2022 Top Public Colleges and Universities in California

Public colleges and universities are often the most affordable option for students pursuing higher education, but it's not just affordability that makes these institutions attractive. Public institutions also rank highly among the best colleges and universities in many states, California included.

Public colleges and universities receive state and federal funding. Although they generally have larger class sizes than private institutions, they also tend to offer a wide variety of academic programs, diverse student bodies, and prestigious research opportunities.

2022 Best Public Colleges and Universities in California

  1. #1

    San Diego State University

    San Diego, CA

    Graduation Rate

    73%

    Enrollment

    35,544

    Format

    Online, In person

    San Diego State University, which operates a campus in San Diego, California, often ranks as one of the best colleges. Students choose from multiple degree-granting programs and courses. Academic and technical programs help learners reach their unique professional goals. Generally, it takes two years to complete an associate degree, four years to complete a bachelor's degree, 1-2 years for a master's degree, or 3-7 years for a doctoral degree. Depending on the program, applicants may need to submit test scores. This makes it easier to enroll. Admission advisors can provide more information on the application process. At the accredited institution, degree-seekers also qualify for financial aid to pay for school. San Diego State University is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

  2. #2

    University of California-Los Angeles

    Los Angeles, CA

    Graduation Rate

    92%

    Enrollment

    44,371

    Format

    Online, In person

    A public institution located in Los Angeles, California, University of California-Los Angeles offers a variety of programs. The school offers accredited degrees that prepare learners for the workforce. The institution offers academically rigorous programs at an affordable price. Many of the school's degrees make national rankings. Data on the school's average cost per credit is unavailable. Degree-seekers at the accredited school may qualify for federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant. Students receive an average aid award of $ 18613, making the average tuition cost after aid $ 15718. The school offers both academic and technical programs. Depending on their program, students complete foundational courses, technical classes, and general education requirements. The school holds accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission, an independent accrediting body.

  3. #3

    California State University-Northridge

    Northridge, CA

    Graduation Rate

    55%

    Enrollment

    39,910

    Format

    Online, In person

    Located in Northridge, California, California State University-Northridge ranks as one of the top colleges. The college enrolls students in high-value programs and courses. With academic and technical tracks, the programs help students reach a variety of career goals. Enrollees typically earn an associate degree in two years, a bachelor's degree in four years, a master's degree in two, and a doctoral degree in 3-7 years. Some programs may let applicants apply without submitting test scores. This makes it easier to enroll. The admissions department can help students complete the application process. Financial aid helps degree-seekers pay for their education. California State University-Northridge holds accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

  4. #4

    California State University-Fullerton

    Fullerton, CA

    Graduation Rate

    69%

    Enrollment

    40,445

    Format

    Online, In person

    From its California campus, California State University-Fullerton offers 114 degree-granting programs. Learners benefit from rigorous programs that rank among the best in the nation. According to the institution, the student-to-faculty ratio stands at 25-to-1. The institution reports that 77% of undergraduates receive some form of financial aid. The school reports a 69% graduation rate. The institution understands that hands-on experience helps job seekers enter the workforce. Enrollees benefit from internships, research opportunities, and other forms of service learning. The admission rate is 53% for prospective students. Some programs operate with a test-optional policy for admissions.

  5. #5

    University of California-Berkeley

    Berkeley, CA

    Graduation Rate

    93%

    Enrollment

    43,185

    Format

    Online, In person

    A public institution located in Berkeley, California, University of California-Berkeley offers a variety of programs. The school's accredited programs prepare learners for the workforce. The institution offers affordable programs that do not sacrifice academic rigor. The school's programs appear in national rankings. Students pay a per-credit fee of around 2712 at the school. Degree-seekers at the accredited school may qualify for federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant. Current students receive an average aid award of $ 19323, lowering the average tuition cost after aid to $ 18522. The institution offers both academic and technical programs. Based on their major, students take foundational courses, technical classes, and general education requirements. The school holds accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission, an independent accrediting body.

