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    The Hidden Costs of Custom-Built IT Solutions in Higher Education

    Last updated:
    July 10, 2024

    When it comes to IT solutions in higher education, the debate often circles around the "build vs. buy" dilemma. But this framing oversimplifies the decision-making process.

    In reality, the choice isn't about starting from zero versus picking a ready-made product off the shelf. More often than not, institutions find themselves weighing the option of customising existing software platforms, like Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce, against purchasing off-the-shelf solutions.

    This means you're not exactly building from scratch but rather hiring an agency or vendor to tailor a solution bespoke for your needs, built upon a pre-existing foundation.

    This decision involves considering the unique requirements of higher education environments and the potential hidden costs associated with custom-built IT solutions.

    In this article, we'll explore what this entails and why understanding the distinction is crucial for making informed decisions in the complex landscape of higher education IT solutions.

    Want to see if Full Fabric is a good fit for your institution? Schedule a free demo to see how Full Fabric helps you deliver a world-class experience, be more productive, and drive revenue growth.

    Configuration vs Customization

    You already know, higher education isn't like any other business. The needs of universities and other institutions are different to any other sector, which is why you need a solution designed for you and your institution.

    This tends to come in one of two shapes:

    • Either choose an off-the-shelf SaaS that meets your requirements and is already working with similar clients to yours.
    • Choose a generic software like MS Dynamics or Salesforce, alongside an implementation partner to customise and develop it to meet your requirements.

    (There's also the third option — creating something from scratch — but this hasn't been a common approach for a while)

    But there's a big difference between a tool that needs heavy customizations to work for you, and something that just needs configuring.


    Even an off-the-shelf piece of software designed for your industry will need configuring. This might include things like:

    • User Roles and Permissions: Define access levels.
    • Integration with Existing Systems: Connect with platforms like Turnitin, PayPal, and Kira Talent.
    • Custom Fields and Forms: Easily create data fields, application and enrollment forms.
    • Adapt to your processes: Configure your processes in the system including the student journey stages and its associated workflows.
    • Communication: Create email templates and nurture sequences.
    • Reporting and Analytics: Set up custom reports and dashboards.
    • Course Catalog and Scheduling: Configure program offerings, study plans, grading systems and schedules.

    These configurations can be made by the vendor or by the customer, and can be tweaked as you use the software.


    On the other hand, customization are changes that are hardcoded by developers to change or add features and functionality to an existing platform.

    For higher education, this is normally hiring an outside agency to customise something like Microsoft Dynamics or Salesforce, with features specifically designed for the industry.

    Because of the work involved, and the specialised nature of customizations, they require far more time and effort to implement compared to configuration.

    The hidden costs of custom-built solutions

    At a glance, creating custom-built versions of popular CRMs makes a lot of sense. You get to use a popular and well supported tool, but with the added bespoke features you need.

    But when you dig a little deeper, there are a lot of factors that will cost you both time and money over the process.

    Finding the right partner

    Getting an app customised to meet your needs is easy, right?

    1. Find an agency or consultant
    2. Give them your requirements
    3. Get the perfect solution!

    But that's rarely what actually happens.

    You might be able to find someone who understands the industry. And you might be able to find someone who has the skills to customise your tool of choice. 

    But it becomes much harder when you try to find a partner that has both. Which is tricky, because you need someone that has the expertise and can genuinely understand the problems you're trying to solve.

    This process of finding the right partner will cost you the precious time you're trying to save by opting for a custom-built solution.

    And that time is only worth it if the end-product is good enough. But the majority of software projects fail in one way or another, so you need to be confident they can actually deliver.

    Because if they fail, you might end up buying off the shelf anyway!

    Domain knowledge

    We were able to build Full Fabric because we'd accumulated knowledge specific to higher education by working with thousands of people and hundreds of teams over the last few years, specifically from this sector.

    But the chances are that your partner in customising your CRM won't have this experience and so will lack the domain knowledge they need to do a good job.

    It can take a lot of conversations, and a lot of trial and error, to even come close to what you're looking for.

    This will all cost time and money, and there's still no guarantees they'll be able to nail it.

