Iowa has a long history of providing quality education to its residents, but sometimes it can be difficult to tell which of the dozens of four-year schools in the state are most likely to give you the college experience you're looking for. We wanted to get an idea of which schools were the best traditional and online colleges in Iowa, so we turned to the numbers.
The data we used came from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other U.S. Department of Education Sources. We analyzed the stats that covered 13 categories of comparison, from tuition and fees affordability to flexible scheduling factors like the availability of online degrees.
If you're attending or planning to attend one of Iowa's 15 community colleges, there's an extra piece of information that might help to keep in mind. The three Iowa universities overseen by the Iowa Board of Regents work together with the state's two-year schools to provide Transfer In Iowa, an easy transfer portal for your community college credits. You can find a link to the Transfer In Iowa site in the Additional Resources section at the bottom of the page.
Best 4-Year Colleges in Iowa
We analyzed National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on tuition cost, financial aid availability, student success, distance education and more to find out which Iowa schools came out on top. Tap the methodology button to see how we calculated the rankings, and read on for our list of the best colleges and universities in Iowa. When you're done, be sure to check out the best community colleges in Iowa, too.
The largest student body among the top schools in Iowa can be found at Iowa State University, where just shy of 36,000 students were enrolled in 2017-18. Degrees are offered through ten academic colleges and schools, including those focused on design, veterinary medicine and human sciences.
More than 110 undergraduate majors are available at ISU. Plans include Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Bachelor of Science (B.S.), Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) and Bachelor of Landscape Architecture (B.L.A.) programs, among others. Former military personnel and their families can take advantage of a dedicated Veterans Center on campus.
ISU is located in Ames, a city of around 66,000 people that takes great pride in its community and its hometown university. The Ames metro area is home to a wide range of outdoor sports and recreation activities, restaurants, shops and centers of arts and culture.
Founded less than two months after Iowa became a U.S. state in 1846, this Iowa City institution was the first university in the Hawkeye State. The University of Iowa also has one of the largest populations among Iowa colleges, reporting enrollment of more 33,000 total students in fall 2017.
One point of pride at UI is its creative writing program, commonly known as the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It was established in 1936 as the first creative writing degree program in the country, and graduates have gone on to become U.S. Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award honorees.
UI is also one of the best online schools in Iowa. Good news for students who prefer online courses: you have more than 30 fully online programs to choose from at UI, and numerous online courses can bring some flexibility to your traditional degree plan.
The roots of the University of Northern Iowa run deep. The Cedar Falls institution traces its heritage back to the founding of the Iowa State Normal School, a teacher training academy established in 1876 that admitted just 88 students its first year.
UNI serves nearly 12,000 students in its modern incarnation, but it never lost its focus on training Iowa teachers. The teacher education program here encompasses all four academic colleges on campus -- education, business administration, social and behavioral sciences and humanities, arts and sciences -- and provides professional sequence licensure coursework for educators.
Students may study in the virtual classroom through the "UNI at a Distance" eLearning initiative. Online degree programs at UNI include bachelor's plans in technology management and criminal justice, as well as more than 20 fully and partially online master's degrees and graduate certificates in education.
This small, private institution in northwestern Iowa is a relative newcomer among Iowa colleges, having sworn in just four presidents since its doors opened in 1955. The student body at Dordt College consists of around 1,500 students, which helps administrators keep the average class size at 20 and the student-faculty ratio to a comfortable 15:1.
As an affiliate of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, Dordt works to provide a Christ-centered education for its students. The general education curriculum here contains several courses with religious foundations, including Christian philosophy and a survey of Western culture from a Christian perspective.
Students who prefer a small-town atmosphere might just feel right at home in the town of Sioux Center, where Dordt is located. The total number of residents here hovers around 7,000, and the nearest large population centers are an hour's drive away.
Originally founded by the Sisters of Mercy as a two-year college for women, Mount Mercy University has grown into an inclusive university that offers academic degrees to more than 1,800 students from diverse backgrounds. This eastern Iowa school bases its academic approach on what it calls "critical concerns" -- Earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism and women -- and working to serve the common good.