  6. #6

    California State University-Long Beach

    Long Beach, CA

    Graduation Rate

    74%

    Enrollment

    38,674

    Format

    Online, In person

    Located in Long Beach, California, California State University-Long Beach offers multiple programs as a public institution. The school offers accredited degrees that prepare students for the workforce. The institution offers academically rigorous programs at an affordable price. Multiple programs at the school appear in national rankings. The amount students pay per credit is currently unknown. Degree-seekers at this accredited institution may qualify for federal student aid programs, including the Pell Grant. Students receive an average aid award of $ 9098, making the average tuition cost after aid $ 9903. Degree-seekers choose from academic and technical programs at the institution. The school offers foundational courses, technical classes, and general education courses in multiple majors. The school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

  7. #7

    California State University-Los Angeles

    Los Angeles, CA

    Graduation Rate

    52%

    Enrollment

    26,671

    Format

    In person

    A public institution located in Los Angeles, California, California State University-Los Angeles offers a variety of programs. The school offers accredited degrees that prepare learners for the workforce. Learners enroll in academically rigorous programs at an affordable price. Many of the school's programs appear in national rankings. The institution's cost per credit is unknown. Degree-seekers at the accredited school may qualify for federal financial aid, including the Pell Grant. Students receive an average aid award of $ 11289, lowering the average tuition cost after aid to $ 3255. The school offers both academic and technical programs. Depending on their major, students complete foundational courses, technical classes, and general education requirements. California State University-Los Angeles has been accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission, an independent accrediting body.

  8. #8

    University of California-Irvine

    Irvine, CA

    Graduation Rate

    84%

    Enrollment

    36,908

    Format

    Online, In person

    A public institution in Irvine, California, University of California-Irvine offers a variety of degree-granting programs. Enrollees study with experts in many different fields. Students who complete a technical or academic program may enter the workforce. The school's average cost per credit is unknown. At the accredited institution, students qualify for financial aid, including federal loans, scholarships, and grants. The institution reports that 63% of students receive aid, and 32% receive loans. Enrollees graduate from the school at a rate of 84%. Prospective enrollees can expect an 27% admission rate. Prospective students can contact an admission advisor to learn more about applying. The school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

  9. #9

    California State Polytechnic University-Pomona

    Pomona, CA

    Graduation Rate

    69%

    Enrollment

    28,058

    Format

    In person

    A public institution located in Pomona, California, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona offers multiple programs. Enrollees earn an accredited degree that prepares them for the workforce. Degree-seekers benefit from academically rigorous programs at an affordable price. Students can enroll in nationally ranked programs. The school's average cost per credit is unknown. Students attending the accredited institution may qualify for federal financial aid programs, such as the Pell Grant. The institution reports that students receive an average aid award of $ 8920, lowering the average tuition cost after aid to $ 12843. Learners at the institution choose from academic and technical programs. Depending on their major, students complete foundational courses, technical classes, and general education requirements. The school holds accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

  10. #10

    University of California-San Diego

    La Jolla, CA

    Graduation Rate

    87%

    Enrollment

    38,736

    Format

    In person

    Located in La Jolla, California, University of California-San Diego enrolls students as a public institution. With both academic and technical programs, the college helps students reach their educational goals. During a bachelor's degree, undergraduates take lower-division and upper-division coursework. The 120-credit bachelor's programs also include general education credits. In upper-division classes, degree-seekers learn advanced concepts in their major. The school supports students with tutoring and career services. The institution's cost per credit is unknown. Learners at this accredited institution also qualify for federal student aid programs, including the Pell Grant. University of California-San Diego holds accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission.

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Why Choose a Public College or University in California?

California is the most populous state in the U.S., so it is no surprise that it is home to a sizable list of public colleges and universities. Whether a community college or part of the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems, the best public colleges in California offer standout academics at an affordable price.

Along with their affordability, some of the best colleges in California include prestigious institutions like UC Berkeley and UCLA, which have a reputation worldwide as elite research universities. But whether a student applies to an elite school like UCLA or a STEM-centric school like Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, students have access to top-notch academics.

On the following page, we explore the pros and cons of attending public colleges and universities in California, how much students can expect to pay, and the benefits of attending a nonprofit college. Keep reading to see if a public college or university in California is the right choice for you.

