White Paper
13 min

Optimize Device Management in Higher Education

From logistics to funding, colleges are rethinking how they deploy, manage and sustain device programs.


How Devices Have Become an Essential Part of the Higher Education Landscape

Amid all the other ways the pandemic disrupted higher education, the large-scale increase in devices has been a lingering challenge for many institutions. Laptops, tablets and desktop computers obviously were important before, but today they hold a newly prominent role in shaping the user experience for students, staff and faculty who use them to perform essential tasks. The majority of colleges are managing significantly more devices than they used to. That creates numerous issues, from ensuring campus networks have adequate capacity to identifying solutions for helping short-staffed IT teams handle increased workloads.

Since 2020, the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund has allocated a total of $74.8 billion to higher education institutions, money that many used to acquire devices for remote teaching, learning and work. Many college leaders are considering how they will pay for the next round of upgrades, especially now that devices are embedded in day-to-day campus activities and users have high expectations for performance and connectivity. What’s more, the rush to obtain devices quickly, coupled with supply chain issues, left numerous colleges settling for devices that didn’t fully meet their needs.

The pandemic-induced emergency purchasing also left little time to thoughtfully establish effective processes for device acquisition, configuration, deployment, management, support and security. That’s crucial because colleges need a holistic approach to the full device lifecycle, one that addresses technological, pedagogical, administrative and financial concerns. Many institutions are still developing these areas, working on their own and with expert partners to answer questions such as: How can we improve break/fix processes? Can we increase device standardization while supporting department-level decision-making? Are there efficiencies or cost savings to be gained from offloading any activities to a partner?

Questions like these embody the strategic approach that colleges should be taking to optimize their device programs — and with the next round of upgrades not too far off, there is little time to waste.


The vast majority of colleges are ripe for a complete reassessment of their device ecosystems. Goals should include, among others, increasing efficiency while enhancing user experiences.


Colleges are moving toward tiered models of device specifications for programs and departments, simplifying support and management for IT teams while ensuring users have the applications and capabilities they need.


Although every institution is unique, best practices help colleges mature, scale and sustain device programs. An expert partner can recommend ways to implement best practices in a specific environment.

Acknowledging the Most Common Challenges in a Higher Ed Device Ecosystem

Many colleges’ pandemic response followed a similar trajectory: first, obtaining and distributing devices as quickly as possible; then, adapting to remote and hybrid classrooms; and finally, ensuring networking and security could support these new models. Today, colleges continue to adapt as they navigate the next wave of challenges and opportunities.


By far, colleges’ biggest challenge is funding. Shrinking enrollment and declining on-campus revenue have exacerbated the belt-tightening colleges already face. In response, some institutions have begun to invest only in essential technology. Others leveraged federal support to pursue technology initiatives with hopes of securing long-term funding that hasn’t always materialized.


In 2020, most institutions implemented one-to-one device programs for faculty and staff. The question now is how to maintain those programs in a year or two, when all those devices will need to be replaced. Financially, getting in front of those cycles proactively is both a priority and a challenge.


Colleges must also address the fact that users expect high-quality technology and increasingly view this as a differentiator when evaluating options for school and work. In the competition to attract and retain students and faculty, providing updated devices, a choice of devices and an excellent user experience are paramount.


Many IT departments are challenged by a lack of device visibility. Often, asset management programs are insufficient, meaning IT leaders may see devices on the network but not know their status or location. Increasing visibility and management is a priority, especially now that the number of devices has multiplied.


Security follows closely on the heels of visibility. Understanding how many devices are on the network, whether networks are adequately secured and which policies are in place can be extremely difficult. That’s especially true in decentralized models, where each individual school and department has its own security solutions and protocols.


As more devices arrived on campus, institutions that lacked robust wireless connectivity or core infrastructure experienced a massive strain on their networks. At minimum, most colleges are making adjustments to their networks to ensure they can support distributed usage patterns; for instance, by adding access points to bolster Wi-Fi coverage in parking lots.


Underlying all of these issues is the fundamentally decentralized nature of higher education. Many departments operate autonomously, with their own technology, IT leaders and IT policies, making it much harder to standardize across campus. Getting key stakeholders on the same page may be one of the biggest challenges of all.

Get help from an expert who understands the most common challenges — and the right solutions — for improving device programs.

Struggling to Meet IT Needs on Campus


The percentage of IT leaders experiencing disruptions in hardware lifecycle replacement schedules due to IT supply chain issues1


The percentage of IT leaders whose institutions manage devices in a central IT department2


The percentage of IT leaders whose institutions locate device management functions in individual departments or schools2



The percentage of IT leaders who say their institutions struggle to hire new technology employees2


The percentage of students whose device malfunctioned when it was needed3


The percentage of students who were unable to run required applications or software on their device3

Ensuring the Acquisition and Continuous Management of Devices

Devices have been part of campus operations for so long that it’s easy to underestimate how crucial they have become. Thoughtful, well-planned approaches to device selection, deployment, configuration, support, management and disposition are crucial. Most institutions, especially those that scaled fleets quickly and significantly, will benefit from a holistic assessment of processes to identify pain points, inefficiencies and cost-saving opportunities.

Service providers can be valuable partners in the design, orchestration and management of device programs. For example, partners can support device delivery and unboxing, asset and inventory management, and break/fix support. Configuration, imaging, asset tagging and hardware/software integration tasks can be particularly burdensome for IT departments. Even when colleges keep some or all of these activities in-house, partners can often recommend improved processes, such as zero-touch or cloud-based provisioning.

Once devices reach end of life, colleges should use all strategies to derive residual value, including repurposing devices as loaners and taking advantage of buyback programs. Here, too, partners can help with asset disposition and refresh-and-recovery services.

