Right away, Iowa stands out for the sheer number of four year, public and private/non-profit colleges it offers. Many Midwestern states host a relatively small number of schools (at least compared to East Coast alternatives) that is simply reflective of their comparatively smaller populations and sparser distribution of residents. But not Iowa! Not only is Iowa home to more than 30 options in higher education, but it’s also the proud host of 20 colleges and universities that qualify for our “best value” ranking. Iowa residents and newcomers alike can enjoy Midwestern standouts like Central College (a leader in environmental sustainability), Luther College (a music powerhouse), Iowa State University (a top public school and leader in scientific research), and Emmaus Bible College (a popular choice for Christians and high achievers).
Below, you will find all the aforementioned universities – plus many more – listed in accordance with their performance in our ranking. We quantified each of these school’s performance (see the total scores) based on a variety of core factors that we feel best represent excellent value, i.e. the ability to bring a lot to the table but ask a little in price.
Methodology: Ranking the Best Value Universities and Colleges in Iowa
Graduation Rate: This indicator refers to the percentage of students who complete their degree within 150% of normal time (six years for a typical four-year degree program). Schools that perform well in this area have a track record of keeping students engaged and successful for their entire time on campus. We weighted this category 30% of the total and retrieved the information from College Navigator.
Net Price: In order to make sure that cost was still a factor in the ranking, we also considered overall net price as an indicator. Taken from data on College Navigator, “net price” is an approximate value that refers to the average amount of money a student could expect to pay each year after taking into account tuition, room and board, living expenses, scholarship awards, and financial aid packages. We weighted this category 25% of the total.
Acceptance Rate: Academically challenging, popular universities tend to be more selective and thus have a lower acceptance rate. In order to pinpoint those colleges that boast rigorous academics and also receive a large number of applications, we considered acceptance rate – the percentage of students out of the total number of applicants who receive an acceptance letter. We retrieved this information from College Navigator and weighted it 30% of the total.
20-Year Net Return on Investment: Taken from information on the website PayScale, this statistic provides a picture of how much students can expect to make after they graduate from a particular college. More specifically, the figure is calculated by taking the average income an alumnus will make over his or her first 20 years after graduation and subtracting the amount paid in tuition. Schools with a high ROI tend to be better at preparing their students for the job market. We weighted this category only 15% because data was not available for all colleges considered.
After adding all the points, we gave each university a final score out of 200. The schools below have scores ranging from 81 to 156, and each has something different to offer in terms of its cost, quality, and reputation. No one college is perfect (which is why the scores vary so much) but this ranking offers you a premier selection of universities to help get you started on your search for an education in Iowa.
Emmaus Bible College prepares all of its students to follow their own path in life by working Christian values and Bible instruction into every field of study it offers. Some students study to join the ministry while others use their Christian education in secular careers. Whatever they plan on doing, Emmaus students know that they've earned their place at one of the best Iowa colleges after proving themselves against its selective 41% acceptance rate. This dedication and desire for the best is just a glimpse of what's to come for these ambitious students; 82% of freshmen can trust that they will have graduated - and be putting their education to good use - within six years of setting foot on campus.
From its starting point as a small, two-year college for women, Mount Mercy University has expanded into one of the best universities in Iowa and a top school for student success (thanks to a strong 72% graduation rate). Like many Catholic schools, Mount Mercy follows religious principles to instill in its students a sense of service and spirituality as well as scholarship. But what sets this school apart - even from other religious institutions - is its focus on five "critical concerns": earth, immigration, nonviolence, racism, and women. Through prayer, education, and legal advocacy, Mount Mercy and its students strive to create a more peaceful, equitable world for all.
One of the best cheap Iowa colleges around today, Iowa State University is marked by historic firsts and groundbreaking achievements. Iowa State was the first beneficiary of a land grant, which the government provided to help the school develop its agriculture and industrial programs. This Iowa university used that contribution to become a leader in science and technology education - a mission it continues to advocate today. A professor and graduate student at ISU are responsible for creating the world's first electronic computer, and the campus is still the only one in the country to house a U.S. Department of Energy research laboratory on its grounds. ISU's laboratory was integral to the nation's atomic energy program and has become a beacon of innovation in higher education.
