WordPress has matured to a point that even multi-million dollar organizations are using it to power their entire web presence. Case in point: universities that welcome tens of thousands of students every semester are using the platform to build some of the very best school websites you can find.
We’ll take a look at 16 university and college WordPress websites as well as the themes and plugins that they’re running. Note that this is not a review of the actual schools or the programs they offer. We’re only interested in the sites they’ve developed (or those that were developed for them) and the WordPress tech they’re leveraging behind the scenes.
How were the websites selected?
Rather than perform a broad search for schools using WordPress, we started by seeking out the top colleges and universities in North America. Not all of them are using the WordPress platform, and those that aren’t were not considered.
After paring our selection down to a few dozen schools, we grouped the candidates by the state or province in which they’re located. Many of the top university websites belong to schools on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, but we wanted to do our best to represent regions in all corners of the continent.
We then selected no more than two or three of our favorites from each region in order to keep the list at a manageable size. The result is a list of 16 colleges that are using WordPress most effectively.
What are the best school websites built with WordPress?
An up-to-date and visually appealing website is critical to attracting new students. As such, many of North America’s top schools have built their websites with WordPress. Those schools include:
- University of Arkansas at Little Rock
- Columbia College
- Academy of Art University
- Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design
- Colorado School of Mines
- University of the District of Columbia
- City College
- University of Central Florida
- Georgia State University
- Robert Morris University
- Boston University
- Northeastern University
- Algonquin College
- Watkins College
- University of Washington
Let’s have a look at the WordPress websites that each of these schools has developed. We’ll list our picks in order of the state or province in which the schools are based.
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, or UA Little Rock, is home to the Trojans. Their WordPress website design makes great use of the school’s color scheme: maroon, silver, and white.
The UA Little Rock site is based on a completely custom WordPress theme, meaning you won’t find it in the repository or in any premium theme marketplace. In fact, most of the best school websites built with WordPress use custom themes.
The school’s University Events page is laid out like a standard desktop calendar, and visitors can search events by date or by keyword. UA Little Rock is using the Events Calendar WordPress plugin to power this page.
The Events Calendar is a fantastic plugin and is well worth a look if you’re building a school website of your own. The plugin is free to download and install, and a premium upgrade unlocks a handful of extra features.
While UA Little Rock welcomes visitors to their homepage with a slideshow, Columbia College has done so with a video. These “hero videos,” as they’re sometimes called, have become pretty common across the modern web. Video is more accessible than ever, and most page builders offer image and video hero design elements.
Columbia College of Vancouver, Canada has used the paid Elementor plugin to present their hero video. The WPBakery plugin, the Divi theme, and even the new WordPress block editor offer similar video header and background features.
Webmasters inspired by Columbia College’s site design should have a look at the Astra WordPress theme. The firm who built the school’s website did so with a highly customized version of this readily available theme.
Academy of Art University
The Academy of Art University website provides another great example of video as a background. The school offers programs in fields like animation, graphic design, and fine arts, and their eye-catching homepage video highlights the work of students and alumni.
Instead of listing school events in a traditional calendar layout like UA Little Rock, the California school has opted for a photo-heavy grid layout. They built their Calendar page with the EventOn plugin, and unlike The Events Calendar, EventOn doesn’t offer any free features.
That’s not to say that the school hasn’t used free plugins elsewhere. Like many of the best school websites, the Academy of Art University is running the free Yoast SEO plugin.
If you need proof that WordPress is a viable platform for schools of any size, turn to the Stanford website. The prestigious university is using WordPress to relay course and campus information to current and prospective students.
With a massive marketing budget, it’s no surprise that Stanford has invested in a completely custom WordPress theme. That being said, the Stanford site design is deliberately simple. It wouldn’t be hard to build something like it when using a free theme like University Zone or paid themes like Educen and Kingster as a starting point.
It doesn’t look like Stanford is running a lot of active WordPress plugins (or at least not many that can be detected from the front end). Pages use Awesome Weather to display weather information and Card Tags to generate social media previews, but that’s about it.
Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design
Nestled in the foothills of the Centennial State, Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design opened its doors to students in 1963. The Lakewood, Colorado school offers on-campus and online courses in fields like fashion design, graphic design, game art, and photography.
Instead of building internally as larger design schools often do, RMCAD assigned Celsius Marketing, a Florida firm, to the task. The finished product uses a custom WordPress theme and places student work front and center.
Before handing the site off to the school, Celsius installed the Elementor page builder to allow for quick and simple content changes. In addition to the Elementor plugin, the school’s website is running WooCommerce and Yoast. The chat box in the lower corner of the website is powered by the free Olark live chat plugin.
The RMCAD website is hosted with WP Engine, a provider of performance-focused plans that are optimized specifically for WordPress. While WP Engine is a great choice for school website hosting, alternatives like SiteGround offer a lot of the same features at a lower cost.
