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Colleges in Iowa

Why go to College in Iowa?

On-campus and online colleges in Iowa offer affordable, personable, and competitive educational experiences. From Iowa’s small, private schools to its Big Ten powerhouse, the University of Iowa, the state offers some of the strongest academic institutions in the nation. With more than 60 colleges and universities, Iowa is home to leading agricultural programs and the oldest land-grant institution in the nation, Iowa State University.


Iowa has a population of 3.1 million people, more than 91% of whom is white. With more than 200,000 residents, the capital, Des Moines, is the largest city, trailed by Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Sioux City, and Iowa City. Much of Iowa is farmland, small towns, and villages, and farmsteads account for one-third of the state’s population.


Iowa experiences hot summers and cold winters, with an average annual snowfall of 27 inches. In July, average highs are about 85 degrees, and January lows are about 14 degrees. Iowa sees almost 200 sunny days a year and only about 68 days of precipitation per year.

Number of Higher Learning Institutions

There are three public universities in Iowa—Iowa State, the University of Iowa, and Northern Iowa—and 33 private, nonprofit institutions. Iowa has 19 two-year community colleges and 4 private for-profit schools.

Sporting Events

There are no professional sports teams in Iowa, but college athletics fill the gap. The University of Iowa, Northern Iowa, Drake, and Iowa State are Division I universities with strong football and basketball programs. Iowa is also home to one Division II school, eleven Division III schools, and dozens of junior college teams.


Cities like Des Moines and Iowa City offer dancing, socializing, and dining to residents and visitors. There are numerous wineries and breweries in Iowa, many in scenic rural settings.

What Options are Available for Colleges in Iowa?


On-campus programs in Iowa offer two- and four-year degrees to local, out-of-state, and international students. With low student-to-teacher ratios in many of Iowa’s institutions, students benefit from close interaction with instructors and peers. Even Iowa State, one of the biggest schools in Iowa, has a 19:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Iowa State has a 69% graduation rate, and 50% of undergraduates at the University of Iowa graduate within four years.

Online Programs

Online schools in Iowa offer two- and four-year degrees. Distance learning options provide flexible educations, while maintaining rigorous academic standards. Upper Iowa University offers three bachelor’s of arts concentrations as online degrees and more than two dozen bachelor’s of science options. Iowa State offers an online liberal studies degree that allows students to focus on one field or to incorporate multiple disciplines. Mount Mercy University (MMU) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, offers several online degrees, including business degrees, a nursing degree, and a criminal justice degree, and discounts online credits. Many institutions, including MMU, offer online classes on a five-week cycle, shortening program completion times.

Hybrid Programs

Hybrid programs combine online and classroom courses, providing both one-on-one interaction and flexible online opportunities. Colleges and universities throughout Iowa offer hybrid programs in various forms. Many online or on-campus programs include hybrid components, with online coursework and in-class training, practicums, and student teaching. In addition to two- and four-year hybrid programs, many certificate programs are offered as hybrids. Graduate-level hybrid programs allow students to work full-time jobs while earning their degrees.

Popular Degree Programs in Iowa

Iowa is known for agriculture, and its most popular degrees reflect this trend. Online colleges in Iowa, as well as on-campus schools, offer innovative agricultural programs in horticulture and plant sciences, plant rotation, and agricultural business management. In addition to agriculture, on-campus and online schools in Iowa offer degrees in elementary education and medical fields.

  • Elementary education

    This is the most popular major in Iowa, and graduates with a degree in elementary education earn average salaries of more than $53,000 per year. As Iowa’s population rises, more children are enrolling in public school each year. As a result, elementary education teachers are in high demand in Iowa. On-campus and online colleges in Iowa offer degrees in elementary education that prepare students for state licensure.

  • Genetics

    Iowa has a high number of genetics majors due to the numerous genetics programs at Iowa State and the University of Iowa. Iowa State offers five undergraduate degrees in genetics, and the University of Iowa offers one; both schools also have strong graduate programs in genetics.


Iowa State University offers bachelor’s degrees online, some of which are designed for students transitioning from a community college to a four-year program. The University of Iowa, Northern Iowa University, and private schools such as Graceland University and Buena Vista University, help associate degree holders pursue baccalaureate degrees. Kaplan University has locations in Iowa and offers fully online degrees in business, education, and the sciences. With an emphasis on helping students find affordable and flexible options for continuing their education, these schools offer ideal professional development, certificate, and graduate programs for adult learners.


University of IowaIowa City, IA

Admissions Rate 81%
Default Rate 4%
Retention Rate 85%
Graduation Rate 72%
Online Enrollment 9%

One of the premier research institutions in the Midwest, the University of Iowa’s diverse distance education programs makes it one of the best online colleges in Iowa. Located in the nation’s only City of Literature, the University of Iowa is known for its writer’s workshop and state-of-the-art medical training facility. The university's balance of arts and sciences produces well-rounded professionals prepared for careers in a global society.

