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Sep 23, 2021 | 13 Minute Read

Why Choose Drupal as Your Education Content Management System in 2021

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 Choosing the right education Content Management System (CMS) for your institution shouldn’t be left up to someone else. Because you know that to thrive, universities in today’s digital-first “new normal” can’t afford to get this wrong.

The impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education is unprecedented and its scale is still not understood. Universities and colleges across the world still don’t know what next semester will look like. 

Regardless of what the future brings, leaders in higher-ed are preparing themselves and their institutions to thrive in a new digital paradigm shift. To do this, they have to ask themselves key questions about streamlining the student experience, the faculty experience, the remote learning experience, and the digital infrastructure that gives it all rise.

“Not everybody's going to survive, for people who are forward-thinking, fast-pivoting, opportunistic visionaries, this is a really exciting time to be in higher ed. But it's also quite scary because 20% of colleges aren't going to make it.”

- Dr. Nancy Hubbard, University of Lynchburg

Although it is crucial to assert control over an uncertain world by identifying assumptions about the future and determining how your institution will respond, the question arises: What’s the most important thing to get right, online?

Your website. This is who you are online. It’s the platform that gives you the means to attract, engage, and delight your prospective students and deliver a seamless experience.

Education websites that are outdated and experience-less directly affect the university’s reputation among prospective students, their parents, and potential hires; this directly affects the enrolment rate, eventually leading to a loss of revenue. Collectively, by up to $19 billion dollars.

A graph from McKinsey report highlighting that education websites that are outdated and experience-less directly affect the university’s revenue.

Delivering a seamless experience is achieved through an increasingly integrable education Content Management System (CMS). And, in Higher Education, those education CMSs not just support digital marketing or communications but also serve as a central tool for staff,  faculty, students, and others. Login portals have to be more advanced than the  “angel systems,” or “blackboard systems” of the past.

Choosing the right education Content Management System that discovers the tasks prospects want to perform and design, build, and grow the platform accordingly can be daunting.

NYC Design researched 3,360 higher ed websites (Stanford University, University of British Columbia, UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, Cornell University to name a few ), and the findings highlight that 90% of these websites are built using twelve education Content Management Systems. Across all the types of institutions—private, public, or private non-profit—two higher ed CMSs (both Open Source) stood tall above the others: WordPress and Drupal—with 40.8% and 19.1% share, respectively.

Top education content management systems used by education institutes

Drupal and WordPress are among the popular Higher Ed Content Management System platforms used for website development. But it all boils down to the type of institution and its needs. 

Though fewer Higher Ed websites are built on Drupal than WordPress, Drupal is the most popular choice among larger, more premium universities with complex requirements. 

As examples, the top five US universities (Harvard University, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and the University of California, Los Angeles) based on the QS World University Rankings: USA report, used Drupal development services to build their platform.

Should I choose An Open Source Education Content Management System For My Institution?

Do you wish to control the destiny of your website and deliver an orchestrated experience to your students and faculty? As quoted by Linus Torvalds:

“In real Open Source, you have the right to control your own destiny.”

With close to 60% of university websites built on an Open Source CMS to attract, engage, and convert desired prospects, it is the best decision higher ed tech leaders can make when it comes to their university or college platform. 

An Open Source education Content Management System tries to tie together services, data, and content coherently in any tech stack. This makes it easier to deliver orchestrated digital experiences across channels in an agile way, leading to a transformation that makes institutions more flexible and resilient in the long term.

What Is An Open Source Education Content Management System?

An Open Source website is a site that uses Open Source Software (OSS)—software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. As discussed, Drupal is one of the most popular higher ed Open Source Content Management Systems (CMS) for colleges and universities. 

Marketers, developers, and CxOs of higher ed institutes can seamlessly connect with Open Source community groups worldwide. They can easily search the issue queue for questions and answers related to institutes of Higher Education. For instance, Drupal camps and conferences are popular, and I.T. people from academic institutions contribute heavily to the attendance.