    User experience & adoption

    This might sound obvious to say, but Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamics, and other similar platforms weren't designed for higher education.

    This means the user interface, views, features, etc. aren't designed with higher education in mind.

    The problem with this is that customizations can only change so much. So you end up with a user experience that's not suitable for the jobs you're trying to get done.

    You might be stuck looking at a table when it should be a graph, or maybe a list when it should be a form, etc.

    This will make your team's lives harder, which will ultimately slow them down and potentially limit the quality of their work.

    It will also make adoption across your university slower and more expensive. This is because they have to learn the underlying platform AND the customizations you've added on top.

    This extra training and support will also add to the overall cost of the solution.

    Support costs

    There's a common assumption that once a custom solution has been built, then the project is complete.

    But that couldn't be further from the reality!

    Platforms like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics update frequently, and your customizations will likely need to be updated too in order to stay up to date. So there will always be more maintenance and support costs.

    You'll also need to pay for developer time whenever you want a new feature added, need to tweak existing functionality, or integrate with a new system.

    And if you don't choose to keep investing in your custom solution, you'll just end up back at square one, looking for something new.

    Getting stuck

    Another problem with creating your own bespoke solution is that you can easily get stuck.

    Once you've invested hundreds of thousands (or even millions) over a couple years on a custom-built solution, there's no turning back.

    You're committing to a product that might not even do what you need it to do. And you won't be able to justify dropping it if it doesn't work out.

    So you end up stuck with the wrong solution for the foreseeable future, which can cost your team time, create extra stress, and add unnecessary friction to your processes.

    Related: Choosing the Right CRM for Higher Education

    The benefits of an off-the-shelf solution

    Now we've covered the costs of using a custom-built solution, it's important to understand how off-the-shelf offers you a better and safer option:

    It's Low Risk

    First and foremost, going with an off-the-shelf solution significantly reduces your risk. Custom solutions might seem appealing at first, but they come with uncertainties and the potential for unforeseen challenges. With a product like Full Fabric, you're investing in a proven solution, minimising the guesswork and potential pitfalls.

    You Get to Value a Lot Faster

    Off-the-shelf software allows you to hit the ground running. Instead of waiting years to develop and refine a custom solution, you can implement Full Fabric quickly and start reaping the benefits almost immediately. This speed to value is invaluable, especially in a sector where student needs and industry standards evolve rapidly.

    You Get to Experiment

    Experimentation is key to innovation. With Full Fabric, you have the flexibility to try new features and integrations without the commitment of developing them from scratch. This ability to experiment and pivot as needed is crucial for staying ahead in the competitive landscape of higher education.

    You Can See If It Works at a Fraction of the Cost

    The financial aspect cannot be overlooked. Developing a custom solution can be a massive investment, often with costs spiralling into the millions. Full Fabric offers you the opportunity to access a comprehensive, cutting-edge solution at a fraction of the cost. It's an economical way to ensure your institution has the best tools without breaking the bank.

    Immediate Implementation

    Why wait two years to discover if a solution meets your needs when you can know right now? Full Fabric's decade of development and refinement means you're adopting a solution that's already been through its paces, tested and validated by a wide range of clients with diverse needs.

    A Dedicated Team and a Proven Product

    Our journey of over ten years and an investment of more than €10 million into Full Fabric speaks volumes about our commitment to solving the unique challenges faced by higher education institutions. Our dedicated team is continuously improving our software, ensuring it meets the evolving needs of our clients. Choosing Full Fabric means you're not just getting software; you're gaining a partner committed to your success.

    Seamless Integration and Powerful Acquisition Tools

    Full Fabric isn't just about managing your current operations more efficiently; it's also about growth. With integrations to platforms like Turnitin, PayPal, Kira Talent, and the ability to create custom integrations via Zapier, Full Fabric fits seamlessly into your existing ecosystem. 

    And our built-in acquisition tools are designed to help you market your university more effectively, attracting more and better students.

    Want to check out Full Fabric? Schedule a free demo to see how you can get started with quickly and easily, without the risk.


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    Tania Roquette

    I am the Head of Solutions at FULL FABRIC. I am passionate about education and technology.

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