Evolving Web: Drupal for Higher Education: How Schools Succeed

Not only is Drupal the second-most popular CMS among universities surveyed in 2019, but the larger the school, the more likely it is to be using Drupal. For universities and colleges with more than 6,400 students, Drupal was the most popular CMS, in use by 27% of those surveyed. 

It makes sense. Drupal thrives on complexity, and higher education sites are certainly complex.

Drupal is often used at institutions where a common web platform is shared across a large number of sites. Each site has slightly different communication needs, different staff, different workflows, different terminology, and even a different tone of voice. Usually individual websites are run by site owners with varying degrees of technical and communications experience, and getting consensus across campus is almost impossible. 


📺 Watch on demand: 5 Keys to Success for Drupal in Higher Ed in webinar format for exclusive insights.


Across all the universities and colleges I’ve worked with, I’ve seen a few trends in successful implementations of Drupal.

Here are five of those trends that all schools should strive to emulate in order to get the most value out of their CMS.


Jump to:

  1. Create consistency with patterns
  2. Prototype before you scale up
  3. Balance flexibility with limitations
  4. Invest in content governance
  5. Embrace open source

1. Create consistency with patterns

Reusable themes, modules, and UI patterns are the key to building many consistent websites. Consistency creates a more predictable experience for end-users and for content editors.

Some site owners are resistant to the idea of using a template for their website. They rightfully see their department, faculty, or research group as unique.

That’s why it’s important not to provide a “one-size-fits-all” template, but rather a set of options that organizations can use and adapt to their needs. Modules like Layout Builder and Paragraphs, combined with a style guide management tool like Pattern Lab, can help provide the flexibility that site owners want. Just add some comprehensive documentation, like Georgia Tech’s Guide to their Layout Builder Implementation, and you’re all set.

In terms of modules, having a shared set of modules that are approved for use on campus is a real asset. This could also include a small set of custom modules.

All these modules, themes, and configuration can be packaged up into a version of Drupal that’s specific to your university or college. This could take the form of an install profile that you use internally. One option for managing this is to use Pantheon Custom Upstreams, which we’ve written about in detail from a higher education perspective.

2. Prototype before you scale up

If you’re building your first Drupal site, don’t start with your school’s homepage or the most important website on campus. Start with a prototype and a pilot project for a smaller initiative. This way, you can try out how your new install profile works for one use case before building it out across dozens or hundreds of sites.

Don’t forget to leave time to iterate on that core, so that you can make adjustments based on user and content editor feedback before rolling it out to other sites.

3. Balance flexibility with limitations

It’s important to provide site owners with flexible tools. At the same time, limiting what they can do has big advantages in the long-term health of a large web platform.

For example, removing the WYSIWYG (aka the What You See Is What You Get) editor and replacing it with predefined fields for text, images, and links can greatly increase the consistency and accessibility of content. By creating more structured content building blocks (something that Drupal is excellent at), you can provide your editors with a flexible tool that comes with built-in guidelines to ensure consistency and quality throughout your sites. 

At the same time, content editors want to have more flexibility in building pages. Providing a tool for that is going to help them feel more empowered. I recommend looking at Layout Builder and Paragraphs and setting them up in a way that promotes content consistency while allowing for editor creativity where appropriate.

4. Invest in content governance for content editors and site owners

Creating consistent and easy-to-use tools for content editors, and having policies, documentation, and training around web content will pay off in the long run. With Drupal, you can simplify the content editor experience to make governance easier.

Here are a few things I would recommend in Drupal:

  • Use simple content moderation workflows. Don’t add extra processes that aren’t strictly necessary. Start simple and add a workflow if it’s needed. Allowing authors to create drafts of content is always useful.
  • Test your content structure with real content. This will avoid the content editors running into issues with the configuration of your WYSIWYG editor or your fields when they’re editing the site for the first time. Content editors aren’t guinea pigs. 
  • Provide documentation for content editors. This can be really simple, but a few pages of documentation available online for everyone to access will be a huge asset in maintaining standards. Including a content style guide that addresses the tone of voice of your institution
  • Build a smart toolset. Tools like Siteimprove can help with quality maintenance and provide site owners with visibility on the quality and accessibility of content, so that responsibility can also be in the hands of content authors.

5. Embrace open source

Finally, it’s always important to mention that teams that have even one team member involved in the open source community are usually much more aware of best practices and tools. 

And the Drupal community is particularly welcoming and full of higher ed folks. Join the higher ed summit at DrupalCon or a DrupalCamp in your area to share your knowledge and learn from the community!
+ more awesome articles by Evolving Web