In the fall of 1927, Paul Engle became a student of Coe College, and the first person in his family to attend college. While at Coe, he developed a writing style that spoke of Iowa and its people. Engle graduated magna cum laude in 1931 with a bachelor's degree in English. The following year, he studied and wrote for a year at the University of Iowa and earned his master’s degree.
In 1932, he won a large fellowship to Columbia University, the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for publication of a first book, and a Rhodes Scholarship. After completing his work as Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Engle was appointed the special lecturer in the school of letters at the University of Iowa in 1937. It was at this time that Engle created and taught in the Writer's Workshop.
Engle directed the workshop from 1943-1966. In 1946, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Coe College. In 1952, Coe awarded him the Alumni Award of Merit.
In 1967, with his wife, Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle, he established the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a program that encourages creative interaction among gifted young writers from around the world. The Engles' work was recognized in 1976 when the 24 members of their International Writing Program from 24 nations submitted their names to the Swedish committee who awards the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978, they were formally recognized with a nomination.
In 1976, Engle became one of the first people to be awarded Coe's highest honor, the Coe Founders' Medal. Two years later, Engle was named the honorary poet laureate of Iowa by resolution of the Iowa House of Representatives. The University of Iowa also honored him as one of 10 recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards. In 1990, he received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.