Students outside Iowa City can pursue degrees from the state’s oldest university. Iowa offers fully online undergraduate degrees in areas such as enterprise leadership, sport and recreation management, and political science. Online degree completion programs are available for registered nurses and radio technologists.


Buena Vista UniversityStorm Lake, IA

Admissions Rate 68%
Default Rate 7%
Retention Rate 78%
Graduation Rate 51%
Online Enrollment 32%

Offering a variety of online undergraduate degree completion programs, Buena Vista provides a convenient and flexible learning platform for bachelor's degree seekers who hold an associate degree or 60 credits from a regionally accredited institution. Located in Storm Lake, Iowa, Buena Vista is a private liberal arts college founded more than 125 years ago.

Buena Vista's online degrees emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to professional training. Degree completion programs allow students to apply their previous academic training toward an undergraduate degree from one of the top online schools in Iowa. The university’s general undergraduate major allows students to create a degree that combines a variety of disciplines. Applicants to any of Buena Vista’s degree completion programs must submit official transcripts and a degree completion application.


Mount Mercy UniversityCedar Rapids, IA

Admissions Rate 61%
Default Rate 4%
Retention Rate 78%
Graduation Rate 65%
Online Enrollment 4%

A leader among private online colleges in Iowa, Mount Mercy offers several fully online undergraduate programs that feature asynchronous instruction in an accelerated format. As a Catholic school, Mount Mercy's undergraduate curriculum incorporates social justice perspectives and Christian values. Online students may pursue degrees in areas of business and healthcare, and the university offers BBA degrees in management, business, and human resource management.

Courses last five to ten weeks, and students complete weekly assignments at their convenience. Online learning utilizes discussion forums, group projects, written assignments, and quizzes. The university’s RN to BSN degree allows students with active RN licensure and an associate degree in nursing to pursue their bachelor’s degree while employed in the nursing field.


Graceland University-LamoniLamoni, IA

Admissions Rate 48%
Default Rate 9%
Retention Rate 62%
Graduation Rate 52%
Online Enrollment 45%

Located along Iowa's southern border in the picturesque community of Lamoni, Graceland University exemplifies its Community of Christ roots through its commitment to Christ-centered learning and social justice. Graceland University offers five fully online undergraduate degrees in areas such as business administration and nursing. Graceland is one of the few online colleges in Iowa to offer a dual undergraduate degree in business administration and organizational leadership, which teaches students skills in marketing, finance, and conflict resolution.

Applicants must meet two of the following criteria: be ranked in the upper 50% of their high school class, have a GPA of 2.5 or better, or have an ACT score of 21 or an SAT score of 1060. Transfer students must have a minimum GPA of 2.0. Online courses follow a trimester calendar and may consist of two 8-week sessions or one 16-week session.


University of Northern IowaCedar Falls, IA

Admissions Rate 80%
Default Rate 4%
Retention Rate 80%
Graduation Rate 68%
Online Enrollment 6%

UNI was founded as a teacher training school more than 140 years ago. Today, it offers more than 90 majors, including several fully online undergraduate degree completion programs. With degrees in areas such as criminal justice and technology management, UNI has established itself as one of the best online schools in Iowa for nontraditional students. Applicants to UNI's completion programs must hold an associate degree and may transfer up to 60 credits. Many of UNI's online degree programs deliver course material synchronously through interactive video conferencing.

UNI offers a unique BAS in tactical emergency services with vulnerable populations. This program equips students to work with special populations, including immigrants and refugees, in situations that require disaster and emergency management skills.


Iowa State UniversityAmes, IA

Admissions Rate 87%
Default Rate 5%
Retention Rate 87%
Graduation Rate 71%
Online Enrollment 4%

A public, land-grant university, ISU's enrollment of more than 36,000 students reflects its commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. Located in Ames, Iowa, ISU is one of the most convenient online colleges in Iowa, for both on-campus and remote students.

Students with an associate degree or 60 previously earned credits and a GPA of 2.0 are eligible for ISU’s online undergraduate degree in liberal studies. This multidisciplinary major is an alternative to a field-specific degree and allows students with diverse circumstances to complete a degree that leads to numerous career paths. Course options are available in areas such as humanities, communications and arts, and social sciences.


Briar Cliff UniversitySioux City, IA

Default Rate 8% Retention Rate 70% Graduation Rate 48% Online Enrollment 25%

More than one-third of Briar Cliff’s student population consists of minority students. With diverse perspectives and the openness indicative of the school’s Catholic roots, students enrolled in one of Briar Cliff’s online undergraduate degree completion programs gain professional skills that prepare them for lives of service and social responsibility. Degree completion programs in areas such as accounting, health sciences, and social work allow busy students to apply their associate degree or equivalent credits toward a bachelor's degree.

