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What's the Best CMS for Higher Ed in 2021?

Universities are fascinating and strange creatures to build content management systems for:

  • They tend to have the legacy content and inertia of a large governmental organization.
  • They’re often structured as many medium-sized enterprises aligned in a loose federation.
  • They have dozens or hundreds of people who need to create and post content to the website every semester.
  • They have many different audiences for their content: current and prospective students, parents, alumni, staff, and so on.

It can be daunting to choose the right CMS for a university: what's the winning set of features? How can the staff use the CMS with a minimum of training? What's the CapEx and OpEx cost of ownership?

We put together a framework to help you evaluate the different CMS options on the market, and we used it to score the top 5 candidates in the higher ed space. Let's start with the conclusion and then discuss the why and what of it later, in case you don't like to scroll:

🏆 Best overall university CMS: Drupal

🏆 Best closed-source university CMS: Cascade CMS

🏆 Best small-scale university CMS: WordPress

This list won't be without controversy, but read on below for why each of these 3 made the cut (and maybe why your favourite one didn't.)

How to evaluate CMS options

All modern content management systems have a few things in common:

  • A skilled CMS developer can design basically anything with them.
  • They give you control of your content publishing system so that you can control who publishes what and when.
  • They have an application that makes it easy for non-technical users to create, edit, and publish content.

📚 Read next: How schools succeed with Drupal


But what questions will help you choose the right platform for your specific organizational needs? 

Content management system scorecard

Here's our pick for a quick grading rubric to choose a university CMS (all questions graded on a 1 - 5 scale).

CMS Name: ___________________________________

Admin criteria

  1. How easy is it to build & control user permissions in a manner similar to existing departments? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. How secure is the platform? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. How easy is it to upgrade? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  4. How good is the documentation/community? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

Functionality criteria

  1. What core features does it offer natively?
    1. Multisite? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    2. Publisher permissions? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    3. Search? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
    4. Other features (mailing software, forum, multilingual support, etc.) ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. How extensible is the platform with other features you may want later? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. What performance and load times can the platform deliver with thousands of pages ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

Adaptability criteria

  1. How customizable is the UI for writers? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  2. Is it easily modified and extended? Is it open source? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜
  3. Can it be used in a variety of web services (e.g. a hosted service / a do it yourself installation / a managed service)? ⬜⬜⬜⬜⬜

Our verdict: WordPress vs. Drupal vs. OU Campus vs. Cascade CMS vs. Adobe Experience Manager

We looked at the 5 most-used content management systems in US higher education institutions (according to eQAfy research published in January 2021) and scored them on the above points. 

Here are the candidates and their respective higher ed market share:

  1. WordPress (40.8%)
  2. Drupal (19.1%)
  3. OU Campus (9.5%)
  4. Cascade CMS (6.9%)
  5. Adobe Experience Manager (3.7%)
  WordPress Drupal OU Campus Cascade CMS Adobe Experience Manager
Admin 90% 90% 70% 80% 65%
Features 65% 70% 60% 70% 60%
Adaptability 100% 100% 70% 75% 50%
Overall 85% 87% 67% 75% 85%

Open source options

Drupal, which is used by 71% of the top 100 universities, beats out the competition on security and user permissions control, but WordPress offers excellent usability and an easier upgrade system. Drupal's content publishing workflows, built-in accessibility tools, and superior taxonomy handling make it a great choice for sites with a large number of contributors and content types. It's also unrivalled when it comes to multilingual sites and translation management, which can be a big advantage over other options for certain schools.

Both of these open source projects have robust and active communities keeping them maintained and alive as well as a host of available plug-ins, modules and other add-ons, both free and paid.

There’s even a thriving community of higher ed Drupal users who support each other and share knowledge through industry-specific events such as DrupalCon’s annual Higher Education Summit. Stay tuned for a more in-depth post comparing these two market-leaders from a content editor’s perspective.


📺 Watch on demand: 5 keys to success with Drupal for higher ed [webinar recording]


Closed source options

OU Campus, also known as OmniUpdate, is known for its excellent customer support. This paid solution was designed for use by higher education institutions and its support team has a wealth of experience assisting with university-specific use cases.

However, the platform as a whole, while relatively easy to learn, feels somewhat outdated, and customization is limited compared to other CMSes. Server-side, its permissions handling isn’t as comprehensive as it could be, especially when it comes to dealing with admin-level privileges.

Adobe Experience Manager, another paid option, stands out from the other candidates by focusing strongly on digital asset management. Its robust DAM features are ideal for keeping track of large volumes of assets and maintaining brand consistency across all of an institution’s sites.

Although it has an easy to use, modern interface, the platform is often described as being somewhat slow or buggy and it offers limited customization. The source code editor is also extremely bare-bones, with no syntax formatting available.

A surprise winner, especially for smaller institutions that are willing to go closed source, is Cascade CMS. Designed for higher education, it offers plenty of practical, time-saving features like built-in accessibility checks and has a well-designed folder structure for keeping track of assets, but its search functionality - an essential for large websites like universities’ - is lacking. 

Need more guidance?

Choosing a CMS for a university is a long process, and one that frequently takes search committees months or years to make a decision. This post can't do a full search justice, but it's based on the research and work we've done with universities like Princeton, Emory, University of Waterloo, and dozens of other higher education institutions across North America.

For more than 14 years, Evolving Web has helped organizations big and small unlock the full potential of their content management system. We specialize in open source solutions and offer comprehensive website design, development and strategy services in addition to in-depth training for individuals and teams. If you need advice on choosing a CMS for your school, feel free to drop us a line.

Questions? Comments? Wanna start a flame war? Hit us up on Twitter at@evolvingweb and we'll be happy to talk. 🙂