As colleges seek to increase agility, attract students and offer flexible learning, devices are a crucial conduit to applications, access and connectivity.


Traditionally, campus IT teams supported a narrower range of devices than exists on campus today. In terms of providing and securing network access, it wasn’t unusual for departments to prioritize one or two operating systems. However, the recent influx of devices of various types has forced IT departments to broaden their support, management and security. Now, IT leaders are working to provide secure, device-agnostic network access that lets students and faculty enjoy the same high-quality experience regardless of device type. That flexibility has become important not only for practical reasons, as device diversity has increased, but also for attraction and retention of students and staff. Users want the freedom to choose which devices they will use, and service-minded IT departments are responding.


Finding ways to increase standardization is extremely beneficial for IT departments, especially when they are short-staffed or managing large device fleets. Standardization simplifies support, troubleshooting and management, which is why more colleges view it as a worthwhile objective. At the same time, faculty and students may value the freedom to choose their own devices, and the compute and application needs of schools and departments can vary widely. One strategy for balancing these needs is to identify beginner, midlevel and graduate-level specifications for various constituents and establish a limited range of recommended devices from which users can choose. Such guidelines can significantly reduce the burden on IT teams, even when choices are recommended rather than mandatory.


Ongoing supply chain issues, budgetary constraints and the push for IT standardization are motivating colleges to rethink procurement. Digital integration strategies, such as online portals where students and faculty can purchase from a selection of devices, offer several benefits. In addition to simplifying administrative processes, portals improve the experience for end users while affording them autonomy and choice. Custom online storefronts can tie into back-end systems managed by third-party partners, easing the burden on campus staff while ensuring that users have access to the right tools at the right prices. For institutions, portals generate valuable data that can inform future IT investment strategies and support governance by aligning procurement processes with contract and compliance requirements.


The rapid expansion of institutionally owned and managed devices has put a bigger burden on IT departments without a commensurate increase in staffing. Strategies that worked for limited device deployments may not be adequate for larger fleets, including processes for configuration, break/fix support and asset management. Engaging service partners to handle some or all aspects of this work can be a cost-effective solution that enables IT and academic leaders to focus on their core mission of providing exceptional learning experiences. Often, colleges aren’t aware of all of the strategies for deriving maximum value from asset disposition processes. An expert partner can assess the complete device lifecycle to help colleges find cost savings, increase efficiencies and implement best practices.

An emerging set of best practices, scaled for post-pandemic device fleets, is improving the way colleges manage and support devices.

Increase Operational Efficiency

Some institutions choose to engage a managed services provider to assume all the work of device deployment and management. More often, however, colleges identify specific tasks that would transfer easily to a partner. Making these decisions requires a deep understanding of current processes, challenges and opportunities. The right partner can lead these assessments and share best practices that have worked well for other institutions.

DETERMINE THE IT TEAM’S CAPACITY for device support and repair. This is often a pain point for small teams, especially if the fleet has grown significantly.

UNDERSTAND THE OPTIONS AVAILABLE for third-party support. Frequently, colleges choose to outsource a portion of device-related tasks, such as configuration or back-end management, while keeping others in-house.

CONSIDER A TIERED MODEL that lets users choose from a curated selection of devices (per program, school or department) and limits IT support to only those devices.

ENSURE THAT DEVICES AND APPLICATIONS ALIGN with the institution’s evolving pedagogical needs and business models; specifically, the current and future mix of remote, hybrid and on-campus learning options.

Key Outcomes of a Well-Managed Device Ecosystem

The centrality of devices in higher education means that well-managed programs generate a wide range of benefits that touch multiple priorities.

Better Planning Lowers Costs

Proper management of devices throughout the lifecycle lowers costs by reducing repairs and replacements. That starts with strong asset management to ensure IT departments can track devices easily and refresh them promptly. For example, asset tags containing serial numbers and other data facilitate support services and enable stronger inventory control. Well-managed device programs also support student and faculty retention. In a recent survey, 88 percent of students and administrators said “available technology” helps to drive student success. Colleges that plan proactively and budget strategically are able to streamline user-facing processes and pursue innovative, potentially revenue-generating opportunities. For example, some colleges allow alumni and even campus-affiliated community members to use device purchasing portals, in part to strengthen post-graduation relationships with students.

Minimize Supply Chain Impact

As college leaders well know, supply chain delays are not over. An EDUCAUSE poll in late 2022 found that 71 percent of IT leaders were experiencing large or extremely large delays in hardware delivery. Such delays disrupt replacement schedules, slow down learning space renovations and increase cybersecurity risks. In some cases, colleges cover these delays by shifting devices between projects or departments, which ultimately increases the logistical burden. One of the simplest, most effective ways to minimize the impact of delays is to build the capability to plan and budget far in advance. Ideally, colleges should have robust data about device needs and usage, together with visibility into the devices they already have, so they can plan ahead accurately and appropriately.

Mitigate Device-Related Risk

A major reason to optimize device programs is to ensure cybersecurity protections are effective and consistent. When colleges are unsure if devices have the right security, or they lack visibility into devices on their networks, the entire IT environment is at risk. Mobile device management solutions are one way to enforce security policy, but visibility and asset management are equally important.

Story by Mike Durand, Mike Grey and Jared Gutkin

Michael Durand

Michael Durand

Director of Sales
Michael Durand is a director of sales for higher education at CDW and is an experienced education sales leader with a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry. He has held various leadership roles throughout his 16-year career at CDW since he joined in 2007, serving all education customers.

Mike Grey

CDW Expert
Mike Grey is a CDW contributor.

Jared Gutkin

CDW Expert
Jared Gutkin is a CDW contributor.