If any one U.S. state could be given an award for its education system, it might very easily be California. California's public school system in higher education is the envy of its neighbors, and its state schools rank as some of the very best in the nation – and even the world. California has also become home to some of the world's most renowned private universities, from the California Institute of Technology to Stanford. You may also want to check our our ranking of best value online colleges in California.
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It's hard to go wrong by choosing to attend a school in California. The state works to keep public tuition low, so you're practically guaranteed to find an affordable option that meets your budget needs. In fact, in the list below, nearly 65% of the schools offer an annual net price less than $23,000. Of course, all these schools also have plenty to offer in the way of quality academics and stimulating research.
Our Ranking Methodology
Graduation Rate: This indicator refers to the percentage of students who complete their degree within 150% of normal time (six years for a typical four-year degree program). Schools that perform well in this area have a track record of keeping students engaged and successful for their entire time on campus. We weighted this category 30% of the total and retrieved the information from College Navigator.
Net Price: In order to make sure that cost was still a factor in the ranking, we also considered overall net price as an indicator. Taken from data on College Navigator, "net price" is an approximate value that refers to the average amount of money a student could expect to pay each year after taking into account tuition, room and board, living expenses, scholarship awards, and financial aid packages. We weighted this category 25% of the total.
20-Year Net Return on Investment: Taken from information on the website PayScale, this statistic provides a picture of how much students can expect to make after they graduate from a particular college. More specifically, the figure is calculated by taking the average income an alumnus will make over his or her first 20 years after graduation and subtracting the amount paid in tuition. Schools with a high ROI tend to be better at preparing their students for the job market. We weighted this category only 15% because data was not available for all colleges considered.
Acceptance Rate: Academically challenging, popular universities tend to be more selective and thus have a lower acceptance rate. In order to pinpoint those colleges that boast rigorous academics and also receive a large number of applications, we considered acceptance rate – the percentage of students out of the total number of applicants who receive an acceptance letter. We retrieved this information from College Navigator and weighted it 30% of the total.
After adding all the points, we gave each university a final score out of 200. The schools below have scores ranging from nearly 60 to 180, and each has something different to offer in terms of its cost, quality, and reputation. No one college is perfect (which is why the scores vary so much) but this ranking offers you a premier selection of universities to help get you started on your search for an education in California.
20. University of the Pacific
The University of the Pacific reaches across three distinct campuses but concentrates its activities primarily in Stockton, California. Described as one of America's most beautiful places to attend college, U of P features ivy-covered buildings, shady foliage, and manicured hedges, presenting an air of distinction that matches the college's focused academic attitude and commitment to success. And despite being a small liberal arts school, the University of the Pacific has a robust research department and encourages undergraduates to get involved. You can even get funding for your original ideas and present your results at an annual conference the school hosts. Although its name doesn't draw the same attention as schools like Stanford or CalTech, this university is about as selective as they come – its admission rate hovers around 11% from year to year.
19. Soka University of America
Alisa Viejo, California
Earning the distinction of being a "best value" university isn't just about low cost – it's about providing students an exceptional experience for their tuition dollars. Not only is Soka University of America affordable, but it also builds study abroad travel into the cost of tuition, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn about other cultures and expand their worldview. What's more, Soka's incredible financial aid program offers free tuition to any students whose family income falls below $60,000 a year (room and board fees still apply). Further distinguishing itself, SUA operates based on a "nonsectarian curriculum" loosely based on the Buddhist values of peace and human rights.
18. California State University Fullerton
There are plenty of reasons to choose CSU Fullerton for your college education, not the least of which is its commitment to diversity. Students from all backgrounds collaborate in and out of the classroom and enjoy community-building events like Concert Under the Stars, a Motown-inspired night of music that kicks off the school year and sets the tone for future campus-wide activities. When you're ready to get down to business more than 50 different undergraduate academic programs await, including Asian American Studies, Comparative Religion, Environmental Engineering, Military Science, and Radio/TV/Film. And from a financial perspective, the California State University at Fullerton is a steal; yearly tuition is low enough to keep many students debt-free and supports quick success after graduation. In fact, its 20-year net ROI tops $360,000.
17. Pepperdine University
As a Christian University, Pepperdine continually works to put the religious values it upholds to work. The principles of purpose, service, and leadership act as moral guidelines but also as a way to enhance students' academic lives. In addition to being a beautiful place to study, Pepperdine University offers a challenging academic environment with 44 distinct undergraduate majors, from International Business and Advertising to Nutritional Science and Philosophy. The university supplements rigorous classroom study with engaging research programs and extracurricular opportunities. Pepperdine students can attend a seminar at the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture; explore their spiritual side at the Center for Faith and Learning; or develop a plan for a cleaner future through the Center for Sustainability.
