Managed services are playing a vital role in Lincoln University’s IT modernization effort, says CIO Justin McKenzie.

Feb 16 2021

Why Are Managed Service Providers Important For Higher Education?

Colleges are turning to MSP to assist with network, application and help desk support, IT security and other needs.

CIO Justin McKenzie has been busy modernizing and transforming IT since he joined Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years ago. As part of his efforts, he recently turned to a managed service provider to ensure the campus has a fast, stable and reliable network.

McKenzie and his team are upgrading the network in phases. So far, they have updated 50 percent of the university’s Cisco routers and switches across 56 campus buildings. Because the network is mission critical — it provides students and employees access to applications, data, the internet and phone services — he recently signed a managed services contract with CDW to provide 24/7 support for the school’s Cisco equipment.

“If we need general support, advice or guidance on a product or to troubleshoot an issue, we have one point of contact,” McKenzie says. “It gives us the ability to ­connect to expert-level ­people quickly.”

An increasing number of colleges and universities are taking advantage of managed IT services to augment their IT staff and cost-effectively fill holes in their organizations. Services include 24/7 help desks, application and network support, IT security, and cloud-based data backup and recovery.

Managed service providers (MSPs) have become an attractive option for some higher education institutions as they face budget shortfalls and reduced IT budgets, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they are relying more on technology for online instruction and remote work. Indeed, a recent EDUCAUSE survey found that 63 percent of colleges had slashed their IT budgets for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“Managed services of all types help with organizations’ staffing limitations. They eliminate the need for an upfront capital investment in equipment,” says Amy Larsen DeCarlo, a principal analyst with GlobalData. “The subscription-based model is more predictive. You can budget more accurately, and in areas where organizations have little expertise, such as security, managed IT services can be helpful.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to choose an IT services provider that meets your needs.

Making 24/7 Network Support Possible

As part of his IT transformation effort, McKenzie looks for ways to operate more effectively and efficiently. Managed services, he says, can accomplish that.

Lincoln University, a 2,200-student, historically Black public college near Oxford, Pa., has a core of 15 IT staffers, two of whom are network administrators. To augment his staff, McKenzie recently contracted with CDW Technology Support (CTS), a managed service that provides the university with 24/7 technical support for Cisco infrastructure.

Previously, the university received reliable technical support, but it would often take 30 minutes to an hour and multiple points of ­contact to reach the needed support person, McKenzie says. Now, he and his team can simply contact CDW to have an expert work directly with Cisco to troubleshoot the problem, allowing his IT personnel to focus on more strategic projects.

“The biggest benefit is that it streamlines our ability to get support,” he says. CTS has assisted the IT department with firmware and software updates, and it offers advice on implementing Cisco’s latest technology and features.

For example, although some employees have returned to work on campus during the pandemic, some still work from home at least part time. To support them, McKenzie plans to deploy Cisco’s mobility solutions to improve communication and collaboration, which may include Cisco Jabber, a collaboration tool for instant messaging, phone calls and videoconferences. When the time comes, Lincoln’s IT staff will reach out to CTS for assistance during the deployment. “The way we leverage them is to get advice and guidance. It’s still early for us, but so far, so good,” he says.

The Key to Better Customer Service

Five years ago, Matt Franz of Clark State College in Springfield, Ohio, hired its learning management system provider to deliver technical support for the application as well as 24/7 IT help desk support for its 5,700-student campus.

The adoption of managed services paid dividends last spring, when the pandemic forced classes to go virtual. The college was prepared to handle a flood of troubleshooting calls as employees worked remotely and as many faculty and students taught and learned online for the first time. Help desk calls increased 20 to 30 percent during the early days of the pandemic.

“Our institution couldn’t provide 24/7 support without a strategic partner,” says Franz, the college’s senior vice president of technology, safety and strategic initiatives.

As for general help desk calls, the MSP has improved response time from days or weeks to just an hour or two. Having help desk support has allowed Clark State’s IT staff to provide better customer service, Franz says.

“They are not overwhelmed and inundated, and they can provide more personalized support,”
he says.

Matt Franz, Senior Vice President of Technology, Safety and Strategic Initiatives, Clark State College
Our institution couldn't provide 24/7 support without a strategic partner."

Matt Franz Senior Vice President of Technology, Safety and Strategic Initiatives, Clark State College

Five years ago, Franz contracted with another MSP to manage and provide technical and user support for its on-premises student information system, which handles student grades, employee records, payroll and vendor payments.

The fully remote MSP not only assists the IT team with maintenance but also provides individual departments the support they need to get the most out of their software, Franz says.

From a technical standpoint, the MSP knows Clark State’s implementation and can explain the risks involved with installing each software update or patch.

MORE ON EDTECH: Get the DiD strategy checklist.

“They do this on a broader scale and let you know what issues they’ve run into, so we can make informed decisions,” Franz says. “Having a partner who understands your system is so valuable.”

Attracting IT Talent For a Fraction of the Cost

Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Ala., struggles to compete for IT expertise in a city that is also home to the nation’s second-largest research park.

“It’s difficult to attract the talent and skill set with the budget we have,” says AAMU CIO Damian Clarke. As a result, the historically Black college — with about 6,100 students and 800 staff and faculty members — supplements its 15-person IT staff with managed services. “It extends our small team. We essentially have external partners that become part of our team,” he says.

In 2019, Clarke hired a security MSP to monitor the network and remotely remediate threats that are discovered. The university also migrated to Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure equipment and contracted with Nutanix’s managed cloud Disaster Recovery as a Service to back up its applications and data.

With the pandemic forcing AAMU to hold hybrid classes, the university needs to beef up its Wi-Fi network. To ensure social distancing, half the students attend class in person, while the other half learn online from residence halls. That makes the Wi-Fi network more important than ever. In response, Clarke recently signed a contract with an MSP to install and manage a new Cisco wireless network so students get the bandwidth they need. The implementation is expected to be completed in February — in time for the spring 2021 semester, he says.

MORE ON EDTECH: See how outdoor Wi-Fi is expanding access for college students.

Overall, the decision to hire an MSP is a no-brainer, Clarke says.

“The two main drivers of managed services are budget and the current availability of the IT skill set on campus,” he says. “Why not go to a vendor that can provide all the services I need at a cost I can afford?” 

Photography by Colin Lentonp