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The undergraduate population is the lifeblood of the University and the heart of the college experience. Over 12,000 of the University's 28,000 students are women (42.8%, 2019 data).  Understanding their experience in this part of the University community is vital. 

Key Findings

  • More men enroll; more women graduate
  • Iowa State is predominantly white, but women of color are contributing to increasing diversity
  • Women dominate in Human Sciences, Design, and Agriculture and Life Sciences
  • Women are more likely to graduate with debt
  • Women are more likely to vote

More men enroll; more women graduate

Across all colleges, female undergraduate students graduate at a higher rate than male undergraduates despite more men enrolling at the university. In 2018, female students comprised 42.3% of total enrolled students. This proportion has remained fairly constant in spite of enrollment declines. Iowa State's undergraduate student body is not representative when compared to national data. Nationally, women comprised 56% of the undergraduate student population in 2018.

Graph of gender distribution of undergraduate students at ISU 2010-2018











Iowa State’s four-year graduation rate was 49% for the 2014 entering freshman class and its five-year graduation rate was 71.8%. This compares favorably to the national rates of 41% and 56% respectively.

Iowa State compares favorably to the nation because of the academic successes of its women undergraduates. The four-year graduation rate for women in the 2014 cohort was 60%, compared to 41% for the men or a 19-point gender gap. 

The gender disparity in graduation rates is even more apparent when broken down by race. The only racial/ethnic group where men have a higher five-year graduation rate is among African American students, which has a 14-point gap between men and women. 

Graph of five year graduation rate by race and gender for 2014 undergraduate cohort














Iowa State is predominantly white, but women of color are contributing to increasing diversity 

Iowa State's student body remains predominantly white. In 2010, 80% of the undergraduate student body identified as white compared to 75% in 2018. International students and students of color thus increased from 20% of the student body to 25%.

Graph of gender and race distribution of Iowa State undergraduate students from 2010-2018Much of the increasing diversity of the undergraduate population is due to rising enrollments of women of color. The largest percentage growth was in Hispanic women (48.5% increase), African American women (48% increase), and multi-racial males and Asian women (40.6% increase each).

Women dominate in Human Sciences, Design, and Agriculture and Life Sciences

Women are the majority of undergraduates enrolled in the College of Human Sciences, Design, and Agriculture and Life Sciences. By contrast, women are just 16.3% of the students enrolled in the College of Engineering.

Gender distribution of undergraduate students at ISU by college 2018


Women are more likely to graduate with debt

Women undergraduate students are more likely to graduate with debt than their male classmates, although their debt burden is slightly lower. This mirrors national trends, where women enrolled in public, four-year institutions borrowed an average of $29,611 in 2020.

According to the AAUW, women account for about two-thirds of the nation's outstanding student loan debt, with African American and Hispanic women carrying higher debt burdens than white and Asian women. Because of the gender and race wage gaps and choice of professions, women also take longer to pay off their debt, and for Hispanic and white women, experience a higher likelihood of default. 

Graph of ean debt in USD of ISU undergraduate students by gender


Women are more likely to vote

Since 2012, when data were first analyzed, women students are more likely to vote in national elections than are male students, although the magnitude of this difference varies. The largest gender gap in voting was in 2016, when women’s turnout was 8.2% higher than men’s. The smallest was in 2014, when women’s turnout was only 1.4% higher than men’s. Iowa State’s student voter turnout compares favorably to national voter turnout rates for both men and women.


Create programs to support African American women

Iowa State University has programs to support African American men, who are a high-risk group nationally. These programs are obviously very successful. However, we are concerned about the low five-year graduation rates for African American women. We encourage the University to create similar supportive programs to improve the experiences and graduation rates for African American women.  

Recruit more women

Iowa State University should dedicate itself to recruiting more women students. Women are underrepresented on campus, compared to national enrollment patterns. Moreover, given women’s higher retention and graduation rates, recruiting more women will have a positive impact on these other important measures of student success.  

Emphasize diversity 

We applaud the University’s success in increasing the diversity of its student body, especially in the growth of Hispanic students. There is much room for improvement, both in terms of recruitment and graduation rates. There are significant gender and racial gaps in graduation rates. The University should discover and address the reasons for these differences and address them as an institutional priority.  

Judicious use of scholarship funds

Finally, we recommend that Iowa State use whatever scholarships are at its disposal to target women students, including the expansion of women’s athletic programs and raising more scholarships for majors that attract a disproportionate share of women students. This will not only enhance the University’s efforts to recruit more women, but it will also reduce the median student debt burden held by women graduates.

Written by Karen Kedrowski
Edited by Melissa Miller
Data Curation by Karen Kedrowski and Natalie Clark
Data Analysis and Visualization by Natalie Clark

This analysis is drawn from student data publicly available through Access Plus. The statistical analysis, graphs, and interpretation are those of the authors. We are limited by the University’s use of the gender binary, which does not allow for recognition or analysis of gender-nonconforming students, and its use of the Census Bureau’s racial classifications. Thus we use the terms “Hispanic” and “American Indian” because those are the terms used by the Census Bureau. These data also do not include sexual orientation, understanding that LGBTQIA+ students may have experiences not reflected in this analysis.