Higher Education

The term “higher education” means education beyond high school. It can be at a community college, university, seminary, private college or a virtual school. Until the past 100 years, few Americans went to high school, let alone college. Those who wanted to be lawyers, ministers, doctors or teachers went to college. Wealthy families could afford to send their children to colleges, but most families could not. Higher education was not seen as necessary.

Church Supported Colleges

Unlike one-room schools and high schools, most early colleges were sponsored by churches, not the government. One reason churches supported colleges was to prepare ministers. Another was to build character and morality in young people. The founders of those early colleges believed teaching history, literature, science and the arts would give students sound values and a greater respect for religion. Learning different languages, including Greek and Latin, was important. Students were encouraged to read the works of ancient authors in their original languages. Together, these fields of studies are called "the liberal arts". Studying the liberal arts is not the training for a specific profession. Instead, it provides the foundation for learning to think, communicate and evaluate. These skills are useful in all professions as well as in life itself. 

The Methodist Church was an early leader in founding colleges in Iowa. Methodists took over a private school in Mount Pleasant in 1849 and turned it into a Methodist college. It became Iowa Wesleyan University. Early supporters hoped that it could offer many fields of professional training, including law, medicine, the ministry and pharmacy. College leaders, however, decided that they could not provide teachers for so many different fields. In 1912 the school became Iowa Wesleyan College. It focused on teaching the liberal arts instead of professional training.

Before 1900 the Methodist Church would sponsor four more colleges. They were Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Simpson College in Indianola and Morningside College in Sioux City. 

The Catholic Church also established several Iowa colleges. Unlike most other colleges, Catholic schools were for either men or women, but not both. St. Raphael’s Seminary in Dubuque opened in 1839. Its goal was to prepare young men to be priests and to teach high school courses to young men. It soon changed its name to Loras College, in honor of the first Catholic bishop in Iowa. In 1843 Dubuque Catholics opened a college for young women that eventually became Clarke College. In Davenport young Catholic men could attend St. Ambrose College and women attended Marycrest. Briar Cliff College opened for women students in Sioux City. Classes for men were often taught by priests; nuns served as teachers in the female colleges. In the latter half of the 20th century, most schools became coeducational, admitting both men and women.

Presbyterians opened colleges, including Coe in Cedar Rapids and Buena Vista in Storm Lake. Parsons College in Fairfield, started as a Presbyterian school, became independent and later was transitioned into Maharishi University. The school promotes the practice of meditation as a way to achieve personal and world peace. Grinnell College was founded by a group of Congregational ministers who came from New England. They came to Iowa to help bring Christianity to the frontier. The Reorganized Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) founded Graceland College in 1895 in Lamoni. In 2000 it changed its name to Graceland University when it added advanced degree programs in education, nursing and religion. Other churches opened their own schools.

State Universities 

In addition to private colleges, Iowa also has three strong public universities. The University of Iowa at Iowa City held its first classes in 1855. Its first building was the Old Capitol. Before Iowa’s capital moved to Des Moines, the governor’s office, the Supreme Court and the legislature did their work in Iowa City. When they moved to Des Moines, the university took over the old capitol building. In addition to the liberal arts, the University of Iowa provides training for lawyers, doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers and many other professions.

Iowa State University was a different kind of school. It did not stress foreign languages, literature or history. It trained students in practical skills like farming, engineering and home economics. To promote practical learning, the United States government gave each state land for such colleges. These schools were called “land-grant” schools. Its first classes began in 1869 when the school was called the Iowa Agricultural College. Many male students worked on the school’s farms as part of their study. 

With a growing population, Iowa needed teachers for its many schools. More people had come to understand that good teachers needed to take classes in how to become teachers. Classes that teach teachers were called “normal” classes. In the 1870s a new school opened in Cedar Falls called the Iowa State Normal School that specialized in preparing teachers. It later changed its name to Iowa State Teachers College and then became the University of Northern Iowa.

The GI Bill

Until the middle of the 20th century, far fewer students went beyond high school than today. After World War II, however, returning soldiers began taking college work. A big factor was “the GI Bill.” World War II soldiers were called “GI's” because much of their gear came in crates stamped “GI”, an abbreviation for “Government Issued.” The government gave money to soldiers returning from the war to go to college. They had to build more residence halls and classrooms and hire more teachers. College was no longer only for the wealthy. 

Community Colleges

In 1966 a new kind of school opened in Iowa. These were the community colleges. As factories and industries grew in Iowa, there was a need for more trained workers. The community colleges taught courses in how to do the work these new jobs required. They taught courses to train people to become auto mechanics and electricians. Students could learn how to run a hotel or become a gourmet chef or become a dental assistant. They could learn business skills or how to grow flowers and other plants. The state was divided up into 16 districts, each with its own community college. Some colleges taught courses in several communities within the district. 

Students are not the only ones who benefit from colleges and universities. College sports events draw large crowds, and many Iowans are loyal fans of their favorite teams. Many people enjoy the student plays, concerts and art exhibits. Colleges and universities also bring important people to the state to give lectures. College professors do research and publish the results, offering new insights on current issues. University hospitals are an important part of the state’s health system. 

More and more, getting a good job would require a college degree. In 1960 Iowa’s three public universities—the University of Iowa, Iowa State, and the University of Northern Iowa—had a total of 24,000 students. Ten years later, enrollment had climbed to 52,000. By 2014, there were over 80,000 students in these three schools. In 2014, over 93,000 students were enrolled in one of Iowa's community college. That same year over 53,000 students were enrolled in one of the many private colleges and university in Iowa. That brought the total of Iowa college students to 226,000. From small beginnings for a few wealthy people, higher education has grown into a vital part of the life of the state.


Iowa Coordinating Council for Post-High School Education. Iowa College and University Enrollment Report, Fall 2015. Iowa Regents, 2015.