Condition of Higher Education in Iowa

College attainment, readiness, access and success, price, and projections on the condition of higher education in Iowa.

This seventh “Condition of Higher Education in Iowa” report summarizes college attainment, readiness, and success in Iowa. It also examines the actual price of college and how Iowans are financing their postsecondary education.

As expected, the COVID-19 global pandemic created less than desirable effects relative to attainment, readiness, and success. However, Iowa remains one of the national leaders in high school graduation rates and ACT scores. Additionally, Iowa exceeds the national average of citizens with an associate’s degree or higher level of education. Our FAFSA completion rates also stabilized after a period of pandemic-related declines. We hope this indicates that we are on the verge of reversing some of the undesirable effects of COVID-19.

This report also details how the pandemic exacerbated many of the equity gaps that existed before 2020. These significant racial and socioeconomic gaps in the college-going pipeline remain—gaps we must address to meet the state’s education goals.

“Because College Changes Everything” is Iowa College Aid’s motto and it continues to be proven true within this report. The opening chapter details how individuals with a postsecondary education earn higher wages, are more likely to be employed, and pay more in taxes while relying less on social services. 

For these reasons, Iowa College Aid remains committed to making higher education a possibility for every Iowan, and it drives our mission to advocate for and support Iowans as they explore, finance, and complete postsecondary education.

—Mark Wiederspan, Executive Director, Iowa College Aid


College Attainment

  • Iowa has a higher percentage of residents with at least an associate’s degree than the nation at 46% compared to 44% nationally. 
  • This difference is driven by more Iowan earned an associate's degree than the national average.
  • In Iowa, educational attainment of an associate's degree or higher has increased from 42 percent in 2015 to 46 percent in 2020.
  • While Iowa experienced lower unemployment rates than the national average in 2020, the unemployment rate for Iowans with a high school diploma or less was 5%. However, less than 2% of Iowans with a bachelor's degree or higher experienced unemployment. 
  • Iowans with a bachelor's degree out-earned those with an associate's degree by nearly $200,000 by age 64.
  • In addition to relying less on social welfare programs, individuals with postsecondary degrees also contributed more to the tax base in Iowa. Individuals with a high school diploma contributed about $7,800 in taxes annually. Iowans with an advanced postsecondary education contributed nearly $21,000 on average to taxes, almost double that of Iowans graduating with an associate’s degree.

College Readiness

  • In 2018-19, Iowa had the nation’s second-highest high school graduation rate, based on the proportion of ninth-graders who earned a high school diploma within four years.
  • Iowa moved up in rankings for Hispanic students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. However, Iowa dropped in rankings for white, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, and limited English proficiency students.
  • In 2019-20, about 58% of racial/ethnic minority students took standardized tests, and about 62% of white/non-Hispanic students did. Racial/ethnic minority student participation increased by 10 percentage points during this period. In contrast, white/non-Hispanic increased by two percentage points, almost closing the gap between racial/ethnic minority students and white/non-Hispanic students. 
  • The percentage of white students participating in college-level courses during high school increased from 75% to 79%, a four percentage point increase. The proportion of racial/ethnic minority students participating increased from 62% to 69%, a seven percentage point increase.
  • 57% of the class of 2017 filed a FAFSA, whereas 54% of the class of 2021 did, a three percentage point decline.

College Access & Success

  • Between 2014 and 2021, there has been a consistent and steady decline in the percentage of Iowa high school graduates going to college. As the percentage of white students enrolled in college decreased by nine percentage points, racial/ethnic minorities experienced a decrease of 12 percentage points in the state.
  • Students reporting as male and female students both decreased in their likelihood of enrolling in college over the period. Though students reporting as female had a 10 percentage point advantage in going to college over students reporting as males, the gap increased substantially to 15 percentage points from 2012-13 to 2019-20.
  • Between the class of 2012 and 2015, the graduation rate for white and racial/ethnic minority students grew by three and two percentage points, respectively. A 21 percentage point gap exists between white and racial/ethnic minority students in graduation rates.

College Price

  • The net price of college is becoming less of a burden relative to the median income of families in the state.
  • Since 2014, the overall cost of attendance (COA) for community colleges and for-profit institutions has been relatively stable. Meanwhile, the average COA for a private non-profit institution and Regents university grew by nearly $4,000 and $1,600, respectively. This amounts to a respective 8% and 3% increase.
  • The net price of attending a community college in Iowa dropped by nearly $1,200 since 2013-14. At the same time, private non-profits remained relatively stable in net price with an increase of only $64. Regents’ institutions had the highest increase of $1,160, while the net price at a private for-profit institution increased by nearly $600.

Financial Aid

  • The number of Iowans filing FAFSAs has declined from a high point in 2011-12 of about 202,000 FAFSAs to about 145,000 in 2020-21, a decline of 28%. 
  • In FY21, the state spent nearly $80 million on student aid and loan forgiveness programs. The state spent almost $48 million on Iowa’s largest program, the Iowa Tuition Grant Not-for-Profit.
  • While 44% of students at community colleges received  Pell, only 26% of Regents students received the aid. The average community college Pell recipient received nearly $3,600, while the average Regents student received just over $4,200. 
  • While more than 70% of students at private institutions take on Federal student loans, around 50% of students take on Federal student loan debt at community colleges and Regents institutions.
  • Between 2012 and 2019, the per capita college financial debt increased by $840. However, since the fourth quarter of 2019, the per capita debt has decreased slightly by $40 to $5,290 in the fourth quarter of 2020. 


  • More individuals earning postsecondary credentials provides benefits to the state of Iowa through an increase in the tax base, decreases in the reliance on the state’s social welfare system, and creates a workforce that attracts businesses and allows them to grow and thrive.
  • Iowa high school graduates are 10 percentage points less likely to pursue postsecondary education than a decade ago, and their likelihood of completing the FAFSA has also decreased. 
  • The rate at which Iowa high school graduates complete their postsecondary education is not increasing enough to compensate for the loss of students pursuing postsecondary education.
  • With the recent trend of low unemployment and strong demand for labor, it is challenging to increase postsecondary enrollment and completion without significant intervention.