What Are the Strengths of Iowa Colleges?

Most kids seeking a college will tend to stay fairly close to home. Yet even in Iowa that means families may have to choose between 5-10 good options for their high school senior. Standard wisdom holds that you should look at three factors of “fit” as you decide where to send your student:

  1. Social fit—does your child like the campus, where he/she will be living, extracurricular activities like sports and drama, Greek life options? You’ll gauge this during the campus visit and by visiting with current students.
  2. Financial fit—we deal with the financial aspects of college a lot on this blog, but essentially this is determining if the financial package from the school makes sense in the long run, with not too much debt. You figure out your financial fit in advance, not after you get the first tuition bill.
  3. Academic fit—does the school have the right departments and courses for your child’s interests? Will they support any special learning needs? Is the school strong in the areas your child is interested in? The rest of this post deals with academic fit.


Why does academic fit matter?


Transfers out—over a third of students will transfer to a different institution from where they started, according a recent study. Transfers cost time, money, and emotional energy. As part of the overall “fit” equation, it’s important that you as a family are clear about how well the college you pick meets your academic needs.

Academic success—let’s face it, there’s a lot of cultural baggage around the college experience. Attending football games in the fall, going to parties, meeting new friends and maybe future spouses—it’s all part of the college enchilada. But, there needs to be one primary purpose for college in your search criteria: how well does it enable your student to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to live a successful, meaningful life (and yes, that often means getting a good job, but there’s more to it than that). Too many kids go to college, and usually what we mean by that is that too many kids do not put in the effort necessary to receive good academic training. How you select the college for academic fit makes a difference!


What does this have to do with college strengths?


Colleges and universities are not created equally. They have unique offerings for their students, especially in their academic departments. A department is a collection of faculty (professors) organized around a subject of learning, like History, English, or Engineering. The Art department at the University of Iowa is not like the Art department at Drake University. They have unique faculty strengths that extend to the emphasis those schools put on the major. Your student will receive a different education depending on the faculty at those institutions.

So, this post is about how to find the academic strengths of the Iowa colleges and universities around you. You’ll need a method for reviewing the colleges your child is interested in, and you need to know what things you don’t want to get caught up in during the process.


Don’t spend much time on these college “strengths”


Let’s first address what things you shouldn’t look at in the process or that you can ignore. That’s because these items are either “table stakes” (every college must have them to play in the big leagues) or they’re really hard to make unique to a school.

  • Honors programs—these are geared towards academically-gifted students and are intended to provide more challenging coursework with select faculty. They’re a great idea (especially for students at big universities like Iowa State), but they’re not unique, almost every college has this kind of program. Still, if your student is exceptionally smart, make sure you ask about the potential college’s Honors program.
  • Having 30, 40, or 50+ majors and minors—this tells you nothing about the academic quality of the department your student is interested in. In fact, at a smaller liberal arts college, this can be a sign of the school spreading itself too thin and not focusing on particular educational strengths. And at a big university like the University of Iowa or Iowa State, they will of course have this many majors available. Don’t give it much thought.
  • Having a Masters or Ph.D program—for smaller schools (not ISU, UNI, or UI), having post-graduate degrees like a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) or Ph.D in Nursing usually tells you little about the quality of the undergrad department. That’s because, unlike at ISU, UNI, or UI, the focus of those grad programs is to lure in community members who can pay for an advanced degree. A small liberal arts college is not in the business of doing research, so the graduate programs have to be money-generators for the school. That’s fine, but you are looking for a strong academic program for your undergrad child. Don’t be confused by this water-muddying tactic some schools use.


How to find the academic strengths of colleges


The method boils down to three steps:

  1. Assess which departments you’re looking for—if your child hasn’t done an interest assessment in high school, do it NOW. You want 3-4 departments to narrow in on, and it’s okay if they’re a wacky combination like math, pre-law, and German. Your child does NOT have to pick a major before starting college, but it’s a big red flag if s/he has no idea what they want to study when they get to school.
  2. Do a first research pass on the website—departmental sites are a treasure trove of information on courses, faculty, current students in the majors, and alumni. Because these sites are designed to sell to prospective families, note the accolades they mention and compare these across schools. Every school will say its English writing department is good, but is it the Iowa Writers’ Workshop-level good? Nope, but you’ll get a feel for that as you compare department sites.
  3. Meet the department— whether on the campus visit, or via phone and email, make sure your student meets faculty and current students in the major. This is no time to be shy! Connecting with the students and faculty at the prospective school is the BEST way to figure out if this is the right academic fit for your student.


Examples of Iowa schools with unique academic strengths


There are a lot of good Iowa schools, and your situation and interests are unique. However, I want to provide a couple examples of colleges in Iowa with particular strengths, and I think you’ll see the method I describe above in action (at least for items #1 and #2).


Coe College – Physics

Coe has an amazing reputation for its size in the world of physics. You’ll note faculty accomplishments and special student opportunities available.


University of Northern Iowa – Teaching

Large, diverse universities like UNI also have specialties, even though they do many things well. One thing UNI is outstanding at is its teacher education program.


Luther College – Study Abroad

This is not a department per se, but rather a focus of the college. Luther is the top school in Iowa sending its students abroad in a variety of programs, and clearly if your student is interested in this type of experience, Luther is one to consider.


Mount Mercy – Nursing

To prove the rule above, even though Mt Mercy does graduate programs in Nursing, it has a strong reputation for its undergrad degree.


Finding the right college comes down to getting the right “fit”, and academic fit is a crucial component. By determining what your student is interested in studying, and then analyzing the strengths of prospective schools, you’ll go a long way towards ensuring an awesome college education!


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