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The Complexities of Help Desk Support for Higher Education

The Complexities of Help Desk Support for Higher Education

How do you provide IT help desk support to a state university system that consists of 11 universities, spread over 63,000 acres, 152,000 students, 26,000 faculty and staff, and a physical presence in all but four of the state’s 254 counties?

Very carefully.

Delivering help desk support to institutions of higher education is incredibly demanding. These organizations are complex, and the needs of their users range from the mundane to the extraordinary.

Here are some of the common hurdles that higher education help desks face, and some advice on how to manage these demands more effectively.

How Higher-Ed Help Desks Are Different

Whether it’s that state university system we mentioned earlier or a community college network or a world-famous Ivy League school, institutions of higher education have a higher bar when it comes to their help desk. Here are some of the many elements that can make providing IT support tricky.

Distributed classrooms

Universities have physical classrooms, usually numbering in the hundreds, all with their own level of wired or wireless access to campus networks. They also offer e-learning, with all of the demands on bandwidth, server availability and resources associated with streaming live lectures.

Enterprise resource planning

Universities have multiple buildings, vehicle fleets, labs and sometimes even manufacturing facilities scattered across a large campus (or campuses). Some universities also have a teaching hospital or medical facility attached, with all the complexities that these facilities present in terms of hardware, software, security and regulatory compliance. This makes effective enterprise resource planning vital.

Professional and personal support

Most business help desks never have to help a user troubleshoot their Xbox connection, but plenty of universities and colleges do. They help their students with all manner of technical issues, some related to accessing campus and class resources, and others related to using personal devices while on campus.

Point of sale systems

Universities have multiple places on campus where students can buy stuff. Some of the point-of-sale (POS) systems in these locations are operated by third parties, but others are operated by the university. These POS systems put an extra burden on help desk staff.

Student workers

Higher education tends to use a lot of student labor. These engagements include part-time jobs, co-op placements, internships and teaching assistant positions. Students start and stop their employment at various times throughout the year. Turnover is often high. Managing the systems that manage these student workers takes time and expertise.

Scaling resources

University help desks also experience massive swings in the volume of help desk requests. The start of every school year, for example, sees a massive spike in requests for support. These spikes may be predictable, but scaling the human and technology resources needed to meet these increased volumes is difficult. Help desk technicians who are busy in September may be underutilized in November.


The difference between uploading a term paper and not uploading that term paper can be the difference between graduating or not graduating, between getting a mark of A versus getting a D, between earning a Ph.D. versus earning nothing. Technology resources at universities create their own special sense of urgency (and expense) when they don’t work as intended.

Diverse user population

Institutions of higher education serve multiple user populations, each one with a unique set of needs. You have undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, administrative staff, alumni, donors, board members and so on. Each group requires its own level of support. Some universities provide email to their alumni, for example, while other universities provide full systems and support, such as job boards.

Staff payroll

Payroll at a university includes everyone from tenured professors teaching for decades to contract professors teaching for one term to per diem instructors teaching for, well, one day at a time. A troublesome payroll system can cause headaches for all concerned.

Generational divide

Tech-savvy Gen-Zers in their first year require next to no hand holding when it comes to setting up their computers and accessing campus resources. But alumni or staff who are over 60 often do. This generational divide also manifests itself in community colleges and other institutions that offer training to adults. Many of the students in these programs these days are farmers, miners and other blue-collar workers – some may have never booted up a computer in their lives.

How to Manage Higher-Ed Help Desk Demands

As you can see, universities and colleges have unique challenges in delivering IT help desk support to their user populations. Here are some ways to meet these challenges.

Segregate help desks by user population

One way to meet the needs of multiple user groups is to operate multiple help desks.

For example, if your users’ needs demand it, operate a student desk, a faculty desk, and an emergency desk for priority issues related to real-time classroom issues. If your university is partnered with another institution, such as a teaching hospital, that may require a dedicated help desk for that user group.

Staffing separate help desks helps you meet spikes in demand, deliver the best user experience, and optimize your resources (agents with the faculty help desk don’t answer student questions about connecting video game consoles to the campus Wi-Fi, for example).

Outsource part (or all of) your help desk

One of the greatest advantages of partnering with an outsourced help desk company is scalability. Some large university systems average 5,000 tickets a month, but this volume quadruples during the first few weeks of the school year. If your help desk cannot manage massive and rapid spikes like this, outsourced help desks can. They have the agents and infrastructure in place to help you scale your support seamlessly throughout the year.

Supporting the IT needs of users in a higher-education setting requires higher than normal abilities. You must be prepared for a wide range of support queries, massive spikes and drops in call volumes during the school year, and the challenges of managing technology, networks and systems scattered across hundreds or thousands of acres.

If you think IT help desk outsourcing can help you meet these challenges, read our free guide, How to Choose an IT Support Company.

Guide: How to Choose an Enterprise Help Desk IT Support Company