One of the most important software decisions for admissions offices is selecting the right CRM to meet their needs. Institutions that have attempted to use their SIS (student information system) or a collection of disparate softwares (like Outlook and Excel) to engage with prospective students are falling far behind the competition. We know that admissions staff are tasked with “making it work” in a climate of decreasing budgets and increasing enrollment goals. But, in order to achieve success in today’s market, institutions need the insight, information, and automation provided by the latest CRM technologies.  


When evaluating the different types of CRMs available for higher ed admissions, things can quickly become complicated and confusing. Let’s break down the two most common types of CRM solutions you’ll find in the market today:

  • Single Point SaaS: Off-the-shelf solutions that address the needs of a specific office or department within higher ed
  • Scalable SaaS: Solutions designed for higher ed with scalability to cover multiple units or functional areas based on an enterprise platform

Once you begin to look into higher ed software vendors that provide these solution types, you’ll inevitably encounter a “fork in the road” and need to decide whether to build a CRM, or buy a CRM, to align your business processes and goals with the appropriate technology. Ten years ago, these were the only two approaches to cloud-bases SaaS solutions. However, today it’s possible for institutions to go beyond “build vs buy” and get the best of both worlds.

So, to build a CRM or to buy a CRM? That is the question.


Understanding the Modern “Build” Option

Before we dive into the pros and cons, it’s important to recognize that in the world of CRM, a build option no longer requires writing code from the ground up. For example, when Salesforce launched their CRM platform and offered a true Platform-as-a-Service model, it enabled schools to build their own solutions on a trusted set of CRM functionality. Contrary to most SIS platforms, building on Salesforce rarely requires coding skills. Someone with a strong, analyst-level skillset can learn how to configure and develop a solution that can go-live 80% faster than building entirely from the ground up.

Now, institutions can completely customize their Salesforce instance to complement their unique processes, all while benefiting from the security and scalability of Salesforce as well as the Salesforce AppExchange. It’s similar to designing your own smartphone to the specs you want, combined with the reliability of Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android and ability to download additional apps available through their respective app stores as you need them.  

While this approach has been successful for some schools, many admissions and enrollment offices simply do not have the resources to support a custom solution — especially since most IT staff are responsible for supporting their SIS. More importantly, the gaps between a commercial sales process and a student recruitment process are far different, despite how similar the processes look on a funnel diagram at first glance. Here are a few examples that highlight fundamental differences:

  • Territory Assignments

Territory assignments in higher ed admissions offices are not as simple as “business size” and “geography,” which are common variables used in assigning leads to traditional sales staff. In admissions, it’s common to have over a dozen variables to map territory assignments among recruiters, like zip code, CEEB code, domestic/international, major, campus, freshman/transfer, degree goal, legacy, and many more.

  • Events Management

Many companies host webinars and in-person sessions for prospects to evaluate and learn more about their products, but these organizations aren’t selling their campus and the faculty and staff that support it. As a result, admissions offices find it difficult to use standard event management software for open houses, information sessions, and campus tours.

  • Online Application

While many businesses are familiar with request for information forms, most do not collect nearly as much information as a typical college admissions application does. Plus, the admissions application often takes hours for applicants to complete, so ease of use and state/university-mandated accessibility compliance are critical requirements.

As a result of these differing industry standards, many schools find that the customizations needed to meet their requirements are far more expensive and take much longer to build than they originally thought. It’s also important to note that constant innovation is crucial for admissions offices to stay ahead of trends, and a more iterative approach to student recruitment is key to remaining competitive. This means that territory assignments, event types, and other requirements should be constantly changing, so a strong staff of administrators is needed to maintain the relevancy of a custom solution.  

Analyzing the “Buy” Option

The alternative to building your own solution is finding a system that’s designed for higher ed admissions offices and meets most of your institution’s business processes and requirements — right off the shelf. For some schools, this is a better approach because these products promise workflows and automation that provide best practices to admissions offices. In addition, many schools find that the true total cost of ownership is much lower with a Buy option than a custom-built solution when considering maintenance, enhancements, and personnel expenses.

A custom solution not only requires upkeep and support from your staff (whether that’s a dedicated IT resource or CRM admin), but as technology advances, you’ll need to keep up and develop new features which can get expensive over time. An off-the-shelf admissions solution benefits from economies of scale, since product development is funded via customer base. As a result, good software companies maintain an aggressive product roadmap to keep up with customer requirements.

Plus, the implementation period for a Buy option is usually a fraction of the time it takes to build your own solution from the ground up.

However, if you’re trying to think like an Edupreneur and foster innovation by considering the entire student lifecycle rather than just the admissions funnel, these Buy solutions can be limiting. Since you’re relying on your CRM vendor for features and functionality, other nuanced requirements often remain unmet. This results in schools purchasing additional software to meet their needs or attempting to adapt their business processes to a rigid workflow dictated by the technology. For many, the convenience, affordability, and ease of implementation associated with a single point admissions CRM are outweighed by the knowledge gaps created with a predefined solution.

For more high-level pros and cons on the “Build vs. Buy” debate, download our helpful comparison chart here!


Should I Build or Buy an Admissions CRM?

Now that you understand the basics of building a CRM on an enterprise platform versus buying a solution designed for higher education, you can evaluate your enrollment goals and objectives and choose the appropriate path accordingly. Arm yourself with as much information as possible — talk to peer institutions that are on an enterprise platform such as or use a single point admissions solution and have previously been in your shoes. You’ll be able to learn a lot from their decision making process and the benefits they’ve gained with either a custom-built or off the shelf solution.

While there are strong proponents of both approaches, modern technology now presents a hybrid approach to get the best of both worlds. With the advent of CRM “platforms,” you can now buy a higher ed solution that is built on a CRM platform — these solutions provide all of the benefits that come with a Buy solution with the extensibility and security provided by the CRM platform.


How Can I Get The Best of Build and Buy? 

Buy Now, Build Only What You Really Need.

If you’re looking for the scalability of an enterprise platform, minus the longer ramp-up time, technical expertise, and unforeseen dollars associated with building a custom solution, this may be the best option for you. Today, you can buy a solution that is built on a cloud-based enterprise CRM platform, with out-of-the-box features and functionality designed specifically for higher ed. The TargetX Recruitment Suite is a prime example of this. You get all the benefits of the platform with the implementation speed, support, and product roadmap of an off-the-shelf solution.

Thinking back to that smartphone analogy we used earlier in the Buy section, this hybrid approach is similar to a really helpful app that you download from the app store. Plus, you have access to thousands of other applications that can supplement what you’re doing with TargetX via the Salesforce AppExchange. In addition, if you can’t find an app that meets your requirements, you can extend the TargetX solution by customizing (or “building”) on the platform yourself.

Finally, unlike wholly custom-built solutions, TargetX continuously innovates and releases new features and enhancements based on client feedback and market trends. This means you can start with a solution that is designed for higher ed and is configured to your requirements, with the flexibility and security of a de facto enterprise CRM platform. Hybrid solutions like TargetX are designed for institutions that want to think like an edupreneur and grow alongside their CRM. Who knew that in today’s complex world of higher education CRM, you can have your cake and eat it, too!


To see how your institution can get the best of both worlds in terms of higher ed CRM solutions, request a demo today!