Briar Cliff's online programs feature flexible and convenient courses. One of the most transfer-friendly online schools in Iowa, Briar Cliff accepts up to 90 previous credits, and transfer students may test out of courses. Applicants must submit an online application and official college transcripts.


Upper Iowa UniversityFayette, IA

Admissions Rate 66%
Default Rate 9%
Retention Rate 42%
Graduation Rate 41%
Online Enrollment 37%

UIU's expansive distance education programs make it one of the top online colleges in Iowa. With more than 20 online undergraduate degrees, students from around the world earn an accessible education that emphasizes innovation and personal empowerment. UIU provides multiple instructional methods to meet the needs of individual students.

Online students may choose a synchronous format, which allows students to interact in an online classroom as they complete weekly assignments during eight-week courses. They may also choose self-paced courses, during which students complete assignments over a six-month period and submit assignments electronically or through postal mail. While most of UIU’s distance education programs are synchronous, programs with self-paced options include bachelor’s degrees in accounting, management, and psychology.

How We Ranked the Schools

To determine the best programs, we looked at the most important factors prospective students, mainly common predictors of future success and a school’s commitment to online programs. This boils down to admissions rate, student loan default rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and the percent of students enrolled in online classes. All data points are taken from information provided by colleges and universities to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Each factor is weighted evenly in order to give an objective view and determine the best online master’s in management information systems programs. To calculate our rankings, we looked at a school’s ranking when organized by a single factor, and then averaged each category’s ranking to find an overall score: Admissions Rate (20%) + Default Rate (20%) + Retention Rate (20%) + Graduation Rate (20%) + Percent of Students Enrolled in Online Classes (20%) = Final score.

Education Trends in Iowa

Iowa allocates a higher percentage of tax revenue to education than the national average, but when accounting for population, the amount falls below the national average of $5,503 per full-time student. More than 37% of the population have postsecondary degrees, and 8.5% have graduate degrees or higher. The number of bachelor’s degrees in Iowa is just shy of the national average.

  Iowa United States
Source: SHEEO and U.S. Census
Postsecondary Education Spending per Full-Time Student $5,503 $6,954
Percent of Tax Revenue Allocated to Higher Education 6.2% 5.8%
Percentage of adults over 25 with associate degree 11.1% 8.1%
Percentage of adults over 25 with bachelor’s degree 18.2% 18.5%
Percentage of adults over 25 with graduate degree or higher 8.5% 11.2%

Paying for College in Iowa

Cost is a major consideration when choosing an on-campus or online school in Iowa. In addition to tuition and fees, the cost of room and board, transportation and parking, books, and extracurricular activities add up quickly. Financial aid and scholarships mitigate or cover many of these expenses. Additional factors to consider when choosing a school include program length, job opportunities, and future earning potential.

Tuition Prices

The average cost of tuition for two-year schools in Iowa is higher than the national average, but tuition costs for four-year colleges is lower than the national average. However, depending on the student’s major and the location of the school in relation to the student’s home, pursuing a two-year degree may save on housing and transportation costs.

Financial Aid

U.S. college students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, each year. Eligibility requires U.S. citizenship or noncitizen special status, a social security number, and enrollment in a degree- or certificate-seeking program. Submitting the FAFSA automatically applies the student for federal aid programs such as Pell Grants and TEACH Grants.

Federal work-study opportunities help students secure on-campus employment at their college or university. Federal loans are available with both subsidized and unsubsidized provisions based on financial need. These loans have lower interest rates, making them easier to repay.

Students should contact potential colleges and universities to learn about in-state financial aid and school-specific grants and scholarships.

Cost of Living by Region

Most students consider living expenses when choosing a school, and the cost of living in Iowa is lower than neighboring states, in which comparable institutions are located in cities with higher rents and mortgage payments. The cost of education, the amount of debt to be accrued, and effects of debt on post-graduation life are important factors when choosing a college.

Cost for Online Programs in Iowa

Both on-campus and online schools in Iowa may be eligible for federal financial aid. Tuition rates for on-campus and online colleges in Iowa are often the same, but some schools offer discounted rates for online courses. Even with comparable or identical tuition costs, online programs may offer better value for students. The flexibility of online programs allow students to work full- or part-time jobs, and online students save on transportation and housing costs. State and local grants may be applied toward tuition for eligible online colleges in Iowa.

Scholarships for Iowa College Students

Kenny C. Guinn Memorial Millennium Scholarship

$10,000; must be a graduate from a public or private high school in Iowa with at least a 3.25 GPA.