16. Pitzer College
Noted as a "hidden gem" among small California colleges, Pitzer is a haven for socially responsible, environmentally conscious, academically engaged students. The college's five core values (social responsibility, environmental sustainability, intercultural understanding, student engagement, and interdisciplinary learning) serve as a foundation for all Pitzer's activities. Whether you choose to major in the arts or sciences, this appreciation for the world around you – and the people living in it – will be paramount. Many students choose to not only embrace this perspective, but also take it with them as they travel the globe; study abroad opportunities are available in Botswana, Japan, Nepal, Italy, Australia, Morocco, and everywhere in between. And as a member of the prestigious group of "Claremont Colleges," Pitzer College is unquestionably selective: its admission rate sits at just 13%.
15. San Diego State University
San Diego, California
"The Aztec Experience" is a unique one, as SDSU encourages students to step outside their comfort zone and create unforgettable college memories. Above all, SDSU distinguishes itself as a center for entrepreneurism and encourages students to turn their passions into prototypes. The Lavin Entrepreneurship Center blends business curriculum with hands-on learning opportunities to help students get their ideas off the ground, while the Zahn Innovation Center acts as a social incubator for entrepreneurial students, providing mentorship and resources for groups who are ready for the next step. Although San Diego State hosts nearly 35,000 students at a time and is one of the oldest institutions in the California system, it isn't open access; the selective college only admits about 34% of its applicants each year.
14. California State University Long Beach
Long Beach, California
At CSU Long Beach, you'll have the opportunity to explore any and every subject under the sun – and Long Beach has plenty of sunshine! The university promotes a love of learning and encourages students to explore science and technology, develop their artistic expression, and cultivate an appreciation of other cultures all at the same time. Majors at Long Beach span from art (including Design, Dance, and Film and Electronics) and Engineering (including Chemical, Computer, and Aerospace concentrations) to the Liberal Arts (such as Comparative World Literature and Peace Studies). CSU Long Beach also participates in the local Ocean Studies Institute, a collaborative of universities that supports research and academic programs related to marine biology and ocean conservation.
13. University of California Davis
UC Davis ranks among the country's top public research universities and has earned a slew of other honors as well. The university's biggest strengths are in agriculture and forestry, earth sciences, and veterinary medicine, and you'll see its name on many of the top resumes circulating Silicon Valley. The surrounding community is friendly and eco-conscious, welcoming new residents who care about the earth and each other. As a student you can attend the Davis Farmers Market, join one of 44 on-campus sororities and fraternities, or hit the trail in one of the country's most bike-friendly cities. The relaxed atmosphere combined with stimulating academics contribute to the university's enviable six-year graduation rate of 83%.
12. Claremont McKenna College
Claremont McKenna College is one of a group of schools known as "The Claremont Colleges," all of which are small, selective liberal arts colleges in Claremont, California. CMC supports a student body of around 1,200 and provides an intellectually stimulating environment for some of the nation's most promising young people. The college features plenty of unique activities on campus, such as the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, a biweekly meeting where students, faculty, and visiting speakers come together to share ideas and socialize in an intellectual environment. In terms of affordability, CMC is leading the charge against rising tuition costs; its "Student Imperative" plan has established a goal to generate $100 million in financial aid and scholarships for incoming students.
11. University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
The University of Southern California shares the city of Los Angeles with a few other top institutions (including the well-respected University of California Los Angeles) but it certainly doesn't fade into the background. On the contrary, USC is at the forefront of research, arts, and development in the surrounding community, from the annual "Trojan Games" event that helps serve local special needs kids to the more than 75 active research centers on campus. The latter category includes the very popular SETI Institute, which supports space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the Game Innovation Lab, which is entirely dedicated to "experimental game design research." If this campus sounds like fun to you, prepare to study hard – USC's yearly acceptance rate is a slim 18%.
10. California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, California
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cal Poly provides easy access to all the best spots on the West Coast. Aside from its prime location, California Polytechnic State University excels in its ability to offer practical education for practical careers. The university earns the highest marks in business, engineering, and architecture, and boasts one of the highest alumni earnings rankings in the country for public schools. More specifically, 97% of Cal Poly grads find employment after graduation and secure an average starting salary north of $50,000. And this trend of financial success is not short-lived: the 20-year net ROI for undergraduates from this school nearly tops $670,000.
9. University of California Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California
The University of California Santa Barbara offers the best of all worlds; from temperate weather and an idyllic campus setting to competitive academics and one of the most successful sports clubs in the country, UCSB is a well-rounded haven for multitalented students. Santa Barbara's academic breadth provides further evidence of its love of diversity, and you can major in Chemical Engineering, Aquatic Biology, History of Public Policy, Japanese, Zoology, or just about anything in between. UCSB also supports an impressive linguistics program (with seven unique emphases) and a gargantuan music department, which offers specializations in more than a dozen different instruments. All this and more contribute to the university's stellar graduation rate (81%) and attractive 20-year ROI of $445,000.
