To identify the Best Colleges in Iowa for 2017-2018 we averaged the latest results from the most respected college ranking systems with thousands of real student review scores from around the web to produce a unique College Consensus rating for each school. You won’t find a more comprehensive ranking of the top colleges and universities in Iowa anywhere. Read more about our rankings methodology and sources at our about page.
Colleges & Universities in Iowa
The best colleges in Iowa are built on the qualities that make Iowa’s unique character – deep religious faith, ingenuity and work ethic, and deep ties to the land and community. While most Americans think of agriculture when they think of Iowa – miles and miles of endless corn, especially – in fact, Iowa has a highly diverse economy and a range of industries, many rooted in Iowa’s traditional agriculture. Bioengineering, manufacturing, energy (especially renewable and sustainable energy in the 21st century), and finance are all bedrocks of Iowa’s economy, and Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation (tied for 4th).
Iowa’s higher education system is designed to meet all of Iowa’s unique employment demands. Iowa State University 63 , in particular, is one of the nation’s STEM leaders and a source for scientists, researchers, and engineers. A host of Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges maintain the classical emphasis on the humanities, arts, and sciences, while also setting standards for professions in the modern age, from law and business to computer science and healthcare. Iowa’s top consensus ranked schools are diverse and exceptional, but they have one thing in common – they are all preparing Iowa’s leaders, workers, and educators for excellence.
These are the top Consensus colleges for the Hawkeye State.
A small, private liberal arts college, Grinnell College was founded in 1846 by Congregationalists (like many of America’s most elite institutions, including Harvard and Yale) and maintains a historic affiliation with the United Church of Christ. Grinnell is best known for innovative, exploratory education, and its first benefactor, Josiah Bushnell Grinnell, made the phrase “Go west, young man” a national motto. Grinnell’s combination of self-directed and self-motivated liberal arts education, deep social and community engagement, and reasonable tuition has made Grinnell one of U.S. News & World Report’s top 20 liberal arts colleges in the nation, and a Kiplinger’s best value. A highly diverse student body, and a beloved college town, have helped make Grinnell the “Jewel of the West.”
Grinnell is highly selective and maintains high standards – there are no remedial or even basic courses on the curriculum – and a 9:1 student:faculty ratio means that students get close mentoring from some of the most accomplished scholars in the Midwest. Aside from one freshman general education requirement, the First-Year Tutorial (which prepares students for college-level research, writing, critical thinking, and analysis), students develop their own curriculum with one-on-one advising. Pre-professional and interdisciplinary programs are Grinnell’s claim to fame, with centers such as the Peace Studies Program, the Wilson Program in Enterprise & Leadership, and the Center for Prairie Studies preparing Iowa’s future leaders.
Orange City, IA
Founded in 1882 by Dutch Reformed pioneers, Northwestern College is a small, Christian liberal arts institution in Orange City, IA. Northwestern’s original mission was to provide a Reformed Church education for the settlers of the area, and Northwestern remains committed to its Reformed, evangelical, ecumenical values, continuing its mission of combining the best in liberal arts, sciences, and professional education with religious practice and spiritual growth. Today Northwestern College is recognized by U.S. News & World Report as a top 10 Midwestern regional institution, and has long been named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for its unshakeable commitment to the Orange City community.
Northwestern College’s curriculum is rooted in traditional liberal-arts learning, with the humanities, arts, and sciences forming the foundation for pre-professional and academic programs. As a Reformed Church college, Northwestern puts Christian values at the center of its curriculum as well, emphasizing ethics, service, and community. More than 80 degree programs are available, and a 4-year graduation rate of nearly 90% demonstrates Northwestern’s educational rigor and support. The Northwestern College name is known and trusted throughout Iowa, giving graduates an advantage on the job market and in their careers.
