Matthew Schnittman and Justin McMorrow both spent close to a decade at eCollege helping schools build and grow large online programs. During this time, they were consistently asked by customers about a student information system that could help them better track data to further improve student support and advance their programs. “There seemed to be a real gap in the marketplace where schools were struggling with legacy systems that didn’t provide the depth of complete student lifecycle management, let alone the benefits of a Software as a Service delivery model,” says Matthew (pictured, above right). Schools were being forced to adopt numerous disparate product suites with costly, complicated and time-consuming integrations and ongoing maintenance. In this interview, Matthew and Justin, co-founders of TopSchool, address these issues, share their thoughts on higher education and what their new company provides in the way of helping schools become more student-centric—and thus, more successful.
Victor: Why did you create TopSchool?
Matthew: Justin and I have always been entrepreneurially minded, and often discussed how we could continue to make an impact in education, and we kept going back to the same question: How can we help schools not only gain access to information, but also better understand that information to make the kinds of decisions that are going to drive better results for students and schools alike?
Student demands are constantly changing, and schools that understand their evolving demands and respond to them will be at an advantage. In building our system, we wanted to help schools make more informed decisions so they could not only maximize the education experience for students, but also so they could grow their programs.
Justin: The opportunity was there—the market had been stagnant for quite some time, and there was a major need for an easy and flexible student administrative system. Our overall goal was to simplify, yet advance the way colleges and universities manage student information. The result is our flexible, next generation Student Lifecycle Management (SLM) system.
Victor: What does the TopSchool system do? Who created it?
Justin: TopSchool’s SLM system is the first Software as a Service (SaaS) student administrative system in higher education to address the key aspects of the entire student lifecycle—we make it easy for colleges and universities to centrally manage and report on student information from the time a prospect inquires about a program, throughout the student experience and into job placement.
Our system goes beyond the capabilities of a traditional college student information system, and includes a customizable student portal, easy-to-use CRM and SIS components and an intelligent reporting suite.
Matthew: The initial technology was purchased from a group of developers in California and we established headquarters in Denver, Colorado in 2008. We had a great vision for what this software could become, but operationally, we had some work to do to get the people and processes in place to be able to successfully launch the system for a school. In those early days, we held meetings in our homes. It’s hard to believe that just two years later, we’ve achieved three successful rounds of funding and have a staff of 65 people working diligently everyday to ensure that our customers have access to the best, most comprehensive student system.
Victor: What does the TopSchool name mean?
Matthew: The name TopSchool was inherited from the original developers. We liked it because we felt that it spoke to both students and administrators alike. Students are demanding that “top” experience, and schools need to deliver it to ensure their viability.
We have worked hard to establish a brand that reflects both the advanced capabilities of our system and the expertise of our team. Most of our staff has extensive experience in higher education, coming either directly from academia, or having worked closely with colleges and universities on the vendor or consulting side. We understand the industry’s challenges, and we have the insight necessary to help our customers grow and succeed.
Victor: What are the benefits of the TopSchool SLM system?
Justin: Schools can easily manage all student information from recruiting through retention and beyond in a central location, and they can deliver more student services more efficiently. Our simple, on-demand SLM system empowers student-centric institutions to drive growth, reduce costs and meet accountability requirements.
We believe that a school’s processes should drive our system—not the other way around.
Therefore, our system enables schools to increase efficiencies and streamline practices in recruitment and retention, while we focus on the hardware, software and maintenance.
The real benefit comes from schools not only being able to easily access the information they need, but also to report on this information so they can better understand their students and deliver the kinds of programs that are going to meet student demands.
Matthew: I’d take that a step farther and say that our reporting functionality is a key determinant in many schools adopting our system. We offer more than 50 standard reports based on those that are most frequently used by colleges and universities today, as well as an ad-hoc reporting tool, TopView™, which is an inclusive on-demand reporting solution that allows schools to easily access and create their own custom reports on the fly. Schools can report on everything from daily course results to big picture accreditation needs.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Matthew: There are several student information systems on the market today, however, none of them do what our system does. Going back to our days at eCollege, we consistently had conversations with large non-profit and for-profit schools alike that were in need of an SIS that was 1) delivered in a SaaS model and 2) provided greater flexibility.