How Anne Margulies contribute to Drupal community

Reasons To Use An Open Source Education CMS

In a fast-paced digital world where technology is growing, evolving, and trying to meet experience in the middle of the transformation road, agility, scalability, accountability, and flexibility are some critical components that make a digital strategy successful. 

While proprietary technology does come with its own benefits, its source code is usually a closely guarded secret. And when it comes to education, there should be no secrets between technology and its stakeholders, thus making Open Source CMS a better option to leverage for universities websites.

Following are a few reasons why universities should go ahead with Open Source education Content Management Systems:

  • Large developer communities
  • Widely adopted
  • Ease in academic publishing
  • High security
  • Affordable
There are a considerable number of Open Source education Content Management Systems available in the market. Which one should you choose, and what factors should you consider while selecting the right higher ed Content Management System? 

This CMS Evaluation Framework may help you to make an informed decision.

Reasons To Choose Drupal as Your Higher Ed Content Management System

COVID-19 is impacting student's willingness and readiness to enroll in a Higher Education institute. Research by McKinsey highlights that 45% of students substantially impact their emotional preparedness due to COVID-19 and are thus reluctant to join any university/college. Close to 33% of students worry about the unforeseen disruption in learning during a pivotal year of high school.

Students unwillingness to join back colleges as per report

Therefore, it is becoming more than important to revolutionize the student experience, help affirm their decision and offer them a personalized engagement experience using your most powerful asset—your website—and guide students through a seamless journey from enrollment to graduation.

We have to keep in mind that campus tours, campus living, dorm life, etc. are still uncertain in the coming semester.

36% of institutions are experiencing a steep decline in campus visit requests and the number of campus tours are further expected to drop

Just like businesses offering work-from-home or flexible arrangements, it’s likely institutions of higher ed will have to do this in light of any negative C19 developments (of which, delta is one.) 

What does this mean? 

The campus tour is less powerful than it used to be—it’s more complicated and subject to devaluation. What isn’t for sure is the importance of your digital platform, the site that represents the institution. The portal. The entire UX. What about this tour or walkthrough? It just became more important. Perhaps even more important than the “campus tour.”

In a day and age where many students will have to frequent .edu perhaps more than their physical classroom, institutions of higher ed have to think differently about the increasing value or liability of their website.

Certainly, one answer is a powerful and flexible Open Source Education Content Management System on which 70% of the top Higher Education institutions’ websites are built: Drupal. 

Drupal is an Open Source platform that can help create omnichannel digital experiences to attract, enroll, and delight students, alumni, and faculty, along with offering the following benefits:

1. Marketing

To overview how a student's journey on a university website begins when they search to enroll in an online program:

  • They start online research for their desired program
  • They shortlist a few university websites 
  • They complete filling the first application form

2/3rd of students often complete step (c) within just four weeks of starting online research. It implies that universities have four weeks to move at par with the prospective student's decision-making speed and offer them a personalized experience to engage.

And here, marketing offerings, at speed and scale, in a personalized manner play an important role. Thus, big higher ed players spend on marketing heavily to increase the online enrollment rate, which is evident from the following analysis.

The CMO Survey conducted by Duke University highlights that amongst the 15 industry sectors, the use of Digital Marketing, with a mean degree of 6.20, has contributed the most in the education sector. Unsurprisingly, the more a university spends on marketing initiatives, the higher is the enrollment rate.

A report mentioning higher spending on marketing leads to higher enrolment

The Digital Marketing ecosystem includes all the digital channels an institution uses to communicate with its prospective students, nurture them till they are ready to enroll, convert them and promote new enrolments from actual students. 

To make their Digital Marketing initiatives a success, higher ed marketers do need data about geolocation, prospect demographics, and previous history. However, they also need data about what their prospective students are doing and looking for right now.

