A $100 million computer software system for Washington’s 34 community colleges is so far behind schedule and operating so poorly that it will likely cost another $10 million before it’s installed in all schools.
Because students — not taxpayers — are responsible for the initial cost, and probably the overruns, the system and its problems have gone largely unnoticed by state lawmakers. That could change, however, as legislators try to get a handle on high costs and low performance by information technology systems around the state.
The system, known as ctcLink, is one of the largest IT projects in state government, and likely the largest of its kind in higher education in the country. It’s designed to tie together most financial, student scheduling and employee functions at the community colleges.
For community colleges in Spokane and Tacoma, which are the first and so far only schools to switch to the system, it generated a cascade of problems at the start of the fall quarter, some of which continue today.
Some students couldn’t register for their classes. Some couldn’t get their financial aid, while others got more aid than they were supposed to receive and the colleges had to get it back. Paychecks to some faculty were delayed and some personal information, including addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers, was not always secure.
“We experienced registration and enrollment issues, we experienced financial aid disbursement issues,” said Tamyra Howser, spokeswoman for Tacoma Community College. “That’s probably one of the biggest things that unfortunately hit our students, and that was terrible.”
Those problems apparently have been fixed, but the schools’ main accounting system, the General Ledger, still doesn’t work, putting the schools in danger of losing federal aid because they can’t supply basic information that the U.S. Department of Education requires.
“There have been some pretty significant glitches beyond what they expected,” said Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee. “It has been an incredibly bumpy start.”
Because the new system is financed by student fees, it has had no legislative oversight. But after problems with ctcLink at Spokane and Tacoma community colleges, that could change.
“This project has kind of flown under the radar,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond. “I think it’s something we’re going to insert ourselves into.”
THE GUINEA PIG
For more than 30 years, Washington’s 34 community colleges have kept track of students, payroll and purchases with a computer software system known as Legacy. It was updated several times, but in 2007, the Board of Community and Technical Colleges decided Legacy was on its last legs.
Although some proponents of Legacy argued it could be updated, the board opted to solicit bids on a new system to keep track of 400,000 students, 16,000 faculty and staff, different contracts and an array of main and branch campuses.
When fully installed, it will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, such systems in the country, Brown said.
The board chose PeopleSoft, one of the most common software systems used by colleges and universities in the country, and hired Colorado-based Ciber to manage the installation and training. Total cost: about $3 million per college or $100 million over five years.
But while PeopleSoft is a common software product used in higher education, it has never been installed on a system as diverse and complicated as Washington’s community college system, which includes 30 districts, some like Spokane with multiple campuses, Brown said.
The software would be installed and tested at two community colleges first, to check for any glitches, then installed in waves of eight colleges each. The two-campus Community Colleges of Spokane and Tacoma Community College volunteered to be first.
“It’s a great idea, but it was a huge undertaking,” said Howser, the Tacoma Community College spokeswoman. “And it’s complicated.”
As the state prepared to flip the switch on ctcLink at its first two institutions last summer, staff in Spokane and Tacoma urged the board that oversees all colleges to hold off one more time.
The necessary staff training, system testing and validation had not been completed, Christine Johnson, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane, said recently. “It had not been tested all the way through,” she said.
But the startup for ctcLink was already a year behind schedule and further delays at the first two test colleges would lead to delays at the succeeding “waves” of schools scheduled to get the update. The contractor contended the system was ready and the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges gave the green light.
“We had wished we were wrong,” Johnson said. But they weren’t.
PROBLEMS QUICKLY MOUNT
Problems happened immediately and continued for weeks with student registrations and financial aid, class scheduling and payments to some instructors. Thousands of glitches occurred, from simple coding errors to overpayment of about $220,000 in financial aid to some students.
Sheila Ruhland, president of Tacoma Community College, said her employees did their best to limit how badly students were affected by the software problems, particularly when it came to disbursing students’ financial aid.
“None of us can relate to some of the hardship some students faced, and their initial reaction,” Ruhland said. “We’re not in their shoes, but we did everything we could to try to help them.”
During the first eight weeks of fall quarter, TCC staff members set up tables at the financial aid office to field students’ questions and help sort through errors, she said.
One college official even contacted a TCC student’s landlord to help ensure the student wouldn’t get evicted while waiting to receive financial aid, Ruhland said.
Meanwhile, long lines formed at the college’s offices in September as students tried to figure out problems with their class schedules and enrollment. College officials tried to help by supplying food, water and candy for the students as they waited, Ruhland said.
“There probably wasn’t a student who came to Tacoma Community College in the first week of classes or during preregistration who didn’t have a concern about something not being right,” Ruhland said.
By the end of November, about three months after ctcLink went live at Spokane and Tacoma community colleges, nearly 4,900 problems had been reported on “tickets” — requests for help from IT experts at the state board or from the contractor for some aspect of the system that wasn’t working.
STUDENTS ON THE HOOK
The delays, the fixes to the system, the overtime for staff trying to address the problems could add as much as $10 million to the cost of the project, the Senate budget committee was told recently.
In hindsight, the state should have listened to the community colleges’ staff and delayed again, said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.
“That’s on me,” Brown told the committee.
In a later interview, Brown said the staff at the colleges were in a good position to know whether the system was ready.
As a result of the problems, the board and contractor have replaced some staff, Brown added. “We’ve changed project managers, personnel and the whole way we are approaching this.”
Who will pay that extra $10 million? That hasn’t been decided, but most people contacted for this story said it will likely be the same people who have been paying for ctcLink since 2011: Community college students.
To pay for the software upgrade while the state was still pulling itself out of the recession, the Legislature in 2011 approved a law allowing all community colleges to set aside 3 percent of tuition revenues in an “innovation fund.” About half of it will be used for direct costs and the rest will be used to pay off the principal and interest on certificates of participation — a type of public borrowing with shorter terms than most bond issues.
Hill, the Senate Republicans’ top budget expert, said “it’s clearly frustrating, and sort of ironic” that students, who were among the most disadvantaged by problems in the system, will bear the burden of cost overruns to fix it.
Legislators are talking about an IT task force to keep better track of the state’s various computer system projects.
“The state is spending more than a billion dollars a year on IT and there’s not enough oversight,” he said. “We’re going to be taking a closer look at that.”
Staff writer Melissa Santos contributed to this report.