TopSchool’s SLM system is the first student administrative system natively built to be delivered in a SaaS model. Our integrated SaaS model simply offers a better solution with a total cost of ownership up to 50 percent less than traditional college student information software solutions.
Colleges and universities can realize both cost savings and efficiencies in the areas of hardware and software, maintenance and staffing. For starters, schools don’t incur the expense and hassle of purchasing, installing and storing their own hardware and software. Because the application is delivered to the users as a service securely over the Internet, schools also don’t have to maintain the application, and they’re at an advantage because they‘re always automatically on the latest version, reducing costly and disruptive upgrade projects. From a staffing perspective, schools can better leverage individual expertise by moving the focus away from software maintenance and upkeep to instead focusing on strategic decisions to improve the overall student experience.
Schools can also expect to see greater financial benefits from our SaaS model in terms of reducing their IT spend, redirecting savings toward business improvements and strengthening their financial viability.
Justin: Another key differentiator of our system is the level of flexibility and openness it provides. Where most monolithic SIS solutions are closed and make it difficult to integrate with other systems, we take a different approach. We have open APIs that allows schools to integrate with other third party solutions, including financial aid and eLearning platforms. Our plan is to open an application exchange that will allow customers to build their own applications, integrate them on their own with the TopSchool system, and open those applications up to others for use within our system.
Leveraging next generation technology, schools can customize our solution to meet their individual needs. They can easily add, change or delete fields, change layouts, and create new reports. This functionality allows institutions to continue to innovate and reconfigure our system in a way that best meets their needs.
Our three tiered support model is unique as well. From our executive sponsor to account management and technical service and support, TopSchool offers immediate customer service for everyone involved at the institution.
When looking at other solutions in the industry, we just don’t see a comparable system. We’ve designed our system to not only serve schools today, but also one that supports their future goals. Because our system offers a long-term strategy for student lifecycle management from recruiting to retention, forward-thinking institutions can embrace new growth opportunities.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Justin: We’re headquartered in Denver with regionally based sales representatives across the U.S. While most activity has been domestic, we recently signed our first international school, Endeavour College of Natural Health in Australia. We will seamlessly integrate with Endeavour College’s existing systems, enabling the school to manage more data, more efficiently and more cost effectively across all six of its campuses. We’re excited about the opportunities in the international market, and plan to address each on a case by case basis.
Since we offer a comprehensive system delivered in a SaaS model, the purchase isn’t quite as basic as buying software in a box. We have a thorough sales process that gives prospects the opportunity to engage with the system on multiple levels. People can visit our website, http://www.topschoolinc.com, to connect with us and learn more about the system.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
MS: At TopSchool, we understand the need to do more with less—we want to eliminate the need for costly software maintenance, software upgrades and add-ons, hardware and additional staff required to keep a system up and running.
We keep our initial investment low and our implementation timelines shorter than others in the industry. We charge a one-time implementation fee and then a quarterly student fee for active students. We don’t charge customers for inactive students or lead records in the system. Additionally, we have a much lower entry point than traditional student information systems on the market today.
Most importantly, our pricing is inclusive of all of our modules, including Portal, CRM, Financial Aid, Student Information System, and Reporting & Analytics. Customers don’t have to pick and choose, rather TopSchool is a comprehensive system built with them in mind.
Victor: What are some examples of the TopSchool SLM system in action?
Justin: We’ve gained quite a bit of traction in the brief time the product has been on the market, and the increasing demand for our system tells us that schools are seeking an alternative to a traditional SIS.
A lot of schools are experiencing tremendous enrollment growth, and they have reached capacity with their current home grown or legacy systems. In talking to customers, these schools are coming to us because our system not only scales to meet their needs, but it also gives them the tools and insight to better manage and plan for future growth.
Matthew: TopSchool’s target market consists of small to mid-sized higher education institutions – those schools that enroll less than 10,000 students. We focus on colleges and universities in both the non-profit and for-profit markets that are student-centric, meaning they develop and deliver programs around the needs and demands of their students.
