A PC is cheap only if it doesn’t break down. But while reliability is high, it’s just not likely that schools won’t run into some problems that require service and support. And that’s likely to drive the total cost of ownership up.

Service and support can add value to any technology purchase. If schools really want to get more bang for their technology buck, there are ways they can ensure that the products purchased are well covered. Here are some ideas:

Extend the warranty. While a one-year warranty is the norm, many vendors will agree to the three-year parts and labor coverage sought by Joe Kitchens, superintendent of the Western Heights School District in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Beware of costly maintenance agreements. Vendors have service and support programs that range from the low-level to top-of-the-line coverage–and they come with a price. However attractive an all encompassing service contract is, not every piece of computer equipment needs upper-tier coverage. Beware of costly maintenance contracts for equipment that is either super reliable, easy to maintain, or already covered under other agreements.

Create a help desk. Using in-house staff or a third-party provider, schools can create a central point of contact for support. Some school districts offer centralized help desks to support all schools under their aegis. That’s a good way to stretch technology resources without overburdening IT professionals.

Secure technology-refresh guarantees. As rapidly as technology changes, it certainly is not cost-effective to throw out an investment in equipment as upgrades come along. But it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all the changes and keep computing resources current. Many vendors offer technology-refresh programs that automatically upgrade products and services or at the very least replace older products as they break down. Of course, the fees for this service vary, and some schools will find that it’s not necessary, particularly if a PC’s life cycle is only about three years, the average in a computing environment.

Ask for loaners. No organization, especially a school district, needs to go without computing resources when a technical problem arises. Some vendors will agree to provide loaner computers when a product breaks down, as does Compaq Computer as part of its Notebook Network program. Compaq also offers to make fixes by the next school day as part of its CarePacks service and support options, said Compaq’s Jake Schlumpf.

Expect application support. Since the software–not the hardware–usually drives education initiatives, it’s critical that schools get hardware vendors on the hook to support the applications they use most. Not only does this level of support move schools toward the much-desired single point of contact; it also helps ensure that applications work well together, without conflict.

Naturally, schools should get service and support promises in writing. That way, all parties are clear on the terms and the commitment is solidified, said Ellen Carney, director of the service and support practice at San Jose, Calif.-based Dataquest. If you have doubts as to whether a vendor can deliver on service and support promises, check its references. Ask for a list of schools the vendor has serviced in the past, then call or visit those sites and see for yourself if the vendor has come through.