Building websites for universities and colleges comes with a unique set of challenges. Unlike most organizations, higher education institutions are not singular entities but constellations composed of faculties, institutes, departments, administrative units, and ad hoc entities and initiatives. Many of these distinct components have their own set of audiences and functional requirements as well as a shared need for brand uniformity.

Furthermore, a post-secondary institution’s web presence is as important as its campus grounds in terms of how the world perceives it, and its websites need to be up-to-date and modern-looking to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Higher education websites also pose unique challenges from a content management standpoint. University and college websites typically have significant legacy content that needs to be carried over from previous sites. They also may have dozens or even hundreds of people, from instructors to support staff, who need to create and post content every semester – people who may have had minimal CMS training.

Add in budgetary constraints and timelines dictated by the rhythms of the academic year, and you have a recipe for a challenging environment in which to run digital projects.

Which CMS is Best for Higher Education?

In our work with universities and colleges across North America, Evolving Web has focused on two content management systems: Drupal and WordPress. As the CMS of choice for 71% of the world’s top 100 universities, Drupal is best suited to the complexities that often exist in the post-secondary context. We address how well Drupal is suited to higher education websites in this blog post.

Institutional websites like those used in higher education typically need robust and customizable search interfaces that can integrate third-party systems such as those used for course catalogues. They also often require a multi-site architecture and integration with third-party marketing and identity management tools. For such sites, Drupal is the clear choice for a CMS. Among its advantages are:

  • Security 
  • Composable solutions
  • Out-of-the-box search engine optimization functionality
  • Built-in functionality for content editing, search, user access, multilingualism and contact pages
  • Design flexibility that gives authors quick page building and editing tools
  • Ability to customize the integration of a wide range of third-party APIs including single sign-ons, course catalogues and more

However, for simpler sites with less robust current and future requirements, WordPress’ simplicity and ease of use are advantageous.

WordPress has block editing tools that enable users to easily create interesting content layouts. The CMS is intuitive for site authors and editors, and widely used, therefore requiring only minor training. 

Both platforms are open source, meaning that best practices tend to be shared amongst higher education institutions, which provides a huge advantage over proprietary options.

Have you Outgrown your CMS?

Institutions change. They expand, become more complex and outgrow their original digital homes. So what might have started as a simple site befitting WordPress might come to benefit from Drupal’s features. 

These are some signs that the CMS you are using might no longer be fit for the job you’re asking of it:

  • You’ve reached a point where your technical maintainers cannot push the system further.
  • Your site lacks accessibility or fails to hold up to increased SEO expectations. 
  • You cannot update your content in real-time.
  • You have form but lack functionality.
  • You have functionality but lack form, leading to a lack of consistency and brand compliance.

How To Get The Most Out of Your CMS

Higher education institutions ask a lot from their content management systems. Your typical university or college website is an amalgam of new and archival content aimed at a wide range of audiences – current and prospective students, faculty and staff, administrators, alumni, donors and others – and often maintained by a large team of content creators.

Higher education CMSs are liable to get messy quickly unless the right structures are established at the start.

At Evolving Web, we build websites with the expectation that they will continue to be relevant for years after they launch. The philosophy is that the client team will have the ability and tools to update the content and structure as needed throughout the website’s lifecycle. However, most websites don’t last that long, with research showing that the average site lasts around two years and seven months according to Orbit Media. Whether or not your site outlives this average depends on the robustness of the original design and whether it’s set up in a sustainable way.

Optimization Strategies

Here are six strategies that higher education institutions can use to get the most out of their CMS and ensure the longest possible lifespan for their investment:

  1. Have a short- and long-term management and maintenance plan for keeping information current and relevant. Planning a content strategy in parallel with the site solution is an invaluable investment of time and energy. Crafting a digital marketing and communications strategy that encompasses the web and other digital tools can help outline roles and responsibilities and organize the types and categories of new content. For more on this, read our blog post on content governance.
  2. Involve the people who will be using your website early on in the process. The people who will be updating and using the site should be involved in the conversations on design and user experience right from the start. In addition to empowering them early on with knowledge of the CMS, it will also give the web management team a sense of ownership and encourage sound management of web resources.
  3. Ensure your software is always up to date. Falling behind on CMS upgrades means guaranteed headaches down the road, costing organizations time and money. Regular updates will keep your site safe, secure and running smoothly.
  4. Minimize custom code. The flexibility of Drupal, in particular, means little need for custom coding. As a rule, the most customization you put into a site, the harder it becomes to maintain. If you require customization, it is advisable to turn to the original developer rather than to improve an in-house solution that will make the CMS more complex.
  5. Ensure that content is properly and consistently tagged. Universities and colleges have a wide range of audiences, and these audiences have particular content needs. A failure to properly categorize content within the CMS through tagging is a guaranteed path to a messy site that fails to deliver content to its intended audience. It also limits your options for creating dynamic search and personalization features in the future.
  6. Hire a team that is reputed to deliver quality solutions. Since 2007, Evolving Web has helped organizations big and small unlock the full potential of their content management system. This includes many higher education institutions, including Princeton, Emory, McGill, Waterloo and many others.