2021 Best Colleges in California

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by Staff Writers
Published on May 11, 2021

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Californians pursue higher education in great numbers. According to the California Department of Education, 64% of the state's high school students entered college within 12-16 months of graduation. With more than 300 degree-granting public and private colleges in California, degree-seekers benefit from the country's largest selection. Nevertheless, sorting through all those schools and making the right choice can prove challenging.

Approximately 40% of California residents who are over 25 hold a degree. The state offers some of the world's largest school systems, most innovative institutions, and many of the best ranked colleges and universities in the country. Read on to learn about the best colleges in California and the top programs they offer.

What Are the 2021 Best Colleges in California? Here Are Our Top 10:

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#1 Stanford University Stanford, CA
#2 Pomona College Claremont, CA
#3 California Institute of Technology Pasadena, CA
#4 Claremont McKenna College Claremont, CA
#5 University of California-Berkeley Berkeley, CA
#6 University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA
#7 University of California-Los Angeles Los Angeles, CA
#8 Harvey Mudd College Claremont, CA
#9 Pitzer College Claremont, CA
#10 Scripps College Claremont, CA

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Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our Ranking Methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.

2021 Best Accredited Colleges in California

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Stanford University View School Profile Stanford, CA

One of the most prestigious and academically rigorous universities in the United States, Stanford welcomes about 16,000 students each year. Unlike many universities, Stanford enrolls more graduate than undergraduate students.

Stanford offers nearly 70 undergraduate majors and 200 graduate programs. The private university provides research opportunities across all departments, with 18 separate research institutes, such as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Stanford Humanities Center.

With an acceptance rate of roughly 4% — the lowest in the country — Stanford considers undergraduate applications holistically. No specific GPA minimums, test scores, or other factors guarantee admission. All undergraduate applicants must submit official transcripts, two letters of recommendation, a counselor recommendation, and ACT or SAT scores. The university recommends that fine arts applicants also submit a portfolio. Graduate admission requirements vary widely depending on the program.

Pomona College View School Profile Claremont, CA

A private liberal arts college founded in 1887 — and the founding member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium — Pomona serves just over 1,700 students per year.

The undergraduate-only college offers more than 50 majors, from dance and Middle Eastern studies to physics and astronomy. Students can work with professors on various research projects, both locally and around the world.

Pomona's applicant acceptance rate stands at just 7%. The admissions committee considers a broad variety of factors, including an applicant's GPA, depth of high school curriculum, recommendations, essays, and other student qualities. Additionally, Pomona's commitment to diversity includes accepting undocumented students and actively recruiting rural, first-generation, low-income, and other underrepresented student groups.

California Institute of Technology View School Profile Pasadena, CA

Established as a vocational school in 1891, Caltech enjoys a strong reputation for its science and engineering programs. The university — based in Pasadena — enrolls just over 2,200 students annually.

Caltech offers 28 undergraduate and 30 graduate majors across various scientific fields. Research forms a core part of the Caltech experience. Its summer undergraduate research fellowship program enjoys immense popularity.

A highly competitive university with an applicant acceptance rate of 6%, Caltech reviews applications holistically. Undergraduate admission requirements include official transcripts, essays, ACT or SAT scores (waived through fall 2022), teacher recommendations from one science or math instructor and one humanities or social science instructor, and a secondary school report. Graduate admission requirements include official transcripts, a resume, a statement of purpose, and three letters of recommendation.

Claremont McKenna College View School Profile Claremont, CA

Established in 1946 and part of the Claremont Colleges Consortium, CMC educates over 1,300 students each year.

This mostly undergraduate college offers 33 undergraduate majors in a variety of areas, including literature and organismal biology. The school offers its science majors through the W.M. Keck Science Department, Pitzer College, and Scripps College. CMC also offers several accelerated master's degree programs.

With an applicant acceptance rate of 10%, CMC follows a holistic application review process. Admission requirements include official transcripts, supplemental essays, two teacher recommendations, and a recommendation and school report from a high school counselor. Optional application components include ACT or SAT scores, a two-minute video, and a personal interview.

University of California-Berkeley View School Profile Berkeley, CA

Founded in 1868 and the first member of the University of California system, Berkeley enrolls nearly 44,000 students annually.

Berkeley oversees 115 different undergraduate majors, such as Celtic studies, ecosystem management and forestry, and nuclear engineering. It also hosts more than 100 graduate options, such as a Ph.D. in anthropology, a master of arts in folklore, and a master of engineering in mechanical engineering.

Berkeley's 17% acceptance rate draws a diverse student body from around the world. The holistic review process considers factors like an applicant's GPA (minimum 3.0 for in-state applicants or 3.4 for out-of-state applicants), advanced coursework (such as AP or IB classes), and extracurricular achievements. Graduate admission requirements include a minimum 3.0 GPA, plus specific requirements that vary by program.

University of Southern California View School Profile Los Angeles, CA

Founded in 1880 and the oldest private research university in California, USC welcomes more than 48,000 students every year.

More than 200 separate undergraduate degree programs loosely group into arts and humanities; social sciences; natural sciences; and engineering, computer, quantitative, and technical sciences. Example programs include a BFA in animation and digital arts and a BS in human security and geospatial Intelligence. USC also offers many master's and doctoral degrees across its graduate and professional schools.

Accepting only 11% of applicants, USC considers various factors in its admissions decisions. Most accepted students rank in the top 10% of their graduating class, with median standardized test scores in the top 5%. The test-optional university requires transcripts, a writing supplement, and a letter of recommendation. Specific programs may set additional requirements, such as a portfolio, audition, or resume.

University of California-Los Angeles View School Profile Los Angeles, CA

UCLA — established in 1882 as the southern campus of the California Normal School — became the second member of the University of California system in 1919. Today, the university serves more than 45,000 students annually.