Unfortunately, in most institutions, this type of data resides in silos and the technology that could orchestrate this prospect journey is not connected effectively to the martech stack.

“There is a lot of data out there, the key is to learn how to leverage that data to provide the best experience for your prospective audience.”

- Luci Geraci, Executive Director, Web & Digital Marketing, Council on International Educational Exchange

Drupal is a powerful answer to this challenge. Being an Open Source education content management system, Drupal is easily integrable with existing systems using open APIs that allow student data to flow seamlessly throughout the institution. Also, Drupal-based digital properties allow higher ed marketers to collect key prospect data that help them to design a comprehensive view of prospects.

Drupal education content management system integrations

With Drupal marketing, higher ed markets can:

  • Get a 360-degree view of prospects
  • Streamline campaign management
  • Connect systems and data sources with open APIs
  • Build memorable experiences across platforms with multi-channel reach
  • Deliver global experiences in any language, with multilingual functionality

As a robust Higher Ed Content Management solution, Drupal is behind many of the digital experiences that are part of the marketing efforts of leading universities. There are several Drupal marketing modules created by the Drupal community that can be used with Drupal sites to help with marketing initiatives. Some of the top Drupal Digital Marketing modules are as follows:

  • Webform: It is an essential building block that integrates Drupal and other third-party marketing automation software.

    MicroAssist Inc., an Austin-based technology training and consulting company, relaunched its website on Drupal and added a Webform module to their website. Their marketing time was super-excited with the ability of Webform to quickly and effectively build different types of forms.
  • Mautic: Mautic allows for multi-channel communications and campaign management, content customization, email marketing, visitor tracking, and personalization, to name a few. 

    Mautic is an Open Source marketing automation platform acquired by Acquia. The community version of Mautic lacked the ready-to-use plugins required by the Acquia marketing team. They collaborated with Axelerant to develop Mautic plugins to extend functionality.

A case study on how Axelerant helped Acquia to migrate from Marketo to Mautic

  • Google Analytics: The Google Analytics Drupal module allows marketers to add a web statistics tracking system to the website. It helps track and monitor search systems, Adsense, custom code snippets, and much more.
  • HubSpot: The HubSpot Drupal module integrates seamlessly with Webform and the HubSpot API. The entered information of a user on Drupal Webform is sent to HubSpot’s lead management tool, which is further tracked and nurtured.
  • Search API Solr: The Search API Solr Drupal module helps configure Solr search on a Drupal website. It works in collaboration with the Search API module, for which it provides an Apache Solr backend.

2. Accessibility

Education should be available to all, irrespective of caste, creed, gender, or native language. But the challenge is how to make it fully accessible - 71% of users with a disability leave a website that is not accessible to them.

“So if a college education is indispensable, the challenge as I see it is how to make it more accessible.”

- Gordon Gee

Back in 2016, a visually impaired student filed a lawsuit against Miami University because their websites were inaccessible by students with disabilities and thus acted as a roadblock for disabled students to actively participate in various courses. As a result, the university was forced to pay $25,000 in compensation and revamp their entire web content, ensuring it meets federal web accessibility standards. 

These days, students explore various dynamics and complexities surrounding ethical practices being followed by universities to make informed decisions while choosing one. And such lawsuits reflect a low level of ethical responsibilities practiced by universities.

However, timely auditing websites for accessibility is time-consuming and costly too for education institutions. Scott Lissner, Americans With Disabilities Act compliance officer at Ohio State University, asked his team: How many webpages Ohio State has? The team replied: "multiply the grains of sand on the shore by the stars in the heavens" to get a close approximation. The true number is "somewhere between five and eight million depending on what definition you're using and what moment in time it is.