Colorado School of Mines
Colorado School of Mines sits just eight miles west of RMCAD, but the school’s students aren’t studying arts or design. Instead, Mines offers graduate and undergraduate programs in fields like physics, engineering, and data analysis.
As the school’s name suggests, curriculum focuses heavily on both the extraction and preservation of natural resources. And study is not limited to the earth’s resources – Mines pioneered the very first space resources graduate program in late 2018.
Like the neighboring RMCAD, Colorado School of Mines is hosting their site with WP Engine. The provider’s well-tuned plans pretty much eliminate the need for speed optimization plugins, which explains why Mines isn’t running any of them.
University of the District of Columbia
Have a look at the Programs page for the University of the District of Columbia and you’ll find a wide range of options. Fields of study include architecture, business administration, engineering, computer science, and many others.
Look even closer and you’ll find well over a dozen active WordPress plugins. Forms on the UDC website were laid out using the popular Contact Form 7 plugin, and image sliders were built with Slider Revolution.
The vast majority of the top school websites featured up to this point have been running the Yoast SEO plugin. UDC bucks this trend, but they’re not ignoring search engine optimization entirely. They’re just using one of Yoast’s top alternatives, the All in One SEO Pack plugin.
Visit the City College website and you’ll have no trouble identifying the school’s primary color. Located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the private college has added splashes of ruby red to all of their most important website elements.
Almost everything above the fold of the website’s homepage is made up of shades of red and gray. Scroll down and you’ll find red embellishments breaking up photos and long blocks of text. There’s no doubt that the site’s design uses a lot of red, but it never feels overwhelming.
Celsius Marketing, the same company that built the RMCAD website, built the City College website too. The agency’s portfolio actually includes many great school website designs, including those created for J-Tech Automotive Institute, California Aeronautical University, and Continental School of Beauty.
Celsius is clearly a fan of the Elementor plugin for WordPress. Both the RMCAD website and the City College website use it. In addition to Elementor, City College is running Gravity Forms and Autoptimize, which speeds up delivery of your WordPress website.
University of Central Florida
Established in 1963, the University of Central Florida is headquartered about 200 miles north of City College in Orlando. UCF is the largest university in the United States (by enrollment) and is comprised of more than a dozen schools and colleges. Students major in fields like psychology, health science, nursing, and finance.
Review the school’s About page and you’ll see that the school prides itself on the fact that nearly half of its students graduate free of student loan debt. That’s an impressive figure when you consider that the national average is closer to 30%.
Speaking of the UCF website, a quick peek at the source code reveals that it’s running a handful of plugins. Many of those plugins were custom built specifically for the school, but a few of them are popular plugins that you can install and activate from your own WordPress website. Those include Yoast, Gravity Forms, and Page Links To.
Georgia State University
Head north out of Florida and you’ll eventually come across Georgia State University in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. GSU boasts more than 200 program offerings and awards graduate and undergraduate degrees from seven campuses.
The custom GSU WordPress theme is based on the popular Genesis framework. The Genesis framework serves as a “foundation” of sorts for custom WordPress themes, so coders often turn to it to speed up the theme development process. In fact, the Genesis website states that half a million websites leverage the framework. That being said, you won’t find many Genesis themes among the best school websites.
While Georgia State’s theme selection is out of the ordinary, their plugin picks are not. The university applies content changes using plugins like Slider Revolution and Visual Composer. To encourage social media engagement, GSU purchased and installed the Easy Social Share Buttons for WordPress. If you need similar functionality on a budget, consider AddToAny for your school website.
Robert Morris University
In the heart of the United States sits Robert Morris University, a private Chicago university. The Robert Morris website states that the school is the most diverse in the Midwest and that its graduation rates are 50% higher than what is typically expected of a school its size.
Instead of building on a theme framework as Georgia State has, RMU purchased and installed a premium theme then applied customizations to a child theme as needed. When building custom WordPress themes for schools, this approach will almost always yield a faster turnaround. Robert Morris used Avada as the basis for their custom theme.
The University is using Yoast to optimize for search and MonsterInsights to enable deep integration with Google Analytics. To power their many application forms, Robert Morris turned to Gravity Forms.
The Boston University school website is unique in that its homepage puts a brighter spotlight on its research than its academics. That’s to be expected when you’ve been recognized again and again for your high levels of research activity.
But that’s not to say that BU doesn’t take its academics very seriously. The school’s list of alumni includes names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Alexander Graham Bell. Entertainment greats like Howard Stern and Marisa Tomei are BU graduates too.
As far as the university’s website is concerned, its theme was built on a framework developed in house while its plugins are few. In fact, Yoast SEO is the only WordPress plugin that could be detected from the front end.
The BU website design is not like anything you’ll find from the rest of the top school websites. The aforementioned homepage features a recent article whose headline and photo occupies more than 90% of the above-the-fold viewing area. Beneath it are a few more article snippets and a dark footer full of open and inviting space. The only real mentions of academics are in the topmost navigation menu and in a smaller menu below the page fold.