UCLA offers more than 125 undergraduate majors across its liberal arts college and various professional schools. Examples include a BS in climate science, a BA in world arts and culture, and a BS in aerospace engineering. The university also offers 40 graduate programs, including options like a master's in genetic counseling and a doctorate in theater and performance studies.

As the most applied-to university in the country, UCLA only accepts 12% of applicants. Its holistic undergraduate review process considers an applicant's college-prep curriculum, personal qualities, potential ability to contribute to campus life, and extracurricular achievements.

Harvey Mudd College View School Profile Claremont, CA

A private science and engineering college founded in 1955 — and now operating as part of the Claremont Colleges Consortium — Harvey Mudd enrolls approximately 900 undergraduate students each year.

The college offers seven majors, including mathematical and computational biology. It also provides joint majors in chemistry and biology, computer science and mathematics, and mathematics and physics. Students can pursue research opportunities throughout their time at Harvey Mudd, taking advantage of cutting-edge facilities such as the Lab for Autonomous and Intelligent Robotics and Donnelly Laser Physics Lab.

With an applicant acceptance rate of 14%, this test-optional college requires aspiring students to submit official transcripts, a school report and counselor recommendation, two teacher recommendations, and writing samples.

Pitzer College View School Profile Claremont, CA

Pitzer — a private college founded in 1963 — operates as part of the Claremont Colleges Consortium and welcomes roughly 1,100 students annually.

This all-undergraduate institution offers nearly 40 majors, including gender and feminist studies, mathematical economics, and molecular biology. It emphasizes environmental, social behavioral, and natural science studies.

Pitzer accepts 14% of applicants. The test-optional college requires applicants to submit official transcripts, a teacher recommendation, a school report, and a writing supplement. The school looks for well-rounded applicants with strong academic and extracurricular records who have experience in leadership positions and demonstrate a commitment to Pitzer's values, including the importance of social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

Scripps College View School Profile Claremont, CA

A private women's college and a member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium, Scripps enrolls about 1,100 students each year.

The school offers more than 50 majors, with options like Jewish studies, molecular biology, and science management. Scripps also oversees a popular study abroad and global education program that allows students to spend a semester in one of almost 50 countries; about 60% of students at Scripps take advantage of this opportunity.

Applicants must submit official transcripts, a school report and counselor recommendation, and two teacher recommendations. Scripps also requires applicants to submit a personal essay and sit for an interview. The college reviews applications holistically, considering both academics and extracurricular activities.

Soka University of America View School Profile Aliso Viejo, CA

Soka is a private university established in 2001 that focuses on pacifism, human rights, and coexistence with nature. The university — based in Aliso Viejo — welcomes about 400 students annually.

Soka offers an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts in liberal arts with concentration options in humanities, life sciences, international studies, environmental studies, or social and behavioral sciences. All undergraduates must study a foreign language and spend a semester abroad during their junior year. The university also offers an interdisciplinary master of arts in educational leadership and social change.

The school evaluates undergraduate applications based on an applicant's academic record, extracurricular activities, service, and leadership. Graduate applicants must submit transcripts, two references, a personal statement, a resume, an academic writing sample, and GRE or MAT scores (optional through fall 2021).

University of California-San Diego View School Profile La Jolla, CA

UC San Diego was established in 1960 as part of the University of California system. The school currently serves nearly 40,000 students each year.

The university oversees more than 150 undergraduate majors, including pharmacological chemistry, engineering physics, Latin American studies with a concentration in migration and border studies, and sociology-social inequality. UC San Diego's nearly 60 graduate programs include a doctorate in cognitive science, an MA in global health, and a doctorate in biophysics.

Undergraduate applicants must submit official transcripts and copies of any AP or IB scores. They must also complete four personal insight essay questions. The typical GPA of first-year students ranges from 4.1-4.3. Graduate applicants need a minimum GPA of 3.0 and a statement of purpose.

California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo View School Profile San Luis Obispo, CA

Founded in 1901 and now part of the California State University system, Cal Poly welcomes more than 21,000 students every year.

Cal Poly offers more than 60 undergraduate majors across six colleges. Example degree options include dairy science, architectural engineering, and graphic communication. The university also offers over 35 graduate programs, including master's degrees in fire protection engineering, polymers and coatings, and accounting.

Cal Poly's holistic application review considers an applicant's weighted GPA, standardized test scores (waived through fall 2021), extracurricular activities, work experience, and other factors. The typical first-year student's GPA ranges from 4.0-4.25. Graduate program application requirements vary widely by program.

University of California-Irvine View School Profile Irvine, CA

UCI — known as a public Ivy for its educational similarity to Ivy League schools — enrolls nearly 37,000 students each year.

The university offers more than 80 undergraduate majors, including comparative literature, East Asian cultures, and game design and interactive media. UCI also provides more than 100 graduate and professional degrees, such as a master's in human-computer interaction and design, a doctorate in statistics, and a master of public health.

UCI reviews undergraduate applications based on an aspiring student's GPA, strength of high school curriculum, class ranking, special talents and achievements, life circumstances, and more.

San Diego State University View School Profile San Diego, CA

Founded as San Diego Normal School in 1897 and now part of the California State University system, SDSU serves more than 35,000 students every year.

SDSU offers nearly 100 undergraduate majors, including international security and conflict resolution, mechanical engineering, and theatre arts. The university also oversees more than 70 master's pathways, including an MS in applied mathematics and an MFA in creative writing. SDSU also offers 18 doctoral degrees, such as a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a doctor of physical therapy.

Undergraduate admissions considerations include an applicant's high school curriculum, GPA, and other special circumstances. Requirements for graduate programs vary.

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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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