Thankfully, you can rely upon Drupal as your education Content Management System, fully equipped with features that help websites in today's digital ecosystem adhere to accessibility standards. Some of these accessibility features are as follows:

  • Accessible inline forms: When a student submits a form, there are chances of submitting wrong information. And the errors are usually highlighted on the top of the form with the wrong-filled fields mentioned in red. For a visually impaired user, it must be almost impossible to view these highlights, even with the help of screen readers.

    To solve this challenge and improve form accessibility, Drupal introduced the Inline Form Errors module to help visually impaired users identify the type of errors they might have made when filling in a form.
  • Anyone can easily add alt text and tags: You have embedded images on your website, but they make no sense if they aren’t accessible to visually impaired audiences. ALT text (alternative text) plays an essential role in describing what the image is about so that all could easily understand it.  

    With Drupal, you have no option to add an image without describing it. The image won’t get saved and there will be a continuous display of reminders.
How Drupal CMS takes care of the accessbility by mkaing sure you add an alt text to the image
  • Seamless management of tabs: The TabbingManager, Drupals’ JavaScript feature, allows non-visual and non-mouse users to access the critical page elements logically. Using TabbingManager, a higher ed marketer can control where precisely the prospect user can tab into.
The education content management system of University of Arizona helps them build website with accessbility features.jpg

3. Personalization

Today's students expect a similar personalized experience, from the university website, like Amazon and Netflix deliver—frictionless, orchestrated, relevant, and immediate. Even websites of top universities won't get much attention if the website is static and boring. 

This is one of the reasons why 70% of higher ed leaders consider digital engagement and their websites as one of the top marketing tools to attract, engage, and convert prospective students. 

A student-first engagement platform aims to deliver a highly personalized experience to its students before and after enrolling for the course. For instance, Arizona State University (ASU) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) leverage predictive analytics to find students struggling academically and offer them the required interventions. Such personalized experiences engage modern learners for life.

Drupal has wonderfully capitalized on this opportunity to deliver 360-degree digital experiences that are relevant, immediate, and personalized. Drupal allows users to make informed use of browser history, geolocation, behavior taxonomies, and device type to record user's clicks and behavior at each touchpoint, using which they can curate a comprehensive vision of their personalized offerings at a speed that helps improve retention and online enrolment rate.

For example, the Stanford University website leverages Drupal to allow campus members to easily design, build, grow, and manage brand-standard sites, personalized to individual needs, keeping security in mind.

4. Security 

College sites are often targeted, which drives higher ed decision-makers to choose their digital platform wisely. Open Source Software (OSS) is generally more secure than proprietary software, and Drupal is no exception. However, you can see a number of queries floating on the internet asking: Is Drupal Secure?


Well, Drupal's security team is highly responsive and always on their toes to look out for vulnerabilities and send frequent security fixes for all actively maintained versions—all security fixes are logged. Drupal is such a robust education Content Management System that it can seamlessly dodge critical security vulnerabilities, including the top 10 security risks identified by OWASP.

“The Drupal Security Team follows a "coordinated disclosure policy": issues remain private until there is a published fix. A public announcement is made when the threat has been addressed and a secure version of Drupal core is also available. Even when a bug fix is made available, the Drupal Security Team is very thoughtful with its communication.”

- Dries Buytaert, Drupal Founder

This is one of the reasons why the number of vulnerabilities on Drupal has drastically decreased from the year 2002 to 2021. Also, minor releases are more frequent after the release of Drupal 8 & 9 and the adoption of continuous innovation. This has led to easy and quick Drupal updates of a better, more secure version. 

 Number of vulnerabilities on Drupal year-by-year

5. Multisite Architecture

Most universities and colleges maintain multi-faceted websites, ones that serve a broad range of purposes. Using Drupal as an education Content Management System, you can leverage built-in multisite functionality; institutions can provide their departments with a powerful toolbox and relevant media for communicating with students, staff, and other users via a single system.

This multisite capability helps institutions break out independent websites by giving control and ownership to individual departments. This control structure significantly reduces administrative overhead from the I.T. office.