8. Pomona College
Pomona College exemplifies everything that makes liberal arts colleges great – a small student body, intimate classes with attentive professors, and a beautiful campus that makes students want to stick around. Life at Pomona is about "diversity and opportunity," and you'll see avenues to get involved everywhere you look. Students can take ballroom dance lessons, join the "Studio 47" video organization, or enjoy all that the great outdoors have to offer with "On the Loose" adventure club. And since Pomona is one of the five "Claremont Colleges," students benefit from five times the social and networking opportunities without losing their way in the crowd. Students who are lucky enough to gain admittance to PC have their work cut out for them, but it pays off – 93% of undergraduate students secure their diploma in six years or less.
7. University of California Irvine
With nearly 30,000 students, UC Irvine is one of California's largest and most popular academic institutions. Irvine is also one of the country's younger public universities (founded in 1965) but has achieved an impressive amount in such a short time. The university has quickly earned distinctions as one of the most environmentally sustainable college campuses, one of the "best value" schools for its affordability, and its top-rated creative writing and information/computer science programs. But UCI students find plenty of time for fun, too. When they're not busy supporting the "Peter the Anteater" mascot at athletic events, they're helping the university break some pretty creative records; Irvine is in the Guinness Book for hosting the world's largest dodge ball game and the world's largest water blaster fight.
6. Harvey Mudd College
If you haven't heard of Harvey Mudd College, you're missing out. Although it's a small school with a higher-than-average annual net price, it's an ideal choice for students who see education as an investment. The 20-year net ROI for HMC is the highest in the country and stands at an enviable $985,000. Harvey Mudd graduates do so well because the college pushes them to solve problems and think critically rather than just memorize information. The school leans heavily on STEM topics and describes its common core curriculum as a rigorous "academic boot camp" in math and science. Regardless of major, all students take three semesters of math, two and a half semesters of physics, one and a half semesters of chemistry, and one semester of biology, computer science, and engineering – all before even starting their major intensive classes!
5. University of California San Diego
San Diego, California
UC San Diego is another one of California's top state schools, providing a wealth of undergraduate programs to suit every interest. Divisions within the university include the Jacobs School of Engineering, the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The university is also home to one-of-a-kind degree programs like Nano-Engineering, Pharmacological Chemistry, and Music Humanities. Research opportunities are just as diverse, and San Diego is ranked 5th nationally for R&D spending in areas that range from neuroscience to climate change. And whether you choose to pursue graduate study or go straight to industry, UC San Diego is a sound investment – its average 20-year ROI is $625,000.
4. University of California Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
As one of the most popular universities in the country, UCLA has plenty to offer undergrads. It's actually the most applied-to school in the nation, and received more than 90,000 applications last year alone! UCLA fosters a close-knit community of active learners, as more than 95% of students choose to live on campus each year. The university offers more than 100 areas of study, but the most popular degree choices include business (as well as economics and political science) and psychology (as well as biology and psychobiology). Campus life is vibrant and embodies the attitude of surrounding LA; students can get side jobs acting as extras, attend Coachella, road trip up the PCH, and intern with local bigwigs like Sketchers and Boeing. UCLA's ability to combine tough academics with fun extracurricular activities may be why it maintains a graduation rate above 90%.
3. California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is unique, to say the least. Its reputation is immense; it's one of the top-rated universities in the entire world and is nothing short of an innovator in science and engineering. And yet its physical size is small, as there are fewer than 1,000 undergraduate students enrolled and the student-to-faculty ratio is just 3:1. CalTech is about as selective as they come, touting an acceptance rate of just 9% (and 98% of admitted students each year are in the top 10% of their graduating class). That being said, the university does plenty to stay accessible from a financial perspective. In fact, more than half of students receive need-based aid and the average student debt is among the lowest in the nation.
2. University of California Berkeley
The University of California Berkeley stands out amongst state schools – and not just in California. UCB's reputation and resources far outpace the public institutions in most states, particularly when it comes to the teaching faculty. The university's distinguished professors include even Nobel laureates, 77 Fulbright Scholars, four Pulitzer Prize winners, three Fields Medal winners, 32 MacArthur Fellows, 13 National Medal of Science winners, and three A.M. Turing Prize recipients. These professors will challenge you to reach beyond your comfort level in every academic field, and there are plenty! Berkeley's degree options include Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern Civilizations, Chemical Biology, Global Poverty and Practice, Medieval Studies, Planetary Science, and Sustainable Design.
1. Stanford University
It's no surprise that Stanford is the #1 university in California; its academic programs are renowned for their excellence in multiple areas, particularly science, engineering, math, technology, and computer science. Stanford is also at the forefront of research in numerous disciplines and encourages students to get involved early on. The university supports nearly 100 research centers in collaboration with independent labs, such as the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, the PULSE Institute for Ultrafast Energy Science, the Center for the Study of Language and Information, and the Stanford Humanities Center. It's not easy to gain access to this prestigious institution (the acceptance rate is a mere 5%) but the payoff is big – 95% of students graduate on time and the 20-year net ROI exceeds $800,000!