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How to Choose a Higher Education CMS

illustration of an orange computer monitor on a surface next to a purple pot with a plant in it, text overlay says "CMS 101" for the best CMS for higher education

If we had to pick one word to describe college and university website development, it would be: complex. Many — if not most — higher education institutions have multiple websites, and each of those websites is often home to multiple subdomains for different departments, degree types, and administrative centers. On top of that, universities typically require robust technology integrations for things like password-protected student or staff portals, course catalogs, online course registration, and admissions and marketing functions.

So it should come as no surprise that choosing a content management system (CMS) for higher education that’s up to the task is equally complex. Whether you’re considering a university website redesign or you think you may need to replatform your existing website onto a different CMS, this post will help you understand how to make the best choice for your school.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What Is a Higher Ed CMS?

A Content Management System (CMS) for higher education websites is a software platform designed to simplify the creation, management, and publication of digital content on a college or university’s website. A good CMS will provide tools and functionalities that enable non-technical users, such as faculty, staff, and administrators, to easily create and update website content without requiring extensive technical knowledge or coding skills.

The Challenges of Choosing a Higher Education CMS

As we mentioned, college and university websites tend to be complex. Here are some of the factors that make choosing a CMS for higher education a little more complicated than, say, choosing a CMS for a personal blog or even most eCommerce websites.

  1. Customization and Flexibility: Higher education websites often have unique technical requirements and branding guidelines. Finding a CMS that offers sufficient customization options and flexibility to meet these needs can be a challenge. Some CMS platforms may have limitations in terms of design customization or require advanced technical skills to make extensive modifications.
  2. Scalability and Performance: Higher education websites typically have a large volume of content and attract a significant amount of traffic. Ensuring that the chosen CMS can handle scalability, performance, and high traffic loads is crucial. Some CMSs may struggle to maintain optimal performance as the website and content grow in size and complexity
  3. Integration with Existing Systems: Higher education institutions often have various existing systems, such as student information systems, learning management systems, or event management systems. It can be challenging to find a CMS that seamlessly integrates with these systems, allowing for smooth data exchange and workflows.
  4. Accessibility and Compliance: Higher education websites need to comply with accessibility standards to ensure inclusivity for users with disabilities. It is essential to choose a CMS that provides accessible templates, tools, and features to support compliance with accessibility guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Choosing Between a Proprietary CMS and an Open Source CMS

According to research by eQAfy, 90% of higher education websites are run on one of twelve common content management systems. We’ll get into the pros and cons of these CMS tools later in this post, but first let’s discuss the two main categories of CMSs: proprietary and open source. The difference between proprietary CMS tools and open-source CMS tools for higher education websites lies primarily in their ownership, licensing, development model, and support structure.

Here are the details:

Proprietary CMS Tools:

  1. Ownership and Licensing: Proprietary CMS tools are developed and owned by specific companies or organizations. The source code of these CMSs is not publicly available, and their use is subject to licensing agreements. Institutions typically need to purchase licenses or pay subscription fees to use proprietary CMS tools.
  2. Development and Updates: The development and updates of proprietary CMS tools are solely managed by the owning company or organization. They have full control over the roadmap, feature enhancements, and bug fixes. When it comes to updates and new versions, you are at the mercy of the proprietary company’s release schedule.
  3. Customization and Flexibility: Proprietary CMS tools provide a range of customization options, so your school can tailor its functionality to your specific needs. However, the level of customization can vary depending on the tool. Some proprietary CMS tools are designed specifically for higher education. These tools may make it easier to get up and running with common university website features; but if you want something that doesn’t follow a typical higher ed roadmap, a proprietary CMS might be too limiting.
  4. Support and Maintenance: If you choose a proprietary CMS, your licensing or subscription fees will typically cover customer support, documentation, and training services. But support offerings and service level agreements vary among different CMS providers.
  5. Cost: Proprietary CMS tools usually involve licensing fees or subscription costs. The pricing structure can vary based on factors such as the number of users, features, and support levels. The cost can be a significant consideration for higher education institutions, and it may vary depending on the scale and requirements of the implementation.