Coe College asks a lot of students, but what they receive in exchange makes the effort more than worth it. A tough 50% admissions rate sets the bar high, and classes are demanding for those who do secure an acceptance letter. The campus culture is one of hard work and focus, which pays off in the form of a 70% graduation rate. What's more, Coe College's library houses the largest undergraduate writing center in the country, giving students access to professional help with their assignments at any time. Plus, a wealth of extracurricular activities and events - like thought-provoking lectures and performances - provide an outlet for those who want to unwind, connect with others, or expand their minds.
Though it excels academically in many areas, the University of Iowa is best known for its commitment to the arts. The UI Museum of Art houses nearly 15,000 works and the campus holds hundreds of live performances throughout the year, all of which are offered free or low cost to students. But the school's most prominent contribution to the arts is in writing. In fact, UI is the birthplace of the modern MFA, and the Iowa college's graduate-level Writers' Workshop is known around the world as one of the best of its kind. Undergraduates, too, can benefit from the instruction of many noted writers, including esteemed Pulitzer Prize winners.
Those who choose to attend this college in Iowa have long known of its excellent academic program, and the word is finally getting out to the general public! In recent years, Grinnell has been recognized as a rising star - many have even recognized its capacity as a rival to the prestigious Ivy League universities. Given its extremely selective 28% acceptance rate and its laudable 89% graduation rate, it's clear that Grinnell deserves the distinction. The school's administrators give students a nearly unheard of level of responsibility to govern themselves, which helps explain why Grinnell students rate both the administration and faculty as highly favorable. Even with its unbeatable mix of scholarship and self-governance, Grinnell remains one of the most economically diverse and affordable colleges in Iowa.
Drake University has been around since 1881, giving it time to both create long-standing traditions and reinvent itself as the era demands. While the school was originally a Christian college, it has no longer has any religious affiliation. Though its religious viewpoint has changed, its focus on academics has remained strong. Drake University houses one of the first 25 law schools founded in the country, as well as a nationally celebrated journalism program. It's no wonder, then, that Drake University has been named both one of the best universities in Iowa and the entire Midwest, aided by its strong 78% graduation rate.
While the University of Northern Iowa has a nationally renowned academic program on its campus, it also recognizes the unique value one can garner from a change of scenery during the learning process. Students at UNI get the chance to study at another institution inside the United States or overseas while earning their degrees, thanks to the school's leading international travel and student exchange programs. The school's study abroad center provides support to students throughout their trips, including language training. After broadening their cultural and academic horizons at a partner school, students return to one of the top universities in Iowa, where they'll enjoy all the amenities of life back home on an active Midwestern campus.
Graceland University boasts a beautiful campus that offers plenty of opportunities for social and cultural growth. Its residential houses have replaced fraternities and sororities on campus, making it easier for students to join activities and meet their peers. Each House has its own student-led governing body and has representatives in the overall student government. They also host a variety of events and field extremely popular intramural sports teams. In fact, almost all students at this top Iowa college participate in the intramural program, providing a practically unbeatable platform for both healthy living and fun social bonding. If that's not enough, Graceland is also known for its strong academic performance and its selective 50% acceptance rate.
Founded in 1925 as the Allen Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, Allen College became an independent degree-granting institution in 1989. Though its name has changed, Allen College remains true to its mission of preparing students for excellence in healthcare professions — and of course it offers many more programs than when it started. In addition to its nursing program, Allen College offers top-notch programs in dental hygiene, radiography, nuclear medicine, and other fields, all while maintaining an impressive 75% six-year graduation rate and its notable status as one of the most affordable colleges in Iowa.
As a small, solely undergraduate school, Luther College's ability to pay personal attention to each enrollee has certainly played a part in making it one of the most student-centric top colleges in Iowa. Its extraordinary 82% graduation rate attests to both its excellent academic programs and its ability to retain students. Luther offers a number of extracurricular activities and student organizations, but it's best known for its music program. Around 40% of students participate in one of Luther's choirs, bands, or other music groups, some of which are internationally known for their recordings and live performances. Members of Luther's music groups have even toured major venues in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
This Iowa college provides a comfortable, nurturing environment for eager learners, complete with a high 73% graduation rate and an attractive 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio. What might be more surprising is that it's also home to the country's only fully undergraduate opera program, which is backed by a professional orchestra! The school works closely with the Des Moines Metro Opera, allowing students to take internships, get to know professional musicians, and see the magic of an opera production up close. Simpson College's own opera program also stages two performances each year, free to its own students.
