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Essential CMS Features for Higher Education Websites

Higher education websites can demand a lot from their content management systems. Since there are literally dozens of CMS options and features to consider, how can we narrow it down?

With a core practice in higher education, we've seen—and resolved—all kinds of CMS implementation challenges. Here we'll take a look at some must-have CMS features for your higher education website.


👩‍💻 Blog post: Check our list of higher education websites we love


Because a complete discussion on this topic could fill an entire book, this article will focus on features to address three key challenge areas:

  • Meeting the needs of diverse audiences and end-users
  • Working well with disparate third-party and legacy systems
  • Providing flexibility while maintaining consistency

Meet the Needs of Diverse Audiences and End Users

Higher education websites serve audiences that are broadly diverse in their needs, goals, abilities, and experiences. Internal users are equally diverse, requiring a range of tools and support for their skills and workflows. A typical platform must meet the needs of:

  • Prospective students
  • Current students
  • Parents
  • Alumni
  • Faculty and staff
  • Media
  • Academic media
  • Hiring organizations
  • Policymakers
  • Researchers

To help meet these diverse needs, a good higher education CMS should provide:

  • Customizable, granular user management - Well-designed, customized user roles and permissions only present users with the tools and information they need. This improves usability, along with system integrity and information security.
  • Accessibility in theming, admin tools, and site features - Accessibility for users with varying abilities is a must—both ethically and legally—for higher education websites. Look for a CMS designed to support WCAG standards and facilitate accommodations for both external audiences and internal end-users.
  • Customizable editor tools - Students, employees, professors, and content publishers will use the CMS for various tasks, having variable levels of comfort with the technology. So a higher education CMS should avoid becoming an obstacle and feature customizable editor tools for simplified, more familiar processes.
  • Vibrant support ecosystem - Ideally, your CMS should have a vibrant, diversified ecosystem of learning resources, documentation, service providers, and an active user and developer community. This ecosystem gives you insight into how others use the platform, reveals best practices, and empowers your technical staff to better support end-users.

Work Well with Third-Party and Legacy Systems

When considering your CMS, think about the other systems your higher education institution relies upon, so you seek a platform that integrates with them efficiently. Internally, you might have student databases, course catalogues and schedules, articles from print publications, or other data to push and import. Externally, there may be fundraising platforms and marketing systems like CRMs, SEO tools, and email campaign management.

For an example of successful integration, check our work with Princeton University Press (PUP), in which we created a process that seamlessly synchronizes data between a Drupal CMS and the client's legacy database system.

These are the CMS features you should seek for seamless integration:

  • API-driven - A CMS with strong API and web services implementation allows flexibility to provide data access to and from external systems and applications. This might include importing data or pushing content and other stored information to mobile applications or administrative systems. It also allows flexibility for "headless" implementations that allow completely customized front-end experiences built with widely used, familiar Javascript frameworks. If you choose Drupal as your CMS, some API-driven modules are available at its core. For example, JSON:API is a zero-configuration module that provides a standardized API. You can also enable RESTFul API and configure it to serve content.
  • Ability to connect with varied data sources - Data may come from various databases, feeds, imports, or other sources. So a higher education CMS should feature plugins or modules to retrieve and format commonly encountered data sources. If such a plugin does not yet exist, you might want to consider creating one. If you go with Drupal, you might consider importing data through the Migrate Plus and Migrate Tools modules. Another approach is to use Feeds and Feeds Tamper.
  • Third-party integrations - Consider streamlining workflows by integrating your CMS with administrative systems, marketing tools, publication systems, and other legacy technologies. If your CMS offers good integration tools, it will reduce time waste and frustration while improving data integrity across the institution.

Provide Flexibility While Maintaining Consistency

A university is made up of dozens—if not hundreds—of schools and departments, each with its own identity and mission. Yet, they are also part of the whole, and in many cases, the institution's overarching brand and values should come through consistently.

Content can also reflect this tension between flexibility and consistency. For example, a research-driven program might have different presentational needs than the admissions office or a fine arts museum. Moreover, each department's staff could have content creators with their own perceptions of how to present things.

This balance depends enormously on the features and implementation of your CMS, so make sure the platform you choose provides that. Our recent project for Trent University was centred on this precise issue.

Let's see which CMS features can help maintain this balance:

  • Multisite capabilities - Many higher education institutions prefer to give each school and major department their own subdomains and sites. A good multisite CMS implementation gives the flexibility to choose whether sites share codebases, assets, and/or data, or pull their copies from a shared repository. With either option, each site should be able to add specialized code and other customizations while keeping synced with system-wide updates.
  • Support for sub-themes - Having a top-level theme and extending it on a per-site basis can help balance university branding with department customization. Each sub-theme would include the latest updates to the main theme while incorporating adjustments, such as tweaked colour schemes or handling of special features.
  • Granular templating - The deterioration of design patterns in published content is a key risk for large websites with hundreds (or even thousands) of end-users. A higher education CMS should feature-rich templating capabilities to keep formatting consistent. Rather than relying on content creators to make design decisions in the WYSIWYG, content and page types should break up into logical pieces that are programmatically formatted. This formatting may be based on a single sitewide standard or the creator's choice from a defined list.

Expect More from a Higher Education CMS

Today's content management systems can do much more than simply store and present content. In fact, you can leverage them as full Digital Experience Platforms (DXP). Choosing the right one can help you solve a plethora of issues you may just have become used to.

Check out these other resources as food for thought when considering your higher education institution's next CMS:

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