Open Source CMS Tools:

  1. Ownership and Licensing: Open-source CMS tools are developed collaboratively by a community of developers. The source code is freely available to the public, and users can modify and distribute it under open-source licenses, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL) or the MIT License.
  2. Development and Updates: Open-source CMS tools benefit from contributions and improvements made by a community of developers. Updates and new versions are often driven by community contributions and user feedback. The development pace and frequency of updates can vary depending on community involvement and resources.
  3. Customization and Flexibility: Open-source CMS tools provide a high degree of customization and flexibility. Whether you’re working with a website agency or building your site in-house, developers can modify the source code, build custom themes, plugins, and extensions, and adapt the CMS to their specific requirements. Open-source CMSs offer more freedom to create university websites with unique features and functionality.
  4. Support and Maintenance: Open-source CMS tools typically have support communities where users can seek assistance, share knowledge, and collaborate with other users and developers. While community support is available, it may not offer the same level of responsiveness or accountability as dedicated support from a proprietary CMS provider. However, chances are good that you’ll be working with a website developer that knows the CMS inside and out, and they’ll usually be able to offer support and maintenance as part of your contract or as an ongoing retainer.
  5. Cost: Open-source CMS tools are generally free to use and have no upfront licensing costs. However, implementing and customizing an open source CMS for a college or university website requires technical expertise, development resources, and potential third-party support or consulting services — none of which is free. But, because a well-designed site built on an open-source CMS will generally be easier and less expensive to maintain and update, these tools can lead to a lower lifetime cost of ownership.

13 Must-have Features for a Higher Ed CMS

Whether you go with a proprietary or open-source option for your university website, these are the features you should look for in order to make sure your CMS can deliver what you need, both today and over the long term:

  1. Content Creation and Editing: A user-friendly interface with a robust text editor and media integration capabilities for creating and editing web content easily.
  2. Responsive Design: The ability to create responsive web pages that adapt to different screen sizes and devices, ensuring an optimal user experience on desktops, tablets, and mobile devices.
  3. Workflow and Collaboration: Built-in workflow management features that enable multiple users to collaborate on content creation and review processes, with defined roles, permissions, and approval workflows.
  4. User Access Control: Role-based access control mechanisms to manage user permissions and restrict access to sensitive information, ensuring appropriate access levels for different user groups, such as administrators, faculty, and students.
  5. Performance: The CMS should handle large amounts of content, high traffic, and peak load times effectively, ensuring fast page loading speeds and optimal performance.
  6. Search Functionality: A robust search feature that allows your website users to find relevant information quickly, including keyword search, advanced filters, and faceted search options.
  7. Integration Capabilities: Your CMS should support seamless integration with other systems commonly used in higher education, such as learning management systems (LMS), student information systems (SIS), event calendars, and social media platforms.
  8. Multimedia Support: The ability to embed and manage multimedia content, such as images, videos, and audio files, providing engaging and interactive experiences for website visitors.
  9. Accessibility Compliance: Built-in accessibility features and adherence to accessibility guidelines (e.g., WCAG) to ensure the website is accessible to users with disabilities, including support for alternative text, proper heading structure, and keyboard navigation.
  10. Analytics and Reporting: Integrated analytics tools that provide insights into website traffic, user behavior, and engagement metrics, enabling data-driven decision-making and continuous improvement of the website.
  11. Multilingual Support: The capability to manage multilingual content, allowing institutions to provide localized content for international audiences or diverse language communities within their student body.
  12. SEO Optimization: SEO-friendly features, such as customizable meta tags, URL structures, XML sitemaps, and integration with popular SEO plugins, to optimize the website’s visibility in search engine results.
  13. E-commerce and Online Payments: If applicable, the ability to integrate e-commerce functionality for online course registration, merchandise sales, event ticketing, or accepting donations, along with secure payment gateway integration.

