The Best College Towns in California

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on November 10, 2021

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Breathtaking beaches, towering redwood forests, and stunning mountains make California one of the most naturally beautiful states. And California's thriving cities, trend-setting cultural institutions, and booming industries make it a great place to live. The Golden State also ranks among the best places to attend college, and going to college in California can pay off.

If you aren't looking for a big-city feel, consider the many smaller college towns in California. Unlike many New England or Midwestern college towns, California offers college students many vibrant, sunny settings. The following list ranks the best college towns in California.

12 Best College Towns in California

What counts as a college town? For this ranking, we left out California's major cities and focused on smaller locations — typically located within walking distance of a nearby campus. Then we looked at factors like walkability, affordability, employment opportunities, and student-centered attractions to rank the best college towns in California. Note that the population numbers included in this ranking are based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates from July 2019.

Davis

UC Davis calls its home "California's college town." And the city grew up around the university, which today educates 38,000 students each year. Located about 11 miles west of Sacramento and 70 miles outside San Francisco, downtown Davis welcomes college students to cafes, restaurants, and shops.

The city's farmers market brings in 10,000 visitors a week, and 60 miles of bike trails and a sky-high 98% bike-friendly road rating makes Davis a biker's paradise. The city's many other attractions, including museums, an arcade, and an arboretum, build a community that bridges the town and university. As a result, Davis tops our list of the best college towns in California.

San Luis Obispo

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the central coast — halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles — San Luis Obispo offers rolling hills, sunny skies, and a top-ranked research university. Cal Poly, part of the state's public university system, welcomes nearly 22,000 students to its sprawling 9,000-acre campus each year.

San Luis Obispo offers a pedestrian-friendly downtown area and a historic district. Students flood downtown for live entertainment and street food. By making a short drive south of campus, Cal Poly students can visit dozens of wineries. Additionally, in the heart of town, the museum of art welcomes students with free admission.

Cal Poly provides many learning opportunities in its cutting-edge laboratories, as well as outdoors San Luis Obispo's coastal ecosystem. Students can also study winemaking and agriculture in the volcanic hills surrounding the city.

Pasadena

Home to the Rose Bowl and Caltech, Pasadena offers a small-town feel near the heart of Los Angeles.

As a top-ranked research university, Caltech might boast more Nobel Prizes per acre than any other campus. Despite a small campus that takes up just 124 acres, 45 Caltech alumni and faculty have won Nobel Prizes. With around 2,000 students and 3,000 employees, Caltech has an outsized impact on Pasadena. This is due, in part, to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which brings another 6,500 scientists to campus.

Caltech students can take a short trip from campus to visit the nearby Huntington Library and Gardens, the Pasadena Playhouse, or the Pacific Asia Museum. Pasadena is also home to world-class shopping, Michelin star restaurants, and a renowned symphony.

Arcata

The small town of Arcata on the northern California coast sits on a rugged stretch of the Pacific Ocean. The sheltered Humboldt Bay offers a marsh and wildlife refuge, while the Arcata farmers market showcases local produce.

Arcata is also home to Humboldt State. Students who visit the Plaza can browse local bookstores, sip coffee at cafes, and shop at boutiques. The Plaza also outfits students with recreational equipment or caters to their fashion needs.

With nearly 6,000 students, Humboldt State educates learners from its campus surrounded by redwood forests and beaches. The public college dates back to the early 20th century and reports some of the lowest tuition rates among four-year institutions in California. Arcata also benefits from a significantly lower cost of living than many areas in the state.

Berkeley

Culture and college meet in Berkeley. A vibrant city with views of San Francisco across the bay, Berkeley is home to UC Berkeley — the oldest University of California campus. With over 35,000 students, UC Berkeley transforms the city.

Called the quintessential college town by students, Berkeley has a dense downtown community around University Avenue with unique restaurants, quirky shops, and public transit access.

The Berkeley Hills offer stunning views of the Bay Area from trails. Students can visit the Botanical Gardens for free, climb the rocks near Grizzly Peak, and check out Berkeley's museums, theaters, and libraries.

Berkeley boasts a high 83% walk score and an impressive 82% bike score. And nearby Oakland, San Francisco, Monterey Bay, and Napa Valley offer escapes from campus.

Santa Barbara

Famed for its Mediterranean climate and known as the "American Riviera," Santa Barbara offers more than fantastic weather. The coastal city also boasts Spanish Colonial architecture, world-famous wineries, and beaches steps from downtown and the campus of UC Santa Barbara.

UC Santa Barbara educates about 26,000 college students each year. The nearby Mission Santa Barbara, which features a double bell tower and sprawling gardens, brings 18th-century history to the community. The Santa Ynez Mountains offer a scenic backdrop for the city while also providing outdoor recreational opportunities. And the campus itself is home to rugged beaches, nature reserves, and surf breaks. With tidepools to explore and monarch butterfly habitats to visit, Santa Barbara is a thriving college town in a picturesque location.

San Marcos

A relatively new college town in California, San Marcos welcomed CSUSM to town in 1989. Located 35 miles north of San Diego, San Marcos is home to over 16,000 college students.

CSUSM's 304-acre campus sits on a hillside overlooking San Marcos. With a short drive, students can reach scenic beaches, historic communities, and hiking trails. San Marcos also connects students with arts and culture. Nearby Old Town San Diego offers galleries, museums, and live performances. Balboa Park's gardens and museums beckon students. And the historic Mission San Luis Rey — only 15 minutes from campus — dates back to 1798.

CSUSM students can also visit Old Restaurant Row, which attracts visitors from across the region. Thanks to a vibrant university and a thriving community, San Marcos ranks among the top college towns in California.

