If you're thinking about a new career, don't overlook Iowa's vocational training schools. The Iowa Area Development Group lists renewable energy, advanced manufacturing and agriculture and food production among the state's target industries, and all three of those fields offer great opportunities for students with training from career and technical schools in Iowa.
Specific cities and regions within the state tend to have their own high-demand industries, as well. The Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance reports that workers with training in biotechnology, engineering and automation or educational technology should find plenty of opportunity in the Cedar Rapids area, for example, and registered nurses in the area around Council Bluffs earned about $6,600 more per year than the statewide average in 2018.
Why is Iowa Good for Vocational And Career Schools?
The U.S. shortage of skilled workers can no longer be ignored, and career technical education (CTE) is getting attention nationwide for its ability to close the skills gap. Earning a CTE certification in Iowa doesn't just prepare you for some of the top skilled labor jobs in the state, it can also help you get your career on track faster than a traditional bachelor's degree.
University degrees tend to take at least four years of full-time study to finish, while most certificates from campus-based and online trade schools in Iowa can be completed in a year or less. Even an associate degree, the most advanced level of CTE certification in Iowa, can be earned in just two years if you study full time.
We've got more information about trade schools and vocational training on this page, including some detail on the top two-year institutions in the state and a few valuable tips on how to apply for financial aid in Iowa. Read on to learn more about how the best trade and vocational schools in Iowa can help you take your career to the next level.
Highest-Paying and Fastest-Growing Careers
The Best Trade and Vocational Schools in Iowa
We gathered a mountain of student-focused data in categories like tuition affordability, schedule flexibility and the career success of graduates, then analyzed it to rank each institution from the top down. Let's take a look at the best trade and vocational schools in Iowa:
Graduate success on the job market is an important metric for trade school students, and Northwest Iowa Community College made an outstanding showing in that regard. Former NWICC students earned an average yearly salary of around $48,000 after spending ten years on the workforce, a figure high enough to make it not just the top Iowa school for graduate earnings but also qualify it for a spot in the nationwide top ten in that category.
What vocational programs NWICC offers: Two programs are available here for aspiring mechanics: one for automotive and light duty diesel technology and one that focuses on heavy machinery for construction and agriculture. An industrial and commercial wiring program can teach you the finer points of electricity in residential, commercial and motor control systems.
Students looking for online trade schools in Iowa should take a second look at this Mason City institution. North Iowa Area Community College reported that two out of three students took at least some of their credits in the virtual classroom in 2018, giving it the highest percentage of distance education enrollment among all career and technical schools in the state.
What vocational programs NIACC offers: The list of fully online programs at NIACC includes several options for business students, including an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in accounting and a certificate plan that covers the foundations of business. An online degree in sport management can prepare you for a career as an athletic trainer, athletic director, sporting event manager or arena supervisor.
One high-level measure of college cost is the average net price per student, which subtracts a school's average amount of grant and scholarship aid from the estimated cost of tuition, fees, books, supplies, food, housing and other necessities of student life. Southwestern Community College posted the third-most affordable average net price in the state, with students paying less than $8,300 for a year of study.
What vocational programs SWCC offers: The catalog of A.A.S. degrees available at SWCC includes agricultural subjects like crop production and livestock production alongside high-tech study plans in electrical technology and information technology (IT) systems networking. Creative students can enroll in the specialized Associate of Applied Arts (A.A.A.) program in professional music through the college's School for Music Vocations.
Western Iowa Tech Community College has one of the more diverse vocational catalogs in Iowa, offering a total of more than 100 career-focused programs for students to choose from. This institution of roughly 5,600 students also offers a comfortably mid-sized campus environment, providing enough fellow learners to give you an ample selection of study partners without being so packed that you feel like just another face in the crowd.
What vocational programs WITCC offers: Students hoping to go into construction have a wide range of diplomas and certificates to choose from at this Sioux City institution. Certificates are available in drywall, carpentry, concrete specialties and wall framing and roofing, among others, and more comprehensive study plans cover subjects like plumbing systems and industrial drafting.
This smallish institution in southeastern Iowa offers a solid combination of affordable attendance costs and flexible scheduling options. Students at Indian Hills Community College paid the lowest average net price of any school that made our top ten, and the 44 percent distance education enrollment rate suggests that students should be able to take general education credits and other common courses online.
