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At first glance, one might dismiss Iowa as a standard-issue Midwestern State U. But look beyond the endless miles of fields and corn and you’ll find one of the most dynamic schools in the country — and one of the best values to boot.

Iowa is known for breeding stellar nurses, future doctors and, of course, wrestlers. Iowa was the first public university in the 19th century to admit men and women on an equal basis and the first to accept theater, music and the other arts as equal to more traditional areas of academic research. The university has long been a major player in the creative worlds, particularly writing, and its small-town atmosphere is just one of many reasons students nationwide flock to this “budget Ivy League.”

The Old Capitol building is a national historic landmark and the symbol of the university. (Photo: University of Iowa)

The Old Capitol building is a national historic landmark and the symbol of the university. (Photo: University of Iowa)

The 1,880-acre campus is located in the rolling hills of the Iowa River valley. Among the 90 primary buildings is Old Capitol, the first capitol of Iowa, a national historic landmark and the symbol of the university. The primary architectural styles of the campus buildings are Greek Revival and modern. The face of the campus is changing, with a slew of new buildings recently opened and several more on the way. Notable facilities include a 216,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art recreation and wellness center and the College of Public Health Building.

Iowa has a long tradition in creative arts. It was one of the first universities to award graduate degrees for creative work and is also the home of the famed Writers’ Workshop, a two-year graduate program for emerging authors whose graduates have included Jane Smiley and John Irving. The school also prides itself on its International Writing Program.

“The English department is stellar,” raves one English major. “It’s possibly the best in the country—at least for creative writing.”

Iowa’s on-campus hospital is one of the largest teaching hospitals in the United States. Undergraduates benefit from the strong programs in health professions such as physician’s assistant and medical technician. Iowa is also strong in the social and behavioral sciences, space physics, and paleontology. Combined degree programs permit students to earn degrees in liberal arts and their choice of business, engineering, nursing or medicine. The University Honors Program provides special academic, cultural and social opportunities to undergraduates who maintain a cumulative grade point average of 3.3 or higher. Other notable majors include international relations and environmental policy and planning.

Students report the academic climate depends on the program.

“It is competitive in fields such as nursing and the College of Medicine,” says one microbiology major, “but it seems to be laid-back in programs such as communication studies and business.”

Students march in the annual Homecoming Parade celebrating the Hawkeye football powerhouse. (Photo: University of Iowa)

Students march in the annual Homecoming Parade celebrating the Hawkeye football powerhouse. (Photo: University of Iowa)

Each of the three undergraduate colleges has its own general education requirements. Liberal arts students must take courses in rhetoric, natural science, social sciences, foreign language, historical perspectives, humanities and quantitative or formal reasoning. Also required are general education courses in the areas of cultural diversity, foreign civilization and culture, and physical education. Most classes have fewer than 50 students, but “freshmen do tend to spend a majority of their time in large lectures,” says a senior.

The University of Iowa’s Four-Year Graduation Plan guarantees that students who fulfill certain requirements will not have their graduation delayed by unavailability of a needed course. On Iowa! immerses incoming freshmen in the campus culture and introduces them to traditions that will define their Iowa experience.

“I think that the students here are more open minded than at our closest rival,” says a premed student. “I think this is because of the strong artistic and performing culture present here.”

Fifty-seven percent of the undergraduates hail from Iowa, with most of the rest coming from contiguous states, especially Illinois. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans account for 11 percent of the student body, but as the administration points out, the state of Iowa has only a 4 percent minority population. Students say the campus is extremely tolerant and a community atmosphere is fostered in and out of the classroom.

Campus residence halls are very sociable and therefore not very quiet, students say. All are co-ed by floor or wing. Students can choose to live in one of more than 30 “learning communities,” such as women in science and engineering, or performing arts. Ninety-three percent of freshmen live in university housing, but most students move off campus after their first year, often to apartments or houses adjacent to the campus.

The “very nice” dining halls are “set up like food courts, with numerous options for varying ethnic and special taste backgrounds,” says a senior. The student union includes a pastry and coffee shop, two cafeterias, and the State Room Restaurant.

Eleven percent of the men and 15 percent of women belong to fraternities and sororities, and these groups tend to play less of a role in the social life than they do elsewhere. Football, basketball and wrestling events are especially popular on campus. On weekends, students often venture to the downtown area, across the street from campus, which “is built with the college student in mind,” a student says. “There are two university theaters right on campus and many affordable cultural events take place at Hancher Auditorium.”

The school officially follows the state policy regarding alcohol.

“Students disobey the policy,” says a student, “but there are fines and academic ramifications.”

For a change of scene, Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis are all within six hours by car. Riverfest, held at the Iowa Memorial Union and on the banks of the Iowa River, is a weeklong, all-campus event celebrating the long-awaited spring.

“It is a unique tradition that brings the campus and the community together,” says a sophomore.

Students also look forward to the annual Iowa City Jazz Festival, homecoming, Dance Marathon, and Big Ten football, especially the game against Iowa State.

Iowa teams are the Hawkeyes, named after a legendary 19th-century Indian chief, Black Hawk, and the football team is a national power. Recent Big Ten champions include men’s field hockey and women’s basketball. There are more than 30 individual, dual or team sports, and popular intramurals include flag football, volleyball, indoor soccer and darts.

Much more than a campus among the cornfields, Iowa boasts a beautiful university that is ever evolving.

“The University of Iowa is continually renovating and improving its facilities to stay modern and keep up with technology,” says a sophomore.

The scope of its academic programs is broad and social activities abound — especially when it comes to rooting for their Hawkeyes.

(Edward B. Fiske, former Education Editor of The New York Times, is the author of the best-selling “Fiske Guide to Colleges” series.)
 Adapted from “Fiske Guide to Colleges,” c. 2015 FGC Associates, LLC. Used by permission of Sourcebooks. Ebook available at