Despite its roots in religious tradition, Mount Mercy focuses its educational efforts on critical thinking and the pursuit of truth rather than doctrinal training. A robust campus ministry permits religiously observant students to continue to practice their Catholic faith as they learn.
Online degrees in business, health care and criminal justice are available for distance education students. Service learning and volunteer opportunities can help you apply your classroom lessons in real-world situations.
First established in 1882 as St. Marguerite's School, a seminary and men's commerce academy, St. Ambrose University became accredited in 1927 and began admitting women in 1968. Today, SAU offers more than 60 undergraduate degree plans and over a dozen graduate programs to around 3,100 students annually.
A close-knit learning environment tends to foster student success, and administrators at SAU work to provide opportunities for students and professors to work closely together. The student-faculty ratio here is approximately 11:1 -- more than 30 percent better than the national average -- and the average class size is 20 students.
Affordability is an important part of the mission here, as well. Not only does undergraduate tuition here cost around thousands less per year than the national average for private, four-year universities, but first-year students are awarded in excess of $19,000 in financial aid on average.
Students at Northwestern College tend to stick with their studies, according to the numbers. This small school in Orange City boasts a first-year student retention rate that's on the rise, increasing five points between 2011 and 2016, and only 16 percent of graduates take more than 4 years to finish college.
NWC is another small Iowa institution affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, educating just over 1,000 full-time students each year. The degree catalog here contains more than 40 undergraduate majors, a Master of Education (M.Ed.) program and several post-baccalaureate education endorsements that can be earned fully online.
Orange City itself has earned numerous accolades for its quality of life. The town of around 6,200 residents was named both the happiest city and the safest city in Iowa in 2016, and it ranks among the nation's ten best Christian college towns.
Named for Civil War general and Iowa governor Francis Marion Drake, this private liberal arts school in Des Moines has been a forward-thinking institution since its founding in 1881. Drake University has admitted women and men equally since it first opened its doors, and international students from China, Persia, Armenia and Japan began enrolling here as early as 1886.
Today's undergraduate degree catalog at Drake contains more than 70 majors, close to 25 graduate degrees and 5 pre-professional programs. Students may also combine majors, construct their own interdisciplinary study plan and engage in independent research.
Des Moines is the largest city in Iowa, boasting a population of around 215,000, so students who like a more metropolitan environment may want to give Drake extra consideration. Iowa's capital city is home to eclectic restaurants, nightlife and arts and culture attractions galore.
This tiny liberal arts institution was founded more than 120 years ago and takes an innovative approach to the college experience. For starters, the campus foregoes the traditional Greek Life model for a system of 17 "houses" into which residential students are sorted at the beginning of their enrollment.
The flagship Lamoni campus of Graceland University hosts just over 900 full-time undergraduates, making GU one of the smallest schools in the state. The southern Iowa institution is sponsored by the Community of Christ, but it equally welcomes students of all backgrounds and faiths.
Graceland also makes a case for inclusion among the top colleges and universities in Iowa for online degrees, thanks to its unusually high distance education enrollment rate. More than 88 percent of students here take at least some of their coursework via online courses.
Located in the city of Storm Lake and situated right on the shore of its namesake body of water, Buena Vista University is the smallest entry on our list of top Iowa universities. Fewer than 800 students were counted on campus in fall 2017.
As you might imagine, such a small student body makes for a learning environment that fosters close cooperation between teachers and learners. BVU has a student-faculty ratio of 9:1 -- about 55 percent better than the national average -- and most classes consist of between 10 and 19 students.
BVU has been in operation since 1891, when it was founded as Buena Vista College. It earned full-fledged university status in 1995. It's also one of the more prolific online colleges in Iowa, offering more than 20 degrees and teaching endorsements for undergraduates and graduate students.
Most Popular Degree Programs in Iowa
Some of the most popular college majors show up on the list year after year, and some shift with the times. Here's a list of the top degree programs by enrollment in Iowa, according to the most recent data.
