Best Online Colleges in Iowa

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According to an NCES report, of the total 363,359 students enrolled in Title IV institutions in Iowa in 2012, 39.7% were enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, making it the third highest percentage of participation in any state. Despite higher education funding being cut 23.8% from ’08-’14 and a 12.2% increase in tuition rates during that same period, Iowa maintains a high graduation rate overall, and one of the lowest student loan default rates of any state in the nation. In 2013, 114,809 students were enrolled in some form of online or distance learning program, reflecting the demand for affordable and flexible alternatives to traditional on-campus education.

Online education in Iowa has been bolstered in recent years by the creation of the Iowa Community College Online Consortium — a 7-college partnership of state schools. Noted as one of the best online colleges in Iowa, the Iowa State University system offers over 30 online programs ranging from degree completion programs to professional and graduate degrees. The Iowa Distance Learning Association (IDLA) offers grants and awards for programs in professional development and holds a bi-yearly Symposium presented by innovators and leaders in the field of distance education. The Iowa Communications Network (ICN) provides access to the Iowa Distance Learning Database, a video conferencing hub.

With these distance learning initiatives in play, it is clear that Iowa has embraced online education as a powerful resource in developing a stable workforce and growing economy. A comprehensive report by the Iowa College Student Aid Commission outlines emerging trends in Iowa’s population, economy and educational system. Recent graduates shoulder some of the highest student loan debt in the country, making affordable online and distance education an appealing alternative to traditional and costly degree programs.

2016 Online Education Trends Report: Learn how online programs are changing the face of higher education.

Rank School Name Ranking Score Relative Cost Graduation Rate Location Description

University of Northern Iowa

 2/563.95%Cedar Falls, IA


With over 13,000 new enrollees each year, Northern Iowa has one of the largest online student bodies in the Midwest. The school offers three different bachelor’s degrees, 14 professional certificates, and over 20 master’s degrees entirely online. Students may earn degrees in a variety of subjects, in everything from a bachelor’s in technology management to a master’s in music management. Distance learners in UNI’s popular master’s of education program can pursue one of eight different concentrations.

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Iowa State University

 2/568.93%Ames, IA


Iowa State offers master’s degrees, certificates, and non-degree programs in the sciences and engineering. The school offers 26 master’s programs in total, in disciplines as diverse as aerospace engineering and community college leadership.

At the heart of ISU’s 26 master’s degrees are its engineering programs and its master of family and consumer sciences degree, the latter of which has five different concentrations: comprehensive, dietetics, family financial planning, gerontology, and youth development. The school also offers engineering master’s degrees in six different subjects.

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Graceland University – Lamoni

 4/554.08%Lamoni, IA


Graceland’s accredited online learning programs are among the most robust in all of the Midwest. GU offers a master’s of education degree in seven different concentrations, including:

  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Literary Instruction
  • Management of the Quality Classroom
  • Special Education
  • Technology Integration
  • Instructional Leadership

Additionally, Graceland also offers a doctor of nursing Practice, five different bachelor’s degrees, and several other master’s programs. Classes are taught asynchronously, and all instruction at this religious school is grounded in Christian teachings.

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Mount Mercy University

 1/571.51%Cedar Rapids, IA


Distance learners at Mount Mercy take classes in an academically rigorous program taught on a flexible schedule. Classes are capped at 25 students, and MMU students find that the attention they get from instructors is committed and personalized. Additionally, the format accommodates the needs of students with professional or familial obligations: classes are taught asynchronously, allowing students to consume lectures at their convenience.

Students may pursue a bachelor’s degree in:

  • Business
  • Human Resource Management
  • Nursing

Courses at MMU are offered in five- and 10-week sessions. Students are allowed to transfer up to 63 credits from a two-year college and 93 credits from a four-year school.

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Buena Vista University

 4/545.79%Storm Lake, IA


Affiliated with the Iowa Community College Online Consortium (ICCOC), Buena Vista University provides community college students the opportunity to pursue their bachelor’s degree entirely online. The school accepts all transfer credits from in-state community college courses.

All bachelor’s degrees offered at BVU are available entirely online; students must pass 35 to 61 credits to graduate. Six of BVU’s bachelor degrees are in education; other majors include criminology, public administration, and trauma advocacy.

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Northwestern College

 4/563.14%Orange City, IA

Widely considered one of the top Christian schools in the nation, Northwestern College offers online master’s of education degrees in four concentrations:

  • Early Childhood Education
  • Early Childhood Education and Endorsement 101
  • Master Teacher
  • Teacher Leadership

The program can be completed in under two years, offering students flexibility and a top-notch education. Courses are eight-weeks long, and during each 16-week semester, students take a total of two classes. Courses are offered asynchronously, allowing students to view lectures at their convenience.

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William Penn University

 4/535.15%Oskaloosa, IA

Aimed at non-traditional students -- working professionals, single parents, part-time enrollees -- William Penn features a flexible online curriculum. The school offers two different degrees: an associate of arts in leadership studies and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. Both degrees can be completed in two-and-a-half years.

William Penn also offers an 18-credit hour program for an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement for professionals looking to obtain an additional accreditation to their Iowa educator’s license.

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Briar Cliff University

 4/546.83%Sioux City, IA

Briar Cliff has a strong online business studies program, offering degrees in accounting, business administration, and operations management. The school also offers online bachelor’s degrees in health sciences, nursing, and social work.

BCU’s unique RN-BSN nursing program works with registered nurses to find participating clinical teachers within their local communities. Most programs at Briar Cliff require students to earn 124 credits to graduate; the school accepts up to 90 transfer credits from previous colleges.

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More About Online Colleges in Iowa

Iowa has recently taken measures to lower costs in distance learning by joining an interstate registration reciprocity agreement with other states. Iowa’s public universities, all of which offer some form of online learning, don’t currently participate in tuition reciprocity programs. For both time and money constraints, as well as residency issues, online postsecondary education can open a lot of doors for students.

The most notable online initiative present in the state today, excluding those limited to individual universities promoting their own programs, would be the Iowa Community College Online Consortium, which serves as a partnership between the seven major, regional community colleges in the state. The consortium allows students enrolled at any of the seven universities to take online courses offered by any other school in the network. In addition, the ICCOC has a collection of professors available to support online students in their distance learning endeavors, as well as a digital repository of the textbooks used online in a given semester.

Browse our list of the best online colleges in Iowa for more insight into distance learning programs in this state.

NCES Report

A recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics made the following conclusions about the state of online education in Iowa as of 2012:

  • 144,223 students were enrolled exclusively in online programs at Iowa’s Title IV institutions, making up nearly 40% of total enrollment at such institutions.
  • Less than 15% of those students were living in Iowa; the remaining 85% resided elsewhere in the U.S. while taking classes.
  • Of the 144,223 students, 83% were in undergraduate programs and just over 85% were in private for-profit institutions.