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All Iowa Opportunity Scholarship

$4,383 for 2017–2018 academic year; must have graduated from an eligible school within the past two years.

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GEAR UP Iowa Scholarship

$2,600; must be a GEAR UP Iowa participant and under the age of 22 at first award; must be enrolled in a Title IV eligible college program.

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Gov. Terry E. Branstad Iowa State Fair Scholarship

$5,000; must have participated in the Iowa State Fair and be attending an Iowa college or university.

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Iowa Tuition Grant

Covers up to four years of undergraduate study; must be enrolled in an eligible private college or university in Iowa.

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Iowa Vocational - Technical Tuition Grant

$900; must be an Iowa resident enrolled in a vocational or technical program at an Iowa community college.

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Robert D. Blue Scholarship

$500–$1,000; must demonstrate literary and scholarly ability and must provide letters of recommendation and an essay.

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Education and Training Voucher Grant

$5,000; must have aged out of foster care and must have been adopted after age 16; must be under 21 years of age.

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Iowa National Guard Education Assistance Program

Average tuition rate; must be a member of the Iowa Army or Air National Guard; only available for 120 credit hours total.

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Kibbie Grant

Tuition and fees for up to two years; must be enrolled in an approved technical or vocational program at an Iowa community college.

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Can all Scholarships be Used for Online Programs?

Scholarships are available for on-campus and online schools in Iowa. Requirements typically specify the number of hours a student must be taking, rather than the class delivery method. Additional scholarship opportunities exist for veterans, through individual universities, and for specific areas of study. Many scholarships are even available for part-time students. The Iowa College Aid, a resource provided by the state of Iowa, provides further scholarship information.

Employment Outlook in Iowa

Iowa ranks eighth in the U.S. for its unemployment rate, which is well below the national average. According to a recent Iowa Workforce Development report, Iowa’s workforce population will decline by 2030, increasing job availability. Iowa added over 200,000 jobs between 2004 and 2014. Additionally, the aging population creates employment opportunities. Many of these jobs are in the industrial and service sectors, occupations with earnings comparable to the annual mean.

  Iowa United States
Source: BLS and BLS
Unemployment Rate, May 2017 3.3% 4.3%
Annual Mean Wage, May 2016 $43,540 $49,630

Top Employers and Industries in Iowa

Top Industries in Iowa

  • Office and administrative support: Office and administrative support workers include clerks, local government employees, secretaries, and other support staff.

    Mean Annual Income: $37,260

  • Production: Production employees include machine and industrial plant operators, motor vehicle manufacturers, animal husbandry personnel, and natural resource extractors.

    Mean Annual Income: $37,190

  • Sales and related occupations: Sales and related occupations include retail workers, managers, real estate agents, and insurance agents.

    Mean Annual Income: $40,560

Top Employers in Iowa

  • Food services and drinking places: 99,457 employees
  • Elementary and secondary schools: 98,824 employees
  • Hospitals: 70,391 employees

State Exchange Program for Iowa College Students

A state-to-state exchange program offers students discounted tuition at a participating school in a neighboring or partner state. This encourages students to explore educational options without the stress of higher out-of-state tuition. State exchange programs are particularly beneficial for students in states with few higher education options. Plus, it gives students the opportunity to venture far from home. Many schools limit the number of state exchange students, so early application is important.

Accreditation for Colleges in Iowa

Accreditation lends credibility to an academic institution or program and helps students secure quality college instruction through oversight and accountability. Accreditation for universities and colleges may be national, regional, or specialized.

Regional accreditation is awarded by one several bodies in the U.S. that oversee institutions of higher education in specific states. Regional accrediting bodies are overseen by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). National accreditation is generally given to technical and vocational programs. The CHEA also oversees national accrediting bodies. Specialized accreditation is awarded to programs, departments, or colleges within institutions; these bodies are typically overseen by professionals in the fields they represent.

For regional accreditation, online schools in Iowa must apply to the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, just like their on-campus counterparts. Students should determine which accrediting bodies oversee degrees in the field they intend to pursue.

Resources for Students in Iowa

  • The Higher Education Data Center: Offered by the Iowa College Student Aid Commission, this resource provides students with financial aid information. The agency assists Iowa students in financial planning as they pursue college degrees.
  • Gear Up Iowa: An Iowa state initiative, Gear Up Iowa helps high school students prepare for college and provides families with information about saving for postsecondary education.
  • The Iowa Board of Regents Higher Education Division: This website provides students with information about applying to public institutions in Iowa, including state college enrollment data, reports on campus safety and security, and links to statewide initiatives on higher education.
  • Iowa Public College Week: This initiative provides resources for students and parents about the college and university experience, including information regarding affordability, programs of study, and daily life.
  • The Iowa Department of Education: The department’s website lists all community colleges in Iowa and supplies a map and contact information.
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