Each school was scored on a 100-point scale using the most recent data available from government sources and based on metrics such as tuition and fees, number of degrees and certificates offered, flexibility, student services, and rates of student graduation, retention and transfer.
Here are the colleges and universities that stood out in the statewide study:
1. Iowa State University
Our No. 1 school isn't just the best four-year college in Iowa — it's one of the top universities in the country by the numbers. Iowa State University ranked an impressive No. 11 out of the 1,646 nationwide schools we surveyed for this analysis, thanks to placements near the top in a wide range of our metrics.
For starters, ISU students paid the lowest tuition and fees costs in the state in 2015-16. Iowa State also reported the state's largest number of degree programs available entirely through distance education and took the No. 2 spot in the state for the size of its on-campus degree catalog. Students at ISU received Iowa's second-highest proportion of institutional grant aid. In terms of graduating students, Iowa State posted the No. 2 graduation rate among the schools that made our top ten.
2. University of Iowa
Founded less than two months after Iowa became a U.S. state in 1846, this Iowa City institution was the first university in the Hawkeye State. It took the No. 1 spot in the state for its variety of on-campus degree programs, offering more than 380 study plans in 2015-16. It also posted a graduation rate that ranked No. 4 statewide, and its retention rate for first-year students came in at No. 3 among schools on our list.
Just three other schools on our list reported higher online enrollment than UI, and students seeking an online bachelor's degree in Iowa can choose from a list of nine programs in business, political science, health care and more. On top of all that, UI placed first in the state and in the 98th percentile nationally for the proportion of institutional grant aid it awards to its students.
3. University of Northern Iowa
The University of Northern Iowa took the No. 2 spot in the state for its affordable tuition and fees costs in 2015-16. No other school on our list reported a lower median student debt for its graduates. The selection of degree programs available on campus at the Cedar Falls school ranked No. 3 in the state, and its graduation rate placed it third in that category among our top ten schools.
UNI also stood out as one of the best online colleges for Iowa students, particularly for those interested in education, technology and civil service professions. It came in at No. 4 statewide for the size of its online degree catalog, Students can choose among more than 350 individual courses available through the "UNI at a Distance" eLearning program.
4. Briar Cliff University
This private institution in Sioux City was another of the best online colleges for Iowa students, ranking No. 5 on our list for its number of distance education programs and No. 4 among our top ten for its online course enrollment rate. The student-to-faculty ratio at this Franciscan Catholic university was 12:1 in 2016, which suggests that students are likely to have access to individualized attention from professors and staff.
Briar Cliff also presented a favorable profile of financial aid statistics, offering our list's sixth-highest amount of institutional grant aid and a median graduate debt figure among the five most manageable in our top ten. Graduates reported being able to repay their student loans within three years at the third-highest rate among schools that made our list.
5. Grand View University
Students at Grand View University were charged the state's lowest average total cost for books and supplies in 2015-16, according to the NCES. Affordability of tuition and fees placed at No. 6 statewide, and median graduate debt was the fourth-lowest among schools in our top ten.
The Des Moines school also fared well in the category of average net price, a comprehensive college cost measure that subtracts expected grant and scholarship aid from the total average cost of necessary expenses like tuition, fees and housing. Grand View ranked No. 5 in the state for the average net price charged to middle-income students, while those in the lower income bracket paid the state's No. 9 out-of-pocket total.
6. Mount Mercy University
Our No. 6 school was a top destination for low-income students, placing at No. 5 in the state in average net price for those with the greatest financial need. It also posted a median student debt figure for its graduates that ranked No. 7 in the state and No. 3 among schools on our list.
Students who require on-campus flexibility programs, such as adult learners returning to school and others in non-traditional circumstances, had access to eight out of the ten flexibility metrics included in our analysis. Whole degree programs were available to students who only want to attend classes in the evening or on weekends, for example, and incoming students had the option to use the accumulated knowledge of their life experience to test out of certain credit courses.
7. Graceland University - Lamoni
This medium-small liberal arts institution was founded over 100 years ago and takes an innovative approach to the college experience. For starters, the campus foregoes the traditional Greek Life model for a system of "houses" into which residential students are sorted at the beginning of their enrollment. What's more, while Graceland is sponsored by the Community of Christ, it equally welcomes students of all backgrounds and faiths.
Graceland had the rare distinction of being one of the best-attended online colleges in Iowa and the whole nation, posting a distance education enrollment rate that topped the state rankings and placed at No. 16 out of all 1,646 schools we studied. Nearly 99.5 percent of students at Graceland take at least some of their courses online.
8. Maharishi University of Management
Maharishi University of Management is a consciousness-based institution that promotes the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique pioneered by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 20th century. Tuition is affordable here, ranking No. 8 in the state in that category. Only two other schools on our list offered a higher proportion of institutional grant aid than this Fairfield school.
The student body at MUM comprises primarily graduate students — roughly 78 percent in 2016, according to the school's website — but several undergraduate programs are available as well. It's also one of the top online colleges for Iowa students, ranking No. 3 in the state for its percentage of students enrolled in distance education courses.
9. Northwestern College
This small school in Orange City works to help its students stick with their education plans throughout the series of challenges that crop up in college life. Northwestern College posted a first-year student retention rate that ranked No. 5 in the state, and its graduation rate was high enough to take the No. 5 spot among the schools in our top ten.
NWC alumni also have reported considerable success in managing their student debt after finishing their degrees. Only one other school in Iowa saw its graduates have more success in paying off their loans within three years after graduation, and that's not all — just 25 schools in the whole country earned a higher rank than Northwestern in that category.
10. Loras College
Loras College is a Catholic diocesan college that works to educate its students in a way that allows them to serve both the goals of their faith and the needs of the world they live in. The Dubuque school's website indicates that 100 percent of the student body receives some form of financial aid, and the average percentage of tuition covered by institutional grants ranked No. 7 in the state.
Engaging the student body is an important part of the mission at Loras. The student-faculty ratio was a comfortable 12:1 in 2016, and the numbers show that students tend to stay the course once they're enrolled. Loras ranked No. 8 in the state in first-year student retention rate, and its graduation rate was higher than all other schools on our list but two.