Click or tap through to any page or article and the design changes pretty dramatically based on the context. Pages that focus on academics use images and color very sparingly, leaving plenty of room for the information that students are after.
Like its Boston neighbor, Northeastern University is serious about its high level of research activity. The NU homepage highlights a few of the school’s most active research professors, but you’ll find plenty of academic links alongside these snippets as well.
The Northeastern University WordPress website doesn’t load a lot of front end plugins during homepage requests. The only exception is Gravitate Event Tracking, a plugin that logs custom Google Analytics events at times of your choosing.
Navigate away from the NU homepage and the website will begin to queue up plugins more liberally. For instances, the school’s Graduate Programs page and others like it make use of Yoast SEO and The Events Calendar.
Headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario, Algonquin College employs more than 1,100 staff members and nearly 20,000 full-time students. Those attending pursue degrees and certificates across hundreds of programs while competing in any of four varsity-level sports.
Like City College, Algonquin has made very generous use of school colors throughout its WordPress website design. Expect to find many shades of green as you navigate and scroll through pages.
The school’s most recognizable plugins include Slider Revolution and social feed widgets. Mini Twitter Feed pulls in the school’s Twitter feed, while Smash Balloon Custom Facebook Feed imports Facebook posts. For an all-in-one solution, turn to a plugin like Flow-Flow Social Stream instead.
Algonquin College is using a custom WordPress theme, so you won’t be able to download anything exactly like it. As mentioned earlier, running a free or commercially-available WordPress theme is uncommon (but not unheard of) among colleges and universities.
Of the top school websites featured in this list, the Watkins College website might just be the most design-forward of them all. It makes great use of the school’s primary color (a burnt orange of sorts) and its fonts are disparate but complementary at the same time.
Watkins College is a small, private college in Nashville, Tennessee. Though the school’s homepage never explicitly says so, Watkins courses focus on arts-related fields like film, interior design, and graphic design. Even the Watkins College navigation menu is a work of art in itself.
While the school’s theme is a custom one, it was built on top of the popular Underscores framework. The framework is free to anyone who’s eager to try his or her hand at custom WordPress theme development.
Watkins College is hosting their one-of-a-kind website on a WP Engine plan. Behind the scenes, the website is running WordPress plugins like Yoast SEO, Slider Revolution, and Gravity Forms.
University of Washington
The University of Washington’s website, the last on this list, also makes great use of its school’s colors. A deep purple has been applied to prominent site elements like navigation menus and links, while more decorative elements take on the school’s signature gold color. The UW Huskies dawn the same shades of purple and gold when they take the field and court to compete.
Established in 1861, the University of Washington is located in Seattle and welcomes around 45,000 students each semester. Those who attend seek bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in fields like engineering, law, education, and business management.
The school’s WordPress website uses a custom theme developed by their internal web team. The same team relies on Yoast for SEO suggestions and uses Simple Sitemap to generate human-readable sitemaps.
What are the top WordPress plugins for school websites?
Spend any time browsing the best school websites built with WordPress and you’ll begin to find similarities. For instance, many of them are running the same WordPress plugins.
- Yoast SEO – Free to all WordPress users
- Gravity Forms – Premium contact form plugin
- Elementor – Premium page builder plugin
- The Events Calendar – Free to all WordPress users
- WP Accessibility – Free to all WordPress users
Yoast SEO is, by far, the most well-represented plugin among college and university WordPress websites. More schools were using it than were not. And this makes sense: every company wants to be found in search results, and Yoast is arguably the best SEO plugin for WordPress.
You’ll find a lot of schools using page builder plugins too. Elementor is a fine builder, but the platform’s built-in block editor is getting better all the time, so you might want to take it for a test drive before shelling out cash for a paid alternative.
Contact form plugins are just as common as page builders among the top school websites. Gravity Forms seems to be the first choice for colleges and universities, but smaller organizations often turn to Contact Form 7 instead.
The final two plugins – The Events Calendar and WP Accessibility – are also very popular and perform their jobs admirably. The Events Calendar is the perfect companion to any Events page, while WP Accessibility adds accessibility-focused features like high contrast and large print modes to WordPress websites.
Is WordPress the best choice for a school website?
With wide support and a collection of free themes and plugins that is unmatched, WordPress serves as a great website platform for schools of any size. While you’ll find a few colleges and universities running alternatives like Drupal or Wix, the former is better suited for experienced developers and the latter is a premium service that imposes serious restrictions on schools with specific website needs.
WordPress, on the other hand, is free to download, highly extensible, and incredibly user-friendly. Premium page builder themes like Divi introduce even greater control of WordPress site design and page layouts. If what you’re after is an attractive school website that’s easy to update, WordPress is probably the way to go.