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Software Asset Management: The Wild West of Academic IT

Kumiko Saito
January 19, 2023
Software Asset Management The Wild West of Academic IT

Software asset management (SAM) tools are considered essential by many organizations that license a lot of software. However, colleges and universities are a notable exception to this rule.

That was the biggest takeaway from a recent EDUCAUSE QuickPoll. The poll looked at how higher-ed institutions manage their software licenses and licensing agreements. The answer was as clear as it is concerning. There are no established best practices or preferred tools for managing software in the education industry. And the majority of institutions (56%) don’t use any kind of SAM tool to assist with this increasingly complex job.

Here are a few noteworthy takeaways from EDUCAUSE’s poll – and a look at the ‘wild west’ that is software asset management in higher education.

Spreadsheets Still Reign Supreme

According to EDUCAUSE, 56% of higher-ed institutions don’t use any SAM tools other than spreadsheet software. This implies that approximately 56% of institutions are still using spreadsheets to track and manage their software licenses. And that’s a troubling statistic.

Excel is an extremely robust piece of software. But when it comes to software asset management, it is not an ideal tool. Managing the ever-growing amount of software used at colleges and universities has become extremely complex. And spreadsheets are highly prone to human error. One typo in one cell can lead to a lot of time wasted combing hundreds of cells for the mistake (if the mistake is even caught)

Furthermore, spreadsheet-based SAM solutions are rarely very scalable. They’re typically created in-house to meet the immediate needs and preferences of the team or individual that creates them. As a result, they often need to be rebuilt from scratch, as future staff may have different priorities or may find that easier than figuring out a tool they weren’t involved in creating (and for which no support team or documentation exists).

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No Industry Standards Exist

Not counting Excel, there is no clear favourite SAM solution in the higher-ed industry. The colleges and universities that are leveraging a dedicated SAM tool gave a wide variety of answers when EDUCAUSE asked what tool they use. From a list of options, “Other” was the most popular, selected by 36% of respondents – over twice as many as the next most popular option.

This may have more to do with indifference than diversity in preference. Many respondents indicated that they only use the SAM tool they use because it came packaged with some other solution they needed (e.g. a ticketing system or some other IT platform).

That said, EDUCAUSE found that there is a lot of diversity in preference when it comes to academic solutions selecting SAM tools.  Some respondents prioritized intuitiveness and ease of use. Others prioritized affordability, requiring a solution that would fit their budget. And many schools chose their SAM tool based on one or more specific features they needed, be it reporting, remote deployment, or some other functionality.


EDUCAUSE’s QuickPoll paints the SAM landscape in higher education as somewhat chaotic. There are no established best practices or preferred tools (and often no tool at all). Everything varies by institution.

There are some encouraging findings in EDUCAUSE’s report, though. Of the institutions that do leverage a SAM tool, a strong majority indicated that the tool is managed by their central IT team. Colleges and universities tend to operate in decentralized ways, with individual departments handling their own software-license procurement, distribution, and management. This decentralization can create confusion and redundancy as well as limiting visibility into campus-wide demand for software. That SAM tools aren’t being managed at the departmental level is a step in the right direction.

That said, the 56% of schools still using complex spreadsheets to manually track and manage software should strongly consider adopting a proper, purpose-built SAM solution. With the right tools, these institutions could automate more processes, track license usage, improve their visibility, and otherwise streamline the management of software licenses. As is, they’re using a 20th-century solution to handle a 21st-century task.

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Kumiko Saito
January 19, 2023

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