Cheapest Colleges in California

Living in California doesn't come cheap, but these affordable colleges in California offer tuition rates below the national average.
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Published on October 9, 2023
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  • California's more than 300 colleges educate some 2 million students.
  • Public colleges in California charge an average annual tuition of $8,401.
  • California has the fourth-highest cost of living in the country.
  • CSU Dominguez Hills offers the cheapest tuition in California among four-year nonprofit schools.

Living the dream in California can come at a cost, but you can still get an affordable education in the Golden State. California, which has the fourth-highest cost of living in the country, offers the most diverse higher education system.

The state boasts more than 300 four-year public and private colleges. In 2022, California's college student population numbered more than 2 million. And the average cost of tuition at public colleges and universities stood below the national average for the 2020-2021 school year.

Want to get an affordable education in California? Check out what schools made our list of the cheapest colleges in California. Our guide features the average cost of tuition by school and scholarships available to California students.

Top 3 Cheapest Universities in California

Here are the three cheapest colleges in California based on average annual net price data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

1. California State University, Dominguez Hills

  • Avg. Annual Net Price: $5,068
  • Acceptance Rate: 89%
  • Total Student Enrollment: 16,426

California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) was founded in 1960 in Carson, California, just south of Los Angeles. The university currently offers over 50 undergraduate majors with programs across five colleges. The five colleges include programs in the arts, business and public policy, education, health, and natural and behavioral sciences.

Undergraduate enrollment for fall 2023 exceeded 15,000 students, with a 26-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.

2. California State University, Los Angeles

  • Avg. Annual Net Price: $5,801
  • Acceptance Rate: 87%
  • Total Student Enrollment: 26,460

The 1947-founded California State University, Los Angeles offers more than 50 majors from its seven colleges with a campus east of downtown. Cal State LA's most popular undergraduate programs by enrollment include business administration, psychology, criminal justice, child development, and biology.

Most graduate students study counseling, social work, and business administration. Cal State LA boasts a diverse student body, and the average age of its undergraduate population is 23 years old.

3. California State University, Fresno

  • Avg. Annual Net Price: $7,507
  • Acceptance Rate: 95%
  • Total Student Enrollment: 23,999

Dating back to 1911, California State University, Fresno offers 10 academic schools and divisions and NCAA Division I athletic teams. The university operates as part of the 23-campus California State University system. The academic catalog includes 59 undergraduate majors, 45 master's degrees, 30 credential programs, and two doctoral programs.

About 65% of students identify as first-generation students, and more than 57% can receive Pell Grants. Fresno State's top programs include liberal studies, business administration, biology, pre-health, and psychology.

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20 Most Affordable Colleges in California

Here's a list of the 20 cheapest colleges in California based on the latest NCES data. All schools are nonprofit four-year institutions that enroll at least 500 undergraduates. You can use the table below to compare data on student population, average net cost, acceptance rate, and number of applicants.

Cheapest Colleges in California
School Total Student Enrollment Avg. Annual Net Price Acceptance Rate Number of Applicants
California State University, Dominguez Hills 16,426 $5,068 89% 19,165
California State University, Los Angeles 26,460 $5,801 87% 33,939
California State University, Fresno 23,999 $7,507 95% 18,551
California State University, Bakersfield 9,613 $7,521 87% 13,834
California State University, Stanislaus 10,154 $7,555 97% 6,077
California State University, Fullerton 40,386 $7,925 67% 48,748
California State University, San Bernardino 19,803 $8,805 91% 15,501
California State University, Northridge 37,579 $8,936 91% 25,965
California State University, Long Beach 38,973 $9,346 40% 74,718
California State University, San Marcos 15,109 $10,463 95% 14,774
California State University, Monterey Bay 7,045 $11,435 92% 12,568
California State University, East Bay 13,673 $11,464 96% 12,461
California State University, Sacramento 31,818 $11,596 93% 25,276
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona 27,503 $12,480 55% 49,079
San Diego State University 37,402 $13,017 39% 77,250
San Francisco State University 25,282 $13,267 94% 29,932
California State University, Channel Islands 6,128 $13,540 90% 10,420
University of California, Merced 9,103 $13,549 89% 29,920
University of California, Irvine 35,937 $14,033 21% 119,191
San Jose State University 35,751 $14,219 77% 34,002
Source: NCES

What Is the Cost of College in California?

Cost of College in California 2020-2021
Institution Type Avg. Tuition & Required Fees
Public 4-year (in-state) $8,401
Public 4-year (out-of-state) $34,398
Private 4-year $38,477
Public 2-year (in-state) $1,285
Public 2-year (out-of-state) $8,491
Source: NCES

Scholarships for California Students

Middle Class Scholarship

  • Deadline: March
  • Amount: Covers cost of attendance for up to four years

If you plan to pursue an undergraduate teaching degree, the Middle Class Scholarship offers scholarships to eligible applicants with annual family incomes of no more than $201,000. The award covers tuition at a University of California, California State University, or California Community College. You must provide proof of California residency and plan to attend a state school.

Cal Grants

  • Deadline: September
  • Amount: Varies by school and Cal Grant status

California college students can apply for Cal Grants by submitting the FAFSA or a CA Dream Act application. To apply, you must be enrolled in a two- or four-year college. The award goes to low- and middle-income students. California Community College students receive up to $1,648 a year. California State University students get up to $5,742, and private school students can receive up to $9,358.

California State Graduating High School Senior Scholarship

  • Deadline: February
  • Amount: $1,000

Community-minded high school seniors in California can apply to receive this scholarship awarded by the California State Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). To apply, your parents or guardians must have an active membership in the PTA. You also must show a commitment to volunteerism and community service. If you choose to pursue a medical career, you can receive an additional $500.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cheap Colleges in California

What is the best college in California?

Stanford consistently ranks as one of the best colleges in California, with a highly selective admissions process. According to NCES, of the 56,378 applications received in fall 2022, Stanford only accepted 3.68% of applicants. Stanford isn't one of the cheapest colleges in California, but it does offer a generous financial aid package.

Other highly competitive colleges in California include UCLA, with a 9% acceptance rate in fall 2022, and the University of Southern California, with a 12% acceptance rate, according to NCES.

What college has a 100% acceptance rate in California?

There are four nonprofit four-year colleges in California that have an open-admissions policy: Los Angeles Pacific University, Simpson University, National University, and Loma Linda University. These schools range in average annual net price from around $23,000 to $31,000, making them a bit pricier than the cheapest colleges in California.

Which UC school is most affordable?

UC Merced is the cheapest UC school. Students paid an average annual net price of $13,549 in 2021-2022 at UC Merced, according to NCES. In contrast, the most expensive UC school is UC Berkeley, which charged an average annual net price of $19,257 that same year.

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