Don Grady of National-Louis University says outsourcing technology lets the school focus on educating students.

Apr 23 2007

Help For The Help Desk

When resources stretch thin, outsourcing call-in support services makes logistical and budgetary sense.

Outsourcing allows schools to overcome cost and staffing restraints.

Mojave Community College’s original information technology outsourcing plans called for it to hand over everything except the help desk to a contractor. Leaders at the Kingman, Ariz., school wanted to hang onto the homegrown help desk, which was staffed by college personnel and available to end users during business hours. Unfortunately, with technology becoming more complicated and the institution’s enrollment growing at one of the fastest rates in the country, staff members manning the phones couldn’t keep up with all the calls coming in. They had to resort to taking messages and had trouble responding promptly.

“It would be a day or two before they could get back to end users,” recalls William Lovejoy, Mojave’s vice chancellor for administration. “It was, quite frankly, a help desk that wasn’t very helpful.”

Officials examined the costs of expanding to a 24 x 7 in-house help desk, but couldn’t afford it. “The cost was just outrageous for our limited budget,” Lovejoy explains.

So Mojave contracted with the outsourcing firm that already handled the college’s other systems for a 24 x 7 on-site help desk. “The results,” Lovejoy says, “have really been amazing.”

Now end users get their questions answered in minutes instead of days. While calls to the help desk have doubled from 5,000 to 10,000 per year over the past three years, customer satisfaction remains high. On a scale of 1 to 9, most end users rate their experience between 8.6 and 8.8. “It’s all upsides and no downsides,” Lovejoy says.

Support Load’s Growing

Like Mojave, other higher education institutions are giving up on their desire to retain their personal touch on IT support calls. They recognize that the growing use of administrative applications, such as enterprise resource management (ERM), classroom instruction tools and Web-based distance education platforms, makes it difficult if not impossible to staff the help desk.

Larger institutions and those with considerable endowments can still expand the in-house help desk to a 24 x 7 operation or increase the supply of help-desk staff to meet demand. For smaller schools and community colleges, though, the cost and staff resources required to provide robust, quality help-desk services often make outsourcing more attractive.

A lack of resources led Cabrini College near Philadelphia to outsource its IT infrastructure, including help-desk services, to neighboring Drexel University.

“We simply could not offer the salary structure or the career mo­bility to compete for high-quality technical professionals,” says Stephen Lightcap, Cabrini’s director of finance and administration. “That was a major source of turnover for us.”

Now Drexel employees exclusively staff a front-line help desk on Cabrini’s campus and take calls from Cabrini end users during extended business hours.

Not all of the benefits are financial. For instance, Lightcap acknowledges that Cabrini hasn’t realized any financial savings from outsourcing the help desk, but the response time, technical expertise and customer-service quality the college has reaped is well beyond anything that Cabrini could hope to attain on its own.

“To get the level of help-desk services that we’re getting through Drexel, along with access to its entire IT division, at about the same price that we were doing it before has been a pretty significant boost to our productivity and to our ability to carry out our academic mission,” Lightcap says.

Outsourcing the help desk doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, as it is at Cabrini and other schools. Some of Drexel’s other partners opt for a blended approach that lets them staff their help desk with their own employees but reach back to Drexel to answer more complicated questions.

“The schools that we deal with are small schools that pride themselves on having a personal touch in their culture,” says Jan Biros, Drexel’s associate vice president for instructional technology support and campus outreach. “This model allows them to have that personal contact, where they don’t have to change their general way of treating students, but they have the comfort of knowing that we’re there to give them additional expertise. We’re like a help desk for the help desk.”

For National-Louis University, the decision to use an outside service provider had less to do with money and more to do with the Chicago-based institution’s increasing dependence on technology. With multiple locations, including a remote campus in Europe, the school has recently enjoyed double-digit growth in online learning. Even its classroom-based instruction relies heavily on online discussion boards and other virtual augmentation tools. The phone system is also high-tech, running Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

“We thought, ‘Let’s stick to our knitting,’ ” says Don Grady, executive director of academic outreach at National-Louis

University. “Our focus is educating students and we want that to remain our focus, so why not leave the technology management aspects up to those who do it exclusively and are best suited for it?”