What vocational programs IHCC offers: If you've always wanted to learn how to fly, IHCC offers an FAA-approved pilot training program that features advanced visual and full-motion simulation experiences of several different types of aircraft. An 18-month A.A.S. program in geospatial technology can train you to analyze data from satellite images, ground-based remote sensing readouts, geographic information systems (GIS) and other sources.
Giving students the guidance they need to successfully reach the end of their training programs is one of the most important responsibilities a college has, and the numbers show that Iowa Lakes Community College takes that responsibility seriously. The graduation rate here was the second-highest among all career and technical schools in Iowa. ILCC also reported online enrollment of more than 37 percent, which may contribute to its high rate of student success.
What vocational programs ILCC offers: A diverse array of programs are available here, from an A.A.S. in game design and development to a diploma in welding technology. An online associate degree in paralegal/legal studies can prepare you for a law career, and a photography diploma can help train your artistic eye.
It's often said that a trade school education can help you land a stable job, and the data for Northeast Iowa Community College seem to bear that out. Nearly 91 percent of students who finished their training programs at NICC remained employed for at least six years after earning their degree or certificate — a percentage that placed it in the 95th percentile nationally.
What vocational programs NICC offers: More than a dozen health care programs are offered here, including diplomas in medical assisting, practical nursing, surgical technology and more and A.A.S. plans in respiratory care, radiologic technology, health information technology (HIT) and nursing. Aspiring business owners can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship fully online.
It may not be easy to keep students engaged from year to year, but the data for the three campuses of Eastern Iowa Community Colleges suggest that the students who enroll tend to stay on track after completing their first year of study. Just one other school in our top ten and a total of two other schools in the state reported a higher rate of first-year student retention than this Mississippi River institution.
What vocational programs EICC offers: The associate degree in renewable energy systems at EICC can train you for one of the thousands of emerging jobs in solar and wind power. Students hoping to design and develop next-generation apps and games can learn the finer points of augmented and virtual reality in a high-tech A.A.S. program.
It's located in the largest city in Iowa by a wide margin, so it makes sense that Des Moines Area Community College welcomes the state's largest student body — more than 23,000 learners — into its halls each semester. Students who like the idea of studying on a busy, bustling college campus might thrive at DMACC, where the average class size is kept under 20 despite the large student body.
What vocational programs DMACC offers: If plants are your passion, DMACC offers six different horticultural programs that can help you find a career doing what you love. Certificates are available in arboriculture, turf, landscaping and greenhouse production, as well as an A.A.S. plan in plant production and a combined turf and landscape associate degree.
Just one other school on our list reported a higher average salary among longtime graduates than Kirkwood Community College, where alumni with ten years' experience in the workforce averaged roughly $38,000 per year in 2018. It also put up strong numbers in terms of former students' career stability, reporting that more than 89 percent of graduates find work and remain employed for at least six years.
What vocational programs KCC offers: Subjects of study here run the gamut from computer science concepts like mobile app development and network and system administration to a 26-credit certificate in small-scale food production for regional farmers. An associate degree in Web technologies can give you a strong foundation in the fundamentals of design and development for the Web.
How to Apply for Trade School Financial Aid in Iowa
Financial aid is understood as a regular part of college life for university students, but it may not be so widely known that trade and vocational schools also offer opportunities for students to get some help with the cost of college. If you're hoping to find some assistance with tuition and other expenses, the first thing you'll want to do is fill out your FAFSA.
Known formally as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA is a keystone document in the student aid application process. With just a few pieces of information about you, such as your student status and expected income, the FAFSA can help aid agencies determine if you're eligible for helpful federal programs like Stafford Loans or the Pell Grant.
A completed FAFSA is also usually included in the application packet for other Iowa grants and scholarships, so don't skip it even if you're not seeking federal aid. Learn more about the FAFSA and get some bonus tips on how to apply for financial aid in Iowa in the financial aid guide on this site.
Check out these state-based Iowa scholarships and grants that might be able to help you pay for school:
- Iowa Vocational-Technical Tuition Grant - Available exclusively to trade and vocational students in Iowa, this grant can provide up to $900 per year for two years if you study full time.
- Iowa Skilled Workforce Shortage Tuition Grant (Kibbie Grant) - Iowa residents in certain community college CTE programs can apply for this program, which awards an amount equal to half of the average Iowa community college tuition.