We serve single and multi-campus schools. Customers range from the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, who transitioned to us from a legacy system to more effectively and efficiently manage student information, to Bryan College, who chose TopSchool to manage and report on student information and support growth across the school’s three campuses, to the Executive Development program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in the launch of its new online certificate program, UNC Business Essentials.
Victor: Who is the TopSchool system particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?
Matthew: TopSchool’s SLM can be used by anyone in the post-secondary market, but is being adopted most by colleges and universities that focus on non-traditional learners. These schools have struggled using systems built for traditional institutions, and show initial interest because we can support both standard term and non-term structures. For example, if a school has students who start at varying times throughout the year and at multiple campuses, we can accommodate that in our system because we align ourselves with our customers’ delivery models. As schools address the changing needs of students, our system provides the flexibility they need to better serve these students.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Matthew: There are so many things that are evolving in the education space, and those schools that adapt will not only stay competitive, but they will see increased conversion and stronger retention. Students today are demanding a more flexible approach that meets their schedules. Gone are the standard 8:00 a.m.—4:00 p.m., Monday through Friday windows of learning. Courses are more robust than ever, and available 24 hours a day online. There has been a huge surge in night and weekend offerings as well. We also are seeing tremendous speed-to-market as schools launch new academic offerings and degrees.
Justin has done a great job working with schools on the concept of building successful student profiles to make informed decisions. The goal is to help schools drive better recruitment and retention results. Justin’s ideas have been well received by the industry—he has presented at national education conferences around the country, authored a white paper, and been interviewed in the education media on the topic.
Justin: Given the changing landscape, it is more important than ever for schools to understand their target market so they can deliver programs when and where students want them, and they can quickly get new programs off the ground.
There is a real need to make sure schools are not only targeting the right students for the right programs, but that they also know who that student is when they enter the program so they have the tools and processes in place to support and retain that student through graduation. By effectively using available student data and creating student profiles, schools can determine the programs, delivery modes and educational structures that can drive student success.
Matthew: I think this is a trend you are going to hear more and more about, and TopSchool is definitely on the forefront when it comes to not only our ideas, but also the implementation.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating TopSchool?
Justin: Matthew and I were both fortunate in that we were the beneficiaries of high quality education at both private and public universities. We understand the inner workings of both.
We also gained a tremendous amount of insight throughout our time at eCollege—we both joined the company early on its growth, as it became a trusted eLearning platform for some of the largest and most successful online programs in the country. In fact, during our tenure at eCollege, the company was named to the Deloitte & Touche Fast 50 list for four years running. Not only did we both serve in executive roles where we learned the value of the relationship between the education vendor and the school, but we also had the opportunity to engage in one-on-one interaction and build relationships with CEOs and leaders of some of the largest online programs in the country. This amount of insight has been invaluable in the launch of TopSchool.
Victor: How does TopSchool address some of your concerns about education?
Matthew: At TopSchool, we are focused on helping schools deliver the best possible, highest quality student experience. Whether you are on the vendor side or the academic side, the services you deliver should always answer the question, “What is the benefit to the student?”
Collectively, we all have a responsibility to the student—it is the reason why we built our system in the first place, and it is the reason why schools come to us to help them deliver a higher level of service to their students.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Justin: As students continue to demand flexibility in delivery, programs, student services and more, schools will become more adept at quickly meeting their demands. I think the key is using the data that is available to them across the student lifecycle so that they will have a deeper understanding of their students.
In the end, those schools which understand their students can deliver a higher quality educational experience that is not only student-centric, but also drives the outcomes and financial stability necessary for the schools’ growth, accreditation and success.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of TopSchool? What makes you say that?
Matthew: At TopSchool, we are committed to advancing our system to meet evolving student demands and institutional challenges. We understand that every college and university is unique and what one needs today may be different from what another needs at the same time, or even down the road.
Justin: We keep in constant communication with our user community to gain valuable feedback, and we work in partnership with them. We’re interested in not only what they need today, but what they will need tomorrow.
Victor Rivero is the editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com