Grady says officials at National-Louis were concerned about the possibility of a culture clash between the academic and commercial arenas when they decided to outsource.

He recommends turning to an outsourcer who has experience working with education institutions. “I don’t think it would work well unless you had people in there that understood both the technology and academic parts of the equation.”

Keep It Academic

Many schools still feel uncomfortable turning their help desk and IT operations over to a commercial vendor, which is why Cabrini chose to partner with Drexel.

“We wanted a relationship that was more empathetic to the needs of higher education in our outsourcing than we were willing to accept with a for-profit provider,” says Lightcap. “Of course, vendors will tell you that there’s no difference and that they have the best interests of the institution at heart, but we weren’t convinced of that and we also weren’t willing to take that risk.”

Smaller institutions considering help-desk or IT outsourcing should consider teaming up with a larger higher education institution, Biros says. She adds that the cultural considerations of providing IT in an academic setting should not be underestimated.

“In our case, we have the same mission as our clients, we understand the complexities of their business practices and understand the complexities of their relationship with students and faculty,” she says, noting that Drexel’s arrangement is more like a partnership than a vendor- client relationship.

“We don’t charge piecemeal for little extras, we don’t have service level agreements (SLAs). We give them the same service that Drexel gets, which is as high as it can get — otherwise we’ll lose our jobs.”

Whichever route colleges choose to take, Grady strongly recommends that they do their homework. Potential vendors should be vetted carefully for financial strength, commitment, longevity, higher education experience and a demonstrated track record of meeting strong performance measurements. Officials will need to think through a master contract that defines the provider’s responsibilities, including scope of work, which technologies the outsource supports, and what level of service is expected for response time and customer satisfaction.

As with all outsourcing projects, there are potential pitfalls associated with outsourcing the help desk. Besides losing the personal touch of having onsite help, taking it offsite could pose a security threat.

There might be resistance from college IT staff who become employees of the outsourcer instead of the school. The service provider may not perform up to expectations, or go out of business mid-contract. And outsourcing arrangements add a layer of management complexity.

Outsourcing still has a bad reputation in some quarters (see sidebar, below). Even outsourcing proponent Grady admits the results of a bad outsourcing project can be disastrous. But there are steps you can take to make it worth the risk, he adds.

Grady maintains that the best outsourcing arrangements are ones you don’t have to think about much once they’re in place. “The service fades into the background,” he says. “It’s just there, and you don’t even think about it because it’s reliable, people are being productive, and administrators are focused completely on the students and providing them with the best possible education.”

Help-Desk Alternatives

  • Outsource entire operation
  • Outsource some functions, keep others in-house
  • Share resources with other institutions
  • Hire students to help with support

Homework Assignment

The idea of turning over a function as vital as a help desk to a third party is frightening to many higher education officials. Outsourcing is often associated with reliance on overseas call centers, a loss of quality and loss of control. With the right provider, the right situation and the right level of performance, however, an out-sourcing agreement can solve information technology headaches, according to advocates.

They also say you should make sure to do your homework and carefully research a service provider before signing on. Look at the vendor’s finances, commitment, longevity, track record and experience working with higher education institutions. Make sure your contract spells out the provider’s responsibilities and expected service levels for response time and customer satisfaction.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Outsourcing


  • Constant access to high-quality IT skills and expertise
  • No need to recruit and try to retain highly sought-after IT personnel
  • Fixed or more easily predicted IT costs
  • More flexibility in terms of performance and hours of operation
  • Constantly upgraded IT functionality
  • More uptime for mission-critical systems and end users
  • Allows higher education institution to focus resources on core mission requirements


  • Loss of personal touch
  • Offsite location of help desk poses a potential security risk
  • Cultural resistance from college IT staff, who typically become employees of the outsourcer
  • Vendor may not fulfill performance expectations, not fully understand the unique needs of higher education or go out of business in the middle of the contract
  • Arrangement requires school officials to manage complexities of outsourcing partnership
  • A solid contract needs to be put in place outlining scope of work, service-level agreements, costs, responsibilities, and performance penalties and bonuses

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