- Iowa Tuition Grant - Students at private colleges or trade schools in Iowa have access to this award, which provides a variable amount of tuition assistance that's based on the statewide average rate.
Resources for Vocational Students and Vocational Job Seekers in Iowa
- For information about the public two-year schools in Iowa, check out the Iowa Community Colleges page at the Iowa Department of Education.
- Students looking for detailed info about Iowa scholarships and grants, including helpful tips for students and families, can visit the user-friendly site of the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.
- It's important to make sure your school is accredited, especially if you're planning to work in a regulated industry or want to continue your education in the future. The Higher Learning Commission accredits public community colleges and trade schools in Iowa, while private institutions are typically accredited by national agencies like the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
There are also some hard statistics about CTE certification in Iowa on Advance CTE, and the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) offers detailed info, news and explanations of vocational training concepts at the state and national levels.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
We ranked the resulting colleges on the following criteria:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Mean annual earnings for students working 10 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Targeted Industry Business Areas, Iowa Area Development Group, accessed November 19, 2019, https://www.iadg.com/iowa-advantages/target-industries/
- Key Industries, ICR Iowa, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, accessed November 19, 2019, https://www.icriowa.org/companies/key-industries/
- Registered Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed November 19, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm
- Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by control and level of institution and state or jurisidiction: 2016-17 and 2017-18, Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 19, 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_330.20.asp
- Iowa, College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 19, 2019, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=IA&ct=1&ic=2
- Iowa, Advance CTE, accessed November 19, 2019, https://careertech.org/Iowa
- School pages, accessed November 19, 2019: Industrial and Commercial Wiring, Northwest Iowa Community College, https://nwicc.edu/academics/programs-of-study/industrial-commercial-wiring/; Diesel Technology, Northwest Iowa Community College, https://nwicc.edu/academics/programs-of-study/diesel-technology/; Automotive and Light Duty Diesel Technology, Northwest Iowa Community College, https://nwicc.edu/academics/programs-of-study/diesel-technology/; Online Classes, North Iowa Area Community College, https://www.niacc.edu/academics/online-courses/#OnlineDegrees; Sport Management, A.A.S., North Iowa Area Community College, http://catalog.niacc.edu/preview_program.php?catoid=7&poid=1139; Degree Options, Southwestern Community College, https://www.swcciowa.edu/academics/degree-options#cte; Professional Music, Southwestern Community College, https://www.swcciowa.edu/academics/areas-of-study/professional-music; Academic Programs at WITCC, Western Iowa Tech Community College, https://www.witcc.edu/programs/; Geospatial Technology, Indian Hills Community College, http://www.indianhills.edu/academics/tech/geospatial.php; Aviation Pilot Training, Indian Hills Community College, http://www.indianhills.edu/academics/tech/aviation_pilot.php; Career and Technical Education Programs of Study, Iowa Lakes Community College, https://www.iowalakes.edu/academic-programs/programs-of-study/; Health Sciences, Northeast Iowa Community College, https://www.nicc.edu/academics/programs-by-career/health-sciences/; Online and Blended Learning, Northeast Iowa Community College, https://www.nicc.edu/academics/online/; About, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, https://eicc.edu/about-eicc/; Augmented and Virtual Reality, Associate in Applied Science Degree, Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, https://eicc.edu/future-students/our-programs/ar-vr/; Des Moines Area Community College, https://www.dmacc.edu/Pages/welcome.aspx; Programs by Location, Des Moines Area Community College, https://www.dmacc.edu/admissions/Pages/checklist.aspx; Programs, Kirkwood Community College, https://www.kirkwood.edu/programs; Business and Information Technology, Kirkwood Community College, http://www.kirkwood.edu/webtechnologies; Agricultural Sciences, Kirkwood Community College, http://www.kirkwood.edu/productionmanagement; Accreditation, Northeast Iowa Community College, https://www.nicc.edu/about/accreditation/; About Us, Hamilton Technical College, http://hamiltontechcollege.edu/about-us;
- Iowa College Student Aid Commission, accessed November 19, 2019: About, https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/About; Iowa Vocational-Technical Tuition Grant, https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/IowaVocational-TechnicalTuitionGrant; Iowa Tuition Grant, https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/IowaTuitionGrant; Kibbie Grant (Iowa Skilled Workforce Shortage Tuition Grant), https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/KibbieGrant;