Claremont

Sitting at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 30 miles inland from Los Angeles, Claremont ranks among the best college towns in California thanks to the Claremont Colleges. A consortium of seven colleges that operate from one 546-acre campus, the Claremont Colleges include well-respected institutions like Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, and Scripps College.

The Claremont Colleges bring about 8,500 students and over 3,000 faculty and staff to Claremont. Off campus, students can hike in the mountains, jog the Thompson Creek Trail, or visit the Pacific beaches a short drive away.

Affectionately known as "the City of Trees and Ph.D.s," Claremont's residential neighborhoods contain roughly 24,000 trees shading historic homes and buildings. Students can walk to multiple parks from campus, including the California Botanic Garden.

Santa Cruz

The forested foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains provide a wooded backdrop for the 2,000-acre campus of UC Santa Cruz. Featuring coastal prairies, redwood forests, and ocean views, the university brings about 19,000 learners to the Monterey Bay area. And the city of Santa Cruz — a beach town featuring a boardwalk — welcomes students to the area.

Known for its surfing and natural beauty, Santa Cruz welcomes monarch butterflies to Natural Bridges State Beach. Fishermen haul in catches from the wharf. And the banana slug, the university's official mascot, links the campus community with its forested campus. Students also benefit from the city's many links to Silicon Valley across the Santa Cruz Mountains. With the ocean, forests, and research university, Santa Cruz has a great deal to offer students.

Redlands

Known as the navel orange capital of the world, Redlands sits in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains. The University of Redlands — a small private institution — welcomes over 2,400 students to the city on a campus based near the town's historic center. Located around 60 miles inland from Los Angeles, Redlands offers a small-town feel near many big-city amenities.

In Redlands, the historic downtown area's shops and restaurants routinely draw students and residents. The university provides free shuttles to theaters, shopping areas, and the downtown district. Redlands also hosts a long-running free summer concert series.

Redlands attracts students with its small-town charm, featuring parks, hiking opportunities, and historic homes. The university also sits within a one-hour drive of beaches, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, ski resorts, and wilderness areas.

Chico

Chico State, a Hispanic-serving institution, brings over 15,000 students to the city of Chico. Located in the Sacramento Valley, the Sierra Nevada Mountains offer a scenic backdrop to campus. The Sacramento River transforms the valley into lush farmland. From Chico State, students can stroll to downtown Chico to shop, explore the farmers market, and visit restaurants.

Many students also take advantage of Bidwell Park, which stretches across over 3,500 acres of Chico Canyon and boasts mountain bike trails, hiking, and other types of outdoor recreation. Most students at Chico State choose to live within walking or biking distance from campus in the surrounding community. And Chico reports a cost of living much lower than the state's average.

Palo Alto

Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley and about 30 miles south of San Francisco, Palo Alto is home to Stanford University, which was founded in 1891.

With more than 15,000 students and 2,000 faculty, Stanford makes up a large part of Palo Alto's population. The town benefits from the university's arts center and cutting-edge research institutions, while the university benefits from an innovative, tech-centered community and nearby major cities.

Stanford's 8,000-acre campus is only a short drive from the San Francisco Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean. By foot, Stanford students can explore downtown Palo Alto, which boasts a farmers market, shopping, and restaurants.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Towns in California

What is considered a college town? true

A college town is a city dominated by a college or university. The presence of the college shapes life in the town, and many activities in town cater to students. While college towns tend to be fairly small, they are not necessarily rural or low in population.

For example, Santa Cruz — a town of nearly 65,000 on the Pacific Ocean — ranks as a college town thanks to UC Santa Cruz. The university brings about 20,000 students and many faculty and staff members to the area.

Is California a good place to go to college? true

With over 400 colleges — more than any other state — California is a great place to earn a college degree. The state boasts many top-ranked institutions like Stanford, Berkeley, and Caltech.

Additionally, California's strong public university systems include the University of California schools and the California State University schools. And thanks to the state's strong investment in higher education, California's many community colleges charge a lower tuition rate than any other state. In 2019, California residents attending public two-year colleges spent just $1,270 per year in tuition — less than half of the national average of nearly $3,400. That makes California a great state to attend college.

What are the best colleges in California? true

With more colleges than any other state, California offers diverse opportunities for students. But what are the best colleges in California? Unsurprisingly, California's internationally renowned institutions top BestColleges' list of the best California colleges. Stanford University, Berkeley, and UCLA all rank in the top 10.

But so do smaller colleges like Pomona and specialized institutions like Caltech. Students looking for a big-city experience may enjoy attending USC, while the Claremont Colleges offer several top-ranked colleges in one community. Check out our ranking for more information on the top colleges in California.

Is Los Angeles a college town?

By most definitions of "college town," Los Angeles doesn't really qualify. That's because L.A. is much larger than the typical college town, and it boasts many more colleges. In fact, BestColleges has a ranking list dedicated to the best colleges in Los Angeles.

Most college towns have a significantly smaller population than Los Angeles, which ranks as the second-largest U.S. city with a population of nearly 4 million. In a traditional college town, the college makes up a substantial percentage of the total population and influences the town's culture. While L.A.-based colleges like UCLA and USC do help shape the city, Los Angeles is much more of a major metropolitan area than a college town.

Is San Diego a college town?

San Diego may feel like a college town thanks to its world-class institutions, including UC San Diego, San Diego State University, and the University of San Diego. But with a population of well over 1 million people, San Diego is too large to meet the traditional definition of college town.

In college towns, the postsecondary institutions play a large role in shaping the town's culture and significantly increase the town population. Still, San Diego offers many benefits for students looking at California colleges. Check out our ranking of the best San Diego colleges for more information.

Featured Image: nothjc / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

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