Iowa Board of Regents

Admission at Iowa's Public Universities

Getting into college is often portrayed as a difficult process to navigate, full of guesswork, stacks of forms, and lots of hoping. Images of  high school seniors tearing open college admissions envelopes and yelling “I got in!” abound. These images are particularly pervasive because in many states, this is how applying for college works.

That’s not how it works at Iowa’s public universities.

“With us, students know exactly what they have to do to get in,” said Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the Board of Regents. “They can calculate as they go, and by the beginning of their senior year - lots of times earlier - they’ll know if they’re in or not. At many schools across the country, this is not the case.”

Many schools, even public universities, have a limited number of enrollment spots available for their cohort of applications. Knowing this, the universities then prune their applicant pools to fit whatever admission standard they want to focus on. Maybe one year they want to boost their average ACT score, so only those with very high ACT marks get in. Maybe the next year they focus on grade point average, so only those with very high GPAs make it. Students apply into this system, largely blind to the process, blind to the standards, and blind to the school’s preferred applicant pool.

Then they wait. And wait.

“It could take months at some of these schools,” Pontius said. “So you’ve got kids who put in an application and then go stand by the mail box, or email inbox, worried about if they got in.”

Iowa’s public universities use the Regent Admission Index (RAI), a combination of high school grade point average, standardized test scores and the number of college prep classes taken, to determine enrollment eligibility. Score above 245 and you’re in. No sweating, no guessing. If an Iowa high school student’s RAI score is above 245, all three Regents universities will automatically admit them. 

“A student can apply online and self-report their GPA and test scores,” Pontius said. “The university will let them know, usually within 24 hours, that they’re admitted, pending verification of scores and transcripts. It’s very fast.”

Nearly 94 percent of students at Iowa’s public universities are admitted through automatic admission. The rest - those that didn’t meet the 245 threshold - go through a holistic review process.

“The universities want to admit students who are going to succeed,” Pontius said. “So they’re trying to evaluate extenuating circumstances that lead to those lower RAI scores. Sometimes a student has an illness or a family emergency. Sometimes a student has text anxiety and just doesn’t do well on standardized tests. There are plenty of factors in play.” 

Prior to 2009, the year the RAI took effect, Iowa’s public universities would automatically admit students that ranked in the top half of their high school classes. The first RAI formula used class rank as a factor in admissions, but as fewer and fewer high schools elect not to rank their students, the RAI was reformulated without class rank. Currently there are two RAI formulas - one for schools using class rank and one for those that don’t. In 2020, the RAI formula with class rank will go away entirely.

“The RAI will continue to evolve to best fit the needs of both the universities and the incoming students,” Pontius said. “We’re proud to have such an easy, transparent tool in our admissions system.”

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