2021 Best Colleges in California

California has over 400 colleges. Learn more about the best colleges in California and the reasons students choose California colleges.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on December 1, 2021 · Updated on April 26, 2022

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California boasts more colleges than any other state in the U.S. And thanks to the largest economy of any state, California also offers diverse employment opportunities for college graduates.

College students choose California for many reasons, including its appealing climate, booming industries, and diverse cultural attractions. The state offers something for just about any student, from top-ranked tech programs to world-class performing arts options. California also offers big-city colleges and small-town settings. With major research institutions and small liberal arts colleges, students can find the right environment to earn their degree.

Our list ranks the best colleges in California to help prospective students make an informed choice about their academic future. For more information about going to college in the Golden State, check out our Resources for Students in California page.

Why Study in California?

Educational Opportunities

With over 400 two-year and four-year institutions, students considering colleges in California have many options. The state's community colleges, public universities, and private colleges offer degrees in diverse disciplines, as well as ample research opportunities and connections with California industries.

In addition, California is home to many of the best colleges in the world. Top institutions include Stanford, UCLA, Berkeley, Caltech, and USC. Students can also choose from dozens of liberal arts colleges in California.

Economy

California boasts the largest economy of any U.S. state. What's more, if California were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world. With a gross annual product of over $3 trillion, California brings in more revenue than the United Kingdom.

College graduates make up one in three Californians. The state's major industries cover multiple growing sectors, including over 2,000 tech companies that operate in Silicon Valley. Other key industries include healthcare, manufacturing, professional services, and film.

Cost of Living

The cost of living in California ranks higher than most other states. Californians pay more in housing and transportation costs than the national average. The