Des Moines, IA
A highly respected, small urban institution in Des Moines, IA, Drake University is recognized throughout the Midwest for its excellent pre-professional and professional degree programs, particularly law and business. Founded in 1881, Drake is named for one of its founders, Civil War General Francis Marion Drake, and though it was originally a Disciples of Christ college, Drake is an independent, innovative secular institution. With a 12:1 student:faculty ratio, a 99% six-month job or graduate school placement rate for graduates, and a highly diverse student body, Drake has been acclaimed as one of the top 5 regional universities in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report.
As an urban university, Drake’s most highly-ranked and respected educational and research programs are in areas best accommodated by the urban setting. Drake’s law school is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the nation, as is its pharmacy school. The College of Business and Public Administration is a leader in the region, and the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication has set standards for generations (Drake’s student newspaper, as a bit of trivia, was also the first to publish the infamous “Paul is Dead” hoax in 1969, though they may not have originated the story). Drake’s graduates are among Iowa’s top professionals, leaders, and educators, a tradition that continues after a century and a half.
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA
A mid-sized regional public institution, the University of Northern Iowa was founded in 1876 as a normal school, the standard for teacher’s education in the era, on the site of a former orphanage for the children of Civil War casualties. Today, UNI is still Iowa’s top institution for teacher education, but has grown into one of the Iowa’s most important public universities and one of the most decorated and respected institutions in the Midwest. The Princeton Review has regularly named UNI as one of the best regional institutions, and UNI is ranked the #2 regional public university in the MIdwest by U.S. News & World Report.
The UNI College of Business is one of the region’s most prestigious, ranked in the top business schools nationally by both the Princeton Review and U.S. News, particularly for their top-notch MBA degree. UNI also has an extensive distance program, offering more than 45 fully online degrees and certificates for more than 2000 students. UNI has been regularly ranked as a best value, both because of its low in-state tuition, and because its online degree programs have no out-of-state charges – UNI charges the same online tuition regardless of location. With affordability and reputation, the University of Northern Iowa is a model of public higher education.
A small, Catholic liberal arts institution, Loras College was founded in 1839, just a few years after the city of Dubuque was incorporated, and even before Iowa was established as a US state. Originally a seminary built to educate young men for the priesthood, Loras has grown with Dubuque and the state of Iowa, responding to the needs of the people and community with programs designed to prepare professional, government, and religious leaders. The college’s academic excellence and service to students and the community have earned recognition in the top 10 regional Midwestern colleges by U.S. News & World Report, and a standing place in the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
As Loras has developed with its city and people, the college has made its name on educational excellence and outreach. With 1600 students and a 12:1 student:faculty ratio, Loras provides students with the best possible mentorship and guidance, and a full 100% of students receive scholarship support and financial aid. Pre-professional programs, from business and education to neuroscience and engineering, prepare students for success, and more than 95% of graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months. Loras is founded on Catholic values, faith, and educational quality, making it an easy pick for the best schools in Iowa.
Founded in 1857, Luther College came about from the needs of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church to prepare new ministers for the growing population of Norwegian immigrants and settlers in the northern Midwest, including Iowa and Wisconsin. Luther shuttled between locations in those states before settling in Decorah, IA. Today, Luther College is a highly respected, small liberal arts institution dedicated to rigorous academic preparation and community engagement. Luther is entirely undergraduate, and has been ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest, and one of the 100 best nationally, by U.S. News & World Report.
Luther College’s curriculum is rooted in the traditional liberal arts, and dedicated to establishing critical, transferable intellectual skills that provide a foundation for any professional career. Degree programs run the gamut from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, to pre-professional programs like pre-law, pre-med, and pre-engineering. Luther is also a highly musical institution; nearly half of Luther students participate in a musical ensemble, including numerous choirs, concert bands, jazz bands, and even three string orchestras. Luther’s annual Christmas concert is broadcast nationally. Generous financial aid and outreach to a diverse student body make Luther College one of Iowa’s top colleges.