In-Demand Careers in Iowa
No degree can guarantee you a job after graduation, but keeping your finger on the pulse of the career market can help you be aware of certain courses and extracurriculars that might make the search for employment a little less grueling. Take a look at this year's hottest jobs in Iowa.
|Career Title||Projected Job Growth||Total Employment||Annual Salary|
|Wind Turbine Service Technicians||78.3%||490||$60,960|
|Operations Research Analysts||39.2%||850||$81,990|
|Information Security Analysts||34.1%||660||$83,030|
|Personal Care Aides||32.4%||18,520||$25,050|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants||31.9%||360||$56,020|
|Home Health Aides||31.2%||3,940||$30,320|
|Physical Therapist Assistants||30%||1,020||$50,420|
|Loan Interviewers and Clerks||29%||4,640||$37,930|
|Marriage and Family Therapists||27%||680||$54,030|
|Personal Financial Advisors||25.8%||1,470||$105,540|
|Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary||25.6%||2,760||$156,320|
|Veterinary Technologists and Technicians||25.6%||920||$35,500|
|Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists||25%||4,970||$59,270|
|Computer Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Programmers, Metal and Plastic||24.6%||430||$46,070|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||23.9%||760||$80,490|
|Diagnostic Medical Sonographers||23.5%||820||$68,960|
|Software Developers, Applications||23.3%||6,990||$88,570|
Financial Aid and Scholarships in Iowa
State-based financial aid can help Iowa students afford the cost of college:
- The Governor Terry E. Branstad Iowa State Fair Scholarship is a one-time award of up to $5,000 for outstanding high school seniors who have been active participants in the Iowa State Fair.
- The All Iowa Opportunity Scholarship (AIOS) is a need-based annual disbursement for first-time college freshmen who have earned their Iowa high school diploma or GED within the last two years.
- The Iowa Tuition Grant focuses on students attending private colleges and universities in the state and provides an annual, need-based award.
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
March 1 (Priority)
Renewable if recipient maintains a minimum 2.7 GPA and full-time enrollment, and does not receive any other scholarship of equal or greater value.
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
- State of Iowa Board of Regents
- Transfer In Iowa
- Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP Iowa)
- Iowa College Student Aid Commission
- College Savings Iowa 529 Plan
To get our list of the best colleges, we ranked 1,383 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Each school was scored on a 100-point scale, using the following data points and the weights specified. In order to be included in the ranking, schools had to report data for each of the following data points:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- The average amount of institutional grant aid awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduate students as a percentage of in-state tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Percent of full-time first-time undergraduates awarded any financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2015-16
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2015-16
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered on campus, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2016
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2016
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2013-14
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Dual credit
- Credit for life experience
- Advanced Placement credit
- Programs of study that can be completed entirely on weekends or in the evening
- Remedial services
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Guaranteed tuition plan
- Tuition payment plan
- Any other alternative tuition plan
Note:Tuition prices are based on data for the 2016-17 academic year reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. The actual cost of tuition may vary.
All of the National Center for Education Statistics data came from IPEDS:
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2015-16, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
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- Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time, Trends in Higher Education, The College Board, accessed May 10, 2018, https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-room-and-board-over-time
- QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau, accessed May 9-10, 2018: Ames city, Iowa, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/amescityiowa/PST045216; Orange City city, Iowa, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/orangecitycityiowa/PST045216; Des Moines city, Iowa, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/desmoinescityiowa/PST045216;
- Think Ames, accessed May 9, 2018, https://www.thinkames.com/
- 21 Liberal Arts Colleges With the Lowest Student-Faculty Ratios, U.S. News and World Report, Jordan Friedman, April 19, 2016, accessed May 10, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2016-04-19/21-liberal-arts-colleges-with-the-lowest-student-faculty-ratios
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- Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of Wintergreen Orchard House, a division of Carnegie Communications. Copyright © 2017-18 by Wintergreen Orchard House. All rights reserved.
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2016-17, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/