When to Multisite and When Not

Sr. No. Factor Consider Multisite Don't Consider Multisite
1 The sites are for the same client and it is to simplify the scope of each site  
2 The sites are similar in functionality, use the same modules or use the same Drupal distribution  
3 You have limited resources/staffing, but lots of sites to manage and maintain  
4 The functionality or scope are different  
5 You are managing multiple distributions  
6 The clients are different  

For instance, Drupal OpenScholar, a research collaboration platform, is very scalable. Its multi-tenant, robust and modular architecture allows academic institutions to host thousands of websites in a single instance. 

Axelerant worked with OpenScholar’s team to help deliver releases quicker by implementing test automation in a systematic way across the entire testing pyramid.

OpenScholar leverages Organic Groups and Spaces modules to allow a single Drupal installation to host complete and discrete websites. OpenScholar supports custom domains. If a user has an existing website and wants to move it to OpenScholar, the URL can be ported over. Custom URLs can be easily managed within the site settings area of the control panel.


A Quick Tale

Delivering Seamless Digital Experience by Building Scalable Multisites for a Leading Research University

One of the renowned public search universities, established in the mid 19th century, turned to Axelerant to build scalable multisities and improve the editorial experience. The university's multiple websites were built on PHP, thus posing a challenge for their digital to manage the same because they are not easily scalable.

Read the case study to know how Axelerant used its experience to help this client deliver a world-class user experience, allowing them to build pages with ease.

Read the case study to know how Axelerant built scalable multisites for a leading research university

6. Community Support

Some key Drupal facts:

  • Over 1.7 million websites use Drupal
  • 7% of the top 10k websites use Drupal
  • 97% of Drupal users are satisfied with it
  • 46,603 Drupal modules can be downloaded for free
  • In 2020, Drupal welcomed 8,000 individual contributors and over 1,200 corporate contributors

One of the key reasons behind this success of the Drupal CMS platform is its devoted Drupal Community. They join Drupal to code but stay for the community. Drupal becomes a family to them, and they work hard to make this community stronger and experience-driven every single day.

“We believe that the Drupal project benefits from a diverse contribution pool, and we strive to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture everywhere Drupal exists — at events, online, and in our workplaces.”

- Drupal’s statement of values

Drupal is a common thread that weaves together Drupalers worldwide, without discrimination, with a single mission: the more you give, the more you get. And Drupalers happily volunteer their time in Drupal communities because it is fun, engaging, challenging, meaningful, and enjoyable.


At Axelerant, we eat, sleep, and breathe Drupal. We always look for different ways to give back to the Drupal community and prepare hard for Drupal events to leave a mark, learn from other Drupalers, implement the learnings, and come back prepared for the next engagement.

Axelerant Drupal community contributions

Even many university CIOs and academic I.T. leaders have evolved and opened up Higher Education by bringing Open Source projects to campus—at times subtly, sometimes hyperactively. This forwards the general mission of every university: to disseminate and expand knowledge and information across communities. Adopting Open Source software allows universities to put more into this mission.

Some community group examples are:

Wrap Your Website With An Experience-driven Higher Ed CMS Platform: Drupal

Crises like COVID-19 can create an environment of fear, forcing the education industry to pass through several digital paradigm shifts; however, the end goal—to empower diverse informed citizens with a drive to build up society—remains the same. 

Higher ed leaders need to look far beyond immediate challenges and build effective long-term solutions to attract, engage, and delight their stakeholders: students, parents, faculty—and the journey of engagement starts and continues with your website. Drupal offers you a living, breathing digital platform that not just engages prospects but also delivers them a seamless experience - the reason why more than 70% of the top universities are powered by Drupal education Content Management System.

About the Author
Prateek Jain, Director, Digital Experience Services
About the Author

Prateek Jain, Director, Digital Experience Services

Offline, if he's not spending time with his daughter he's either on the field playing cricket or in a chair with a good book.

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