A college or university doesn’t have to be a football powerhouse to score a big win in the IT department. All a school needs to be is accredited to qualify for huge software discounts from Microsoft.

Even small accredited schools can receive large discounts if they drill deep enough into the requirements of a few of the plans outlined in detail on Microsoft’s Education pages. The key to saving is figuring out how Microsoft counts licenses for the plans and checking to see if you can meet those requirements. Let’s take a closer look.

Check out the plan
Microsoft actually offers a number of educational discount plans, but the four biggest are:

  • Campus Agreement 3.0 Subscription
  • School Agreement 3.0 Subscription
  • Academic Open License 6.0
  • Academic Select License 6.0

The software giant offers a Word document with general descriptions and comparisons of its licensing programs and their features.

Among the most basic distinctions between the four programs are that:

  • The Campus Agreement is for colleges and universities, while the School Agreement is for K-12 institutions. Both are subscription-based.
  • Academic Open and Academic Select are transaction-based licensing programs that differ in the number of licenses (500 minimum for Select) purchased and the way the software is tracked and reproduced.

When you look at the two subscription plans, you will see there is a minimum requirement of 300 units for faculty and staff. If you want to cut students in on the deal, you need to also have a minimum of 300 students. For a small institution, this may seem like an impossible task. Not so.

Microsoft bases the calculation on the number of full-time equivalents (FTEs) and the number of products selected for purchase. These two factors equal a unit, and 300 units meet the minimum requirement.

The cost difference between going with the Academic Open program and with a subscription program should be compared based on units, not individual licenses. So an institution with only 100 FTEs that is planning on buying only an operating system upgrade and an Office product (200 units) under the Academic Open program might benefit from adding a third product to the order to meet the 300-unit minimum. Each institution should compare pricing among the plans to see which one makes sense for them.

One interesting note: Public libraries and museums may qualify for the Academic Open and Academic Select pricing plans. Employees of libraries and museums, like teachers and students at any school, may qualify for Microsoft Academic Edition versions of Microsoft products.

How much does it cost?
Although institutions that qualify for one of Microsoft’s Academic Volume Licensing programs can realize the greatest savings, those who don’t qualify can still save nearly 70 percent on many Microsoft titles by purchasing Academic Editions of software, according to Microsoft. The following scenario compares retail, Academic Edition, and the various Academic Volume Licensing programs. Because the various licensing programs can cover different Microsoft titles, I’m going to focus this example on probably the most popular Microsoft title behind Windows: Office.

CDW sells the Microsoft Office XP Standard for $479. Qualified students and teachers can purchase the Academic Edition of Office XP through an authorized education reseller for only $149, an almost 70 percent savings. With the Academic Volume Licensing programs, you can save even more.

Let’s say that you are buying Office XP for your college faculty and staff of 300 FTEs. You could pay the full retail price of $479 per copy or a whopping $143,700 total.

You could also pay what a business with a corporate volume-purchasing discount would pay CDW—$345 per copy. That would get it down to a mere $103,500 and save you about 28 percent.

But we’re talking an educational institution here. At worse, you could buy 300 of the Academic Edition copies of Office XP at $149 per copy and pay only $44,700.

Now that sounds like a good deal. However, with Microsoft’s Campus Agreement Subscription, you can save even more. According to Microsoft’s online calculator, the annual cost for 300 Office XP licenses would be $7,800, or $26 per copy. And this licensing program includes not just Office Standard but Pro and Macintosh Editions as well. In addition, any program updates released during the subscription period are free.

This is a one-year subscription, however, and will require annual renewal fees. Microsoft, however, promises not to raise the renewal rate more than 10 percent per year. And even when the annual renewal fees are compared against the perpetual licenses, the subscription programs are cheaper.

If you are on a three-year upgrade cycle no matter what process you chose, the subscription service will cost you a maximum of $25,818. That cost is 58 percent of the cost to purchase 300 copies of the Academic Edition and 25 percent of the cost of purchasing the same number with the corporate discount.

During three years, you would save $18,882 with the subscription service vs. the Academic Edition rate and $77,682 over the corporate discounted rate.

What’s the downside?
The most difficult part of this process is figuring out which of the four academic plans your organization qualifies for and wants to implement. Although Microsoft claims it has simplified the process by streamlining the product coding for academic purchases, be prepared to go through tons of definitions, requirements, and limits while making this decision. You’ll also have to spend time each year on renewing your licenses. About 90 days before your subscription expires, you will need to recalculate your number of FTEs and use this new number to determine which licensing scheme is right for your institution.

Do you qualify for the academic discount?

If your institution qualifies for one of the four Microsoft academic discount plans, are you taking advantage of it? Why or why not? Which plan works for you? Tell us about your experiences with academic discounts in the discussion below.