Compare the Top Five CMS Solutions for Higher Ed

In an analysis of about 3,400 higher education websites, eQAfy found a whopping 63 unique CMSs. After weeding out schools with custom in-house developed solutions, they found that 90% of the remaining universities used one of 12 popular content management systems. We took a look at their list and picked five solutions for higher ed that deserve consideration if you’re in the market for a new CMS.

Top Open Source University CMSs:

  • WordPress
  • Drupal

Top Proprietary University CMSs:

  • OMNI CMS (Formerly OU Campus)
  • Cascade CMS
  • Terminalfour

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each of these popular university CMS tools, in order of estimated higher ed market share (again according to eQAfy).

WordPress

At a glance: This open-source CMS is the most popular solution, both within higher education and across the internet, with 43.1% of all websites built on WordPress, according to w3techs. At Vital, WordPress is our CMS of choice for higher education clients, largely because of its powerful and user-friendly block editor, which allows professional designers and developers to build a site that can then be maintained and updated by non-technical teams.

Estimated higher ed market share: 40.8%

Who uses it?

Here are just a few examples of schools that use it for their main sites:

  • Stanford University
  • Boston University
  • University of Tennessee
  • City University of New York (CUNY)

Drupal

At a glance: Like WordPress, Drupal is an open-source CMS. It’s generally considered to have a steeper learning curve than WordPress, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — these days, the vast majority of colleges and universities need a team of expert professionals to build or redesign their sites. However, whereas WordPress gives non-technical users an easy-to-use editing tool, with Drupal you’ll need tech expertise to maintain and update your website after launch, as well.

Estimated higher ed market share: 19.1%

Who uses it?

Here’s a sample of schools whose main websites run on Drupal:

  • George Washington University
  • University of Oxford
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Minnesota

OMNI CMS (Formerly OU Campus)

At a glance: OMNI CMS (formerly known as OU Campus) is a proprietary CMS developed by Modern Campus. With features built specifically for higher education and a library of pre-built content blocks, OMNI provides a quick and easy “DIY” option for schools that don’t want to hire an agency or development team. The tradeoff for this ease of use is a lack of flexibility and scalability that you get with a custom-built site.

Estimated higher ed market share: 9.5%

Who uses it?

According to OMNI’s website, a few of their higher education clients include:

  • Saint Louis University
  • Ferris State University
  • Florida Gulf Coast University
  • New Mexico Tech

Cascade CMS

At a glance: Cascade is a proprietary CMS from the company Hannon Hill. Unlike OMNI, higher ed is only one of four industries Cascade specializes in, but education is still its main focus. Cascade shares similar pros and cons to OMNI. A comparison of the two on TrustRadius suggests slightly higher user satisfaction with OMNI, driven largely by user reviews that give it a lower score in the areas of security, infrastructure, content creation, and content management.

Estimated higher ed market share: 6.9%

Who uses it?

Hannon Hill’s website lists hundreds of higher education clients. Here are a few examples:

  • Clemson University
  • University of California, San Diego
  • Brandeis University
  • University of Miami

Terminalfour

At a glance: A proprietary CMS focused exclusively on higher ed. Along with the basic table stakes for website design and development, Terminalfour offers out-of-the-box solutions that support many higher education web applications, including staff and student portals, a course search, and a campus events calendar.

Estimated higher ed market share: 2.2%

Who uses it?

According to the Terminalfour website, here are a few top higher ed clients:

  • Loyola Marymount University
  • University of Winchester
  • Capilano University
  • Virginia Commonwealth University

Runners Up: Five Other Popular CMS Solutions for Higher Ed

In addition to WordPress, Drupal, OMNI CMS, and Cascade CMS, each of these five solutions are relatively popular for higher ed websites.

Adobe Experience Manager

At a glance: A propriety CMS from (you guessed it) Adobe.

Estimated higher ed market share: 3.7%

Sitecore

At a glance: A proprietary CMS designed mainly for B2B and B2C eCommerce, with some adoption in the higher education space.

Estimated higher ed market share: 2.1%

Microsoft SharePoint

At a glance: SharePoint is Microsoft’s entry into the cloud-based proprietary CMS world, generally used by IT departments at schools that already use Microsoft 365 tools.

