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Higher education institutions face mounting pressure to comply with complex and ever-evolving regulatory requirements like effort reporting for sponsored projects. Historically manual and disjointed processes now demand digitally enabled efficiency, transparency, and auditability.

As schools navigate this compliance landscape, two primary options emerge: purchasing a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software solution or building custom applications on low-code development platforms. The right choice depends on an impartial assessment of each institution’s unique priorities, resources and needs.

An experienced perspective

Over the past decade, we have partnered with numerous universities to implement digital solutions supporting mandatory compliance processes. These have spanned reporting for grants management, effort certification, FMLA tracking and more.

In our experience, both COTS and custom development paths can fulfill regulatory obligations. However, low-code often allows greater tailoring to existing processes with less engrained change management. Schools seek our vendor-agnostic guidance assessing which approach best aligns to their culture and objectives.

Evaluating off-the-shelf software

Mature COTS (and other OTS) solutions offer potential advantages like rapid deployment, embedded best practices and ongoing vendor enhancement. For institutions seeking standardized tools with minimal configuration, they provide a fast path to baseline compliance.

The tradeoff is adhering to rigid, predefined workflows that dictate changes for faculty and staff. Organization-specific customizations may prove difficult or impossible. Inflexible licensing models also lock users into ongoing vendor relationships, fees, and upgrade timelines.

For schools prioritizing speed and willing to adapt processes, COTS delivers “good enough” compliance quickly with the backing of an established vendor. But it entails compromising on user experience and long-term costs.

Assessing custom low-code solutions

Alternatively, low-code platforms empower rapid development of custom apps tailored to each school’s unique needs and existing processes. By mirroring current workflows rather than imposing changes, disruption is minimized while digitizing reporting for efficiency and auditability.

Built iteratively via agile methods, low-code solutions provide far greater flexibility than COTS. Compliance tools can match an organization’s exact requirements down to individual-level customization if needed. Applications evolve over time through collaborative user feedback.


With low-code, institutions take an integrated view spanning interconnected processes.


While low-code requires upfront investment and expertise, schools own completed products. Long-term costs can prove comparable or lower due to avoiding recurring licensing while gaining full control over enhancements and integrations.

Low-code also facilitates extending compliance tools into related systems like grant management, faculty reviews and forecasting. COTS constrains solutions to isolated compliance-specific functions. With low-code, institutions take an integrated view spanning interconnected processes.

Choosing the right path forward

For schools evaluating options, experts recommend the following:

First, engage with experienced low-code and COTS consultants who outline pros, cons and compare solutions based on your institutional needs – not a predetermined vendor bias. Focus on partners who avoid pushy sales pitches in favor of listening first.

Quality consultants will detail how options differ across criteria like speed, flexibility, user experience, integration, ownership, and cost. This impartial perspective is key to breaking internal gridlock.

Next, leverage free trials and sandboxes to build basic prototypes hands-on after gathering initial advisory input. Quickly constructing minimal viable products reveals which approach best suits your technical environment and team capabilities.

Finally, think long-term. What ongoing resources will each path require post-implementation? How complicated will it be to sustain compliance as regulations evolve? A short-term gain may lead to headaches down the road.

Every institution’s needs are unique. But with seasoned guidance and evaluation, schools can confidently navigate the build vs. buy decision for optimal regulatory compliance now and into the future.