Pros and Cons of Attending a Public College or University in California

Pros

When compared to private institutions, public colleges and universities in California offer affordable tuition. Students also have access to a wider variety of on-campus employment.Public institutions in California are home to a diverse student population, with students from varying backgrounds.Public institutions tend to offer a wide variety of academic majors and minors. Students also have greater access to internships and career training.

Cons

The larger size of public institutions might turn off students who thrive in small classes. Some students feel anonymous in large classes.Some students may feel intimidated by the large size of public colleges. The transition can feel challenging, especially for those living away from home for the first time.Due to their larger size, communication with professors is often challenging. Some students perform better when they have easy access to instructors.

Nonprofit vs. For-Profit Colleges and Universities in California

For-profit colleges and universities in California advertise high acceptance rates and flexible programming, but the best public colleges in California are nonprofit institutions. Whether through the UC or CSU system, nonprofit institutions in this state offer standout academics with an affordable price tag. Public, nonprofit institutions in California also hold accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Most public institutions in California derive the majority of their funding through tax dollars. As a result, these schools can maintain relatively low tuition rates year over year. Conversely, for-profit institutions must consider the needs of investors and stakeholders, often prioritizing profits over the needs of faculty, staff, and students.

How Much Does It Cost to Attend a Public College or University in California?

The cost of college in California can vary between schools and even more dramatically between public and private institutions. A learner's status as an in-state or out-of-state student can also impact their tuition rate.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average tuition rate for in-state learners in California exceeds $8,000 annually. Including room and board, the total cost is about $23,000 per year. Out-of-state students in California can expect to pay around $32,000 per year, while students enrolling at private schools can anticipate the total cost to exceed $50,000 per year.

When evaluating potential colleges, prospective students should consider the actual cost of studying and living in California. Having clear financial expectations can help dismiss some misconceptions about paying for college.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Public Colleges and Universities in California

How many public colleges and universities are there in California?

California is home to a sizable list of public institutions through the CSU and UC systems. The CSU system includes 23 campuses all over the state, in places such as Bakersfield, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. The CSU system is also home to California Polytechnic schools in San Luis Obispo, Humboldt, and Pomona.

The UC system has ten campuses and is home to elite institutions such as UC Berkeley and UCLA. California also oversees 115 accredited community colleges that enroll over 2 million students.

What is the most expensive public college or university in California?

The best public colleges in California provide students with standout academics at a relatively affordable price. That said, the more prestigious UCs cost more than Cal State schools. The UCs have an average tuition of $13,100 for in-state students for the 2022-23 academic year.

College is expensive, and when evaluating potential schools, financial considerations are paramount. Prospective students in California should consider costs beyond tuition to understand the real cost of college. Public colleges and universities in California offer a wide variety of financial aid opportunities.

What is the least expensive public college or university in California?

CSUs have lower tuition rates compared to UCs. The average CSU tuition for the 2022-23 academic year is $5,740.

When determining the cost of studying and living in California, the location may also impact the cost of living. Students in places like San Bernardino and Chico inevitably have a lower cost of living than those living in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Before enrolling at a four-year school, students can complete many general education requirements at community colleges at a lower cost.

What is the biggest public college or university in California?

California is home to many large public institutions. While UCLA is the largest public institution in the state, schools like UC Berkeley and Cal State Fullerton are only slightly smaller. Many public institutions in California have enrollment numbers that exceed 30,000 students.

Degree-seekers wanting public tuition rates with fewer students can consider schools like Cal State-Monterey Bay, Humboldt State University, and Cal State-Channel Islands — these public schools have fewer than 8,000 students.

Is a public college or university right for me?

Selecting the best college is an individual choice, and prospective students should consider several factors. Financial considerations are important, but academic, social, and other personal concerns also play a role in this decision. A public institution is a solid choice for students wanting a college experience with a large student body, Division I sports, and an active Greek life.

For the student wanting smaller class sizes and a more personalized experience, a private school is a better fit. And while private institutions tend to cost significantly more than public schools, applicants with a strong academic record often receive scholarships. Students can also offset the cost of private school if they complete general education requirements at a community college.