Estimated higher ed market share: 1.3%

Concrete

At a glance: Concrete is an open-source CMS that offers visual editing tools. Though it lags far behind WordPress and Drupal in market share, higher ed is one of its focuses.

Estimated higher ed market share: 1.3%

ExpressionEngine

At a glance: ExpressionEngine claims to be “the world’s most flexible and secure open-source CMS.” Though their market share in higher ed is pretty small, they have some splashy B2C logos represented on their website, including Nike, Disney, and Whole Foods.

Estimated higher ed market share: 0.9%

FAQs

Answers to some common questions about CMSs for college websites.

Q: Do higher education websites need a CMS?

The short answer: Yes. College and university websites have multiple pages of content, branding and design needs, and advanced functionality that requires a CMS to manage. Most universities use either an open-source CMS like Drupal or WordPress, or a proprietary CMS like Cascade or OMNI CMS. A handful of schools go with a custom-built CMS solution. Whatever CMS you choose, make sure it will stand the test of time with frequent updates and simple coding and page-building tools that don’t lock you into a specific provider for the life of your site.

Q: Which is better for higher ed websites, Drupal or WordPress?

A: Drupal claims that 71% of the top 100 universities in the United States use Drupal — including every Ivy League school. This might be misleading, though, as many schools use multiple CMS tools for different purposes. For example, the What CMS tool finds that while Harvard does have over 300 pages that run on Drupal, their main marketing website (www.Harvard.edu) uses WordPress.

So, which is the better open-source CMS for higher education? At Vital, we choose to design and develop mostly in WordPress. We find that their Block Editor tool empowers us to build university and college websites that are fast, flexible, scalable, and secure — and our clients who’ve come from using other CMSs, including Drupal, are delighted with the easy-to-use backend content creation and editing tools we build for them.

That being said, both options are powerful tools that will enable you to build a website that does everything you want and need it to do. It’s all about the execution, so look for a university web design agency you want to work with first, and let them guide your choice of CMS.

Q: Do I need to hire a web design agency to build my higher ed website?

A: It depends. Most colleges and universities do partner with an agency to build (or redesign) their school’s website. It’s a big job, and it’s uncommon for a college to have the internal resources to get it done on their own. If you do have a solid internal design and development team, you should also be sure to have at least one person dedicated to managing all the different components of the project. You’ll need to get a lot of voices involved, including marketing, admissions, academic departments, administration and planning, and so on.

A competent, experienced web design agency does more than just create your website. They conduct thorough audience and competitive research, uncover information architecture, SEO, and other technical needs, and work with your internal stakeholders to make the project a success.

Q: Which higher ed CMS is best for search engine optimization (SEO)?

A: The best CMS for SEO is whichever one makes it easiest for your teams to consistently publish high-quality content that will rank for the keywords you care about. But that doesn’t really answer your question. According to an analysis of 10,000 keywords by GotchSEO, the best CRM for SEO is WordPress, because WordPress sites own 45% of the top results on Google’s SERP. But there’s some circular logic going on behind that stat — 43.1% of all sites on the web are on WordPress, so it would be pretty surprising if it weren’t at the top.

When it comes to SEO, you also have to consider page experience metrics like load time. While we think open-source CMS tools like WordPress and Drupal are set up better to support fast-loading, high-performance websites, this does again come down to execution. It’s quite possible to build an inefficient site on WordPress, so ask your prospective web agency how they plan to optimize your site for performance and other SEO factors.

Conclusion

Choosing a CMS for your college or university’s website is no small task — and the cost of getting it wrong can be steep. In our decades of experience designing and building higher ed websites, we’ve experienced firsthand the challenges that come with needing to replatform, or transition, a website from one CMS to another. (And that’s assuming your school only uses one CMS…the story is even more complicated when different departments are using different CMSs.)

If it’s time for a website redesign, or you’re just not sure you’re on the right CMS, we’d love to talk. Contact us to get the conversation started.

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