Known as one of the best colleges in Iowa for its arts programs, Clarke University offers a broad curriculum based in liberal arts. Clarke is recognized for its high 74% graduation rate and a high return on investment for students. The school also hosts a series of lectures each year, featuring a diverse assortment of performers and guest speakers. Even among its faculty, Clarke prides itself on attracting the best minds in the fields that it represents. Notably, George R. R. Martin, author of the popular "Song of Ice and Fire" book series, used to teach English and journalism at Clarke.
Blending affordability, a close-knit campus life, and excellent prospects after graduation, it's easy to see why Morningside College is consistently ranked one of the best colleges in the Midwest. 99% of Morningside students who graduated in the last three years either found jobs in their field or went on to graduate school. Not a bad success rate! In addition to its value for graduates, Morningside is one of the most affordable Iowa colleges, since every undergraduate student receives financial aid of some kind from the school.
Central College is notable in many ways, from its athletics program to its community service record, but one of the most obvious standouts is its devotion to environmental responsibility. Central was the first college in Iowa to earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver rating, which it secured in 2003 for its Vermeer Science Center. Since then, Central has earned gold and platinum LEED ratings and plans to meet LEED criteria for all of new construction projects. Students benefit from the school's environmental efforts by living and studying in clean, well-designed spaces, learning about topics of global importance, and enjoying the opportunity to intern and volunteer for a large number of environmental organizations and projects.
Dordt College offers more than 30 majors and 12 pre-professional programs. As one of the best Christian colleges in Iowa, Dordt combines its academic mission with a spiritual one, giving students the tools they need to put their education in a biblical context and pursue their careers with a strong religious backing. Its courses are designed to help students become good citizens and contributors to their community - as well as excel in their field of study, of course! This cheap college in Iowa also helps students better afford their education by offering a generous financial aid package that benefits 98% of enrollees.
As a top Iowa college affiliated with the United Methodist Church, Iowa Wesleyan University identifies itself by its great academic program as well as its spiritual commitment. IWU's curriculum stands out even from the rest of Iowa's best colleges because of its strong grounding in service learning. Students at the university are trained to see how their work benefits their communities as well as themselves, and out-of-classroom learning experiences are built into every major. IWU's 41% acceptance rate suggests that getting into the school is no cakewalk, but students who make the effort go on to do great things. This Iowa college's alumni include the discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belt and the International Space Station's first female commander.
Students at Briar Cliff University can take pride in not only studying at one of the best colleges in Iowa, but also in doing work that benefits others even before starting their careers. Briar Cliff recently launched two new programs at its Centers for Justice and for Health Care - both of which are specifically intended to help the Iowa community through research-based endeavors. Its Applied Behavior Analysis program also has a partnership with the Pier Center for Autism, allowing it to contribute to the Center's mission to improve the lives of children with autism. This spirit of helping extends to other endeavors; students regularly participate in charitable projects and the school has even been honored for its civic focus.
For the nearly 125 years that Buena Vista University has been operating, it's been in a constant process of growth and renewal. After a fire destroyed its main building in 1956, Buena Vista embarked on a major campus expansion project that gave it new residence halls, a library, extra space for classes, and more. The school is still expanding today, but it remains as committed as ever to giving a top-quality education to a small number of students. That allows it to give students unmatched personal attention and an extremely low nine to one student to faculty ratio.
William Penn University's small size allows it to give each student the personal attention that comes from a low 15 to 1 student to faculty ratio without sacrificing the amenities they might expect from a larger university. In the last decade, William Penn has started the process of renovating its already beautiful campus, using a $12 million donation to create new student centers, classrooms, and laboratories. This top Iowa college also offers students a wide array of extracurricular activities, including campus ministries, a literary magazine, academic clubs, and participation in an NAIA Division II athletics program.
This concludes our ranking of best value Iowa colleges and universities.
About the Author: Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher. She now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Her work has included articles related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and careers.
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