdated, homegrown system -- as long as it works. Once an institution decides to embark on the multiyear transition to a new system, the repercussions reach every corner of the college, from course registrations and campus IDs to faculty paychecks and financial aid packages.
In Washington, those stakes are multiplied by a factor of 34. The state has budgeted $100 million to upgrade the ERP systems at all 34 of its community and technical colleges by early 2018 -- nine years after the system began working actively on the project. PeopleSoft, which is owned by software provider Oracle, is supplying the new software, replacing a homegrown system that dates back to about 1983.
“Think about taking 33 years’ worth of business process adaptation and changing it overnight,” Scroggins said. “That’s what we’re talking about here.”
A Data Problem
The transition was not only motivated by the age of the software, the system's desire to support initiatives such as analytics and competency-based education, and the need to boost information security, but also by a need to “speak with one voice” as a system, Scroggins said. That works in two ways -- the new software should make it easier for the system to report data, he said, and make life easier for faculty members and students.
Students living in Seattle today may take classes at several of the community colleges clustered around the Puget Sound, and each college runs its own version of the administrative software. A student who enrolls at three colleges, for example, has to keep track of three different student IDs, juggle three passwords and remember to apply for financial aid three times. On the back end, that student has three different records. The same kind of overlap occurs among faculty members who teach at multiple colleges in the system.
Once the new software is live systemwide, every college will run on the same system.
That vision last fall clashed with the reality of taking the software live. The system had anticipated that the pilots would expose issues that would then have to be fixed -- after all, that’s the purpose of a pilot -- but “the process has been more difficult than expected,” said a ctcLink FAQ document put together by the system.
In a nutshell, the problems have to do with data -- converting them, validating them, mapping them and so on. Moving to a new software platform is nowhere near as simple as downloading an app and sitting back as the installer runs. Think of it as a nervous system transplant. Once the brain -- the software -- is in place, the connections between individual nerve strands -- the data -- have to be restored.
“Like many large computer projects, the biggest challenge has been in converting data from our 30-year-old system into the new system,” a spokesperson for the community colleges said. “This is not a problem with the PeopleSoft software itself, but rather with the transfer of data from our old system.”
Oracle did not respond to a request for comment.
Missing connections between different sources of data meant some students didn’t receive the right amount of financial aid, for example, if a student’s financial aid record didn’t match the college’s record. Some faculty members reported they didn’t receive their paychecks on time. Colleges also ran into course scheduling issues and were forced to enter by hand how the software should count credit from certain courses -- science courses with a lab section, for example.
In short, “you name it, we’ve had those [issues] with the pilot colleges,” Scroggins said. The spring quarter has been “significantly better,” however, and the software issues involving individual students and faculty members have been reduced to “one-off” incidents, he said.
‘Long Road to Completion’
In an interview, administrators at Tacoma Community College didn’t go as far as to say the system is working flawlessly, saying the definition of “working” is a “moving target.” The college is working to fix high-priority issues that appeared during the pilot, including getting the general ledger -- the master list of financial transactions -- up and running in preparation for a month-end accounting close.
“I’d say the system is getting better,” Timothy Gould, vice president for administrative services, said. “It’s still going to be a long road to completion, but everybody here still -- from my perspective -- wants it to be successful.”
Gould said Tacoma doesn’t have any regrets about piloting the software. In any case, the college would only have itself to blame. The colleges in Tacoma, Spokane and Spokane Falls all submitted proposals to participate in the pilot.
Gould compared piloting the new software to upgrading the “engine” that powers the processes that take place on campus. By being one of the first colleges to test the software, Tacoma is setting itself up to help other colleges in the system. “You want to be the first on the beach and leading the way,” he said. “You don’t look at the potential pain; you look at the potential gain.”
The software was scheduled to roll out to eight other colleges in August, but that likely won’t happen until November, Scroggins said. That wave will in turn dictate how the remaining two rollout waves are handled. The system may be able to make up some of the lost time, but should the transition extend past 2018, the system will have to re-evaluate its $100 million budget. At the moment, the system is still managing the transition with that budget in mind.
“We’re still moving forward,” Scroggins said. “We recognize the difficulties that the pilots have had, but we have a good plan, we have a good strategy, and we have the support of the president and the state’s CIO office.”