Higher Education Web Development: How to Choose a CMS

In my last blog post, I discussed the three types of CMS systems: Proprietary CMS systems, Commercial CMS systems and Open-source CMS systems. Which begs the question, which type of CMS system should a higher education institution purchase? The answer depends on your size, need for flexibility, in-house teams, budgets and risk-management.

While there is no single answer to this question, some guidelines might help think through this delicate choice. I am breaking my guidelines on the size of college.

Tiny Colleges and Universities (less than 1,000 students)
I would classify any school with marketing budgets less than $200,000 as a tiny college/university. Specialty Schools that offer few niche degrees fall into this category. Typically tiny schools don’t really have Web/IT teams and have a single person who updates the website and helps marketing out with most of its projects.

For tiny schools, it makes sense to establish a relationship with a boutique agency which offers a Proprietary CMS system or an Open-source CMS system. They should stay away from Commercial CMS systems because of their substantial licensing fees and consultant hourly charges.

Small Colleges and Universities (1,000-2,000 students)
Let’s classify a small school as a place with a tiny Web/IT team. Most non-elite liberal arts colleges and Christian schools fall into this category. Their budgets are not substantial and the Web/IT team is supporting lots of systems such as websites, the registrar, academic programs and the libraries.

It may be okay for small schools to purchase a Proprietary CMS system, but it is more sensible for them to either purchase a Commercial CMS system or an Open-Source CMS system.

Medium-Sized Colleges and Universities (2,000-4,000 students)
Let’s classify a medium-sized school as a place with a respectable and talented Web/IT team. Bigger non-elite liberal arts colleges and small teaching universities fall into this category. The respectable Web/IT team is supporting a respectable marketing and enrollment teams in addition to the registrar, academic programs and the libraries.

It makes sense for medium-sized schools to either purchase a Commercial CMS system or build on an Open-Source CMS system.

Large Colleges or Universities (4,000+ students)
The larger colleges and universities typically have substantial and strong Web/IT teams. These college and universities, by the virtue of their size, begin to organize themselves around departments and schools. In a rational world, it would make sense to operate them as centrally-managed enterprises, but the very forces that make them big also begin to give birth to fiefdoms, tribes, neighborhoods, and anarchies. These institutions don’t run as efficiently and it is common to observe different departments and business units doing their own thing.

As a result, most large colleges and universities operate as hybrid organizations: centrally-managed enterprises with satellites of independent activities going on in some departments and business units.

For the centrally-managed parts of these colleges/universities, we recommend purchasing a CMS built around an Open-source CMS with a large support community (such as Drupal with Aquia-support), and if that is not a possibility then a Commercial CMS. Our preferences for Open-source CMS is based on the recognition of financial pressures on higher education institutions, and recent maturing of open-source communities.

Beyond the enterprise function, the business units can either purchase specialized applications backed by Open-Source CMS systems; if that is not a possibility then we recommend buying the specialized application backed by Proprietary CMS system. You might be wondering why we prefer an Open-Source CMS? The answer is simple risk management: if things don’t work out with your vendor, you can always find talent in the open-source community or at your college to manage, enhance and support your specialized application.

I hope these guidelines help you make better choices when choosing a CMS.

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