Saint Ambrose University
Saint Ambrose University is a small, Catholic liberal arts institution offering extensive undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Founded in 1882, Saint Ambrose was first a business school and seminary for young Catholic men, but gradually grew into a college and university as it added traditional liberal arts, sciences, and professional studies. Today Saint Ambrose is well-known throughout Iowa and the Midwest as a trusted institution, giving students the skills and knowledge they need to take on leadership roles in a wide variety of careers and professions.
As a Catholic, diocesan university, Saint Ambrose puts a deep focus on faith and values, though students need not be Catholic, or even religious, to enroll, and Saint Ambrose is an independent, private university. Saint Ambrose is steeped in the traditional liberal arts, putting academic, scientific, religious, and artistic growth at the center of its curriculum, whether in sciences, humanities, or professional studies. An 11:1 student-faculty ratio ensures students will receive the guidance they need to succeed, and the university’s commitment to service and social justice have given it a major positive impact on the region in and around Davenport, IA, earning Saint Ambrose the right to be called one of Iowa’s best colleges.
Mount Vernon, IA
Founded in 1853, Cornell College is a small, private liberal arts college associated with the United Methodist Church and known for its innovative and experimental spirit. Cornell was the first co-ed college west of the Mississippi, at a time when women’s higher education was a rarity, and today, like many colleges in its class, Cornell’s student body is largely female. Cornell College also has a highly diverse student body, with a quarter of all students identifying as minority, and has not only been named a top national liberal arts college by U.S. News & World Report, and a best value by Kiplinger’s, but has earned the reputation of a College That Changes Lives.
Since 1978 Cornell College has gained national attention as one of the few colleges that operates on a block system; rather than taking multiple classes concurrently during a semester, students take only one intensive, accelerated course at a time, with a new course every three and a half weeks. Cornell’s curriculum is dedicated to the liberal arts values of critical thinking, problem-solving, and applicability, preparing graduates to adapt to professions and jobs that may not even yet exist. The Cornell method obviously shows results, with high accolades and a trusted name throughout the Midwest.
One of the first women’s schools established west of the Mississippi River, Clarke University was founded in 1843 as a Catholic academy by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Clarke was innovative and progressive from its beginning, and by the turn of the 20th century the women’s seminary had grown into a liberal arts college. The first women’s college to offer a computer science degree (in 1964), today Clarke has been recognized by the Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report as a top Midwestern college (#17 in U.S. News), and by Forbes as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the US.
With a heritage of over a century and a half, Clarke University is still renowned for its educational quality, its willingness to experiment, and its commitment to providing the most up-to-date education rooted in Catholic tradition and the classical liberal arts. Clarke’s student body comes from across the Midwest, drawn to highly-ranked programs in areas like business, nursing, and social work, and graduates find the Clarke reputation useful – 97% of graduates have a job or placement in a graduate school within six months, and some programs earn 100% placement. The Clarke name is close to a sure thing on the Midwestern job market.
Iowa State University
Iowa’s flagship public research institution, Iowa State University was founded in 1858, even before the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed in 1862, but became the first land-grant university in the nation when Iowa jumped at the opportunity. The terms of the land-grant required states to open colleges dedicated to agriculture and the mechanical arts and sciences, planting the seeds for modern engineering, bioengineering, and other practical, applied sciences, and Iowa State made its reputation over more than 150 years as one of the Midwest’s STEM, professional, and academic leaders.
Designated an R1 research university by the Carnegie Classification, and named a national Innovation and Economic Prosperity university by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Iowa State is known for its copious research, academic excellence, and deep commitment to the people, culture, and land of Iowa. U.S. News & World Report ranks ISU’s agricultural engineering program the best in the nation, with other engineering specializations ranked in the top 25. Landscaping and architecture are ranked in the top 10 as well, and, beyond the sciences, the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication is one of the nation’s leading programs. Iowa State defines the public research university, and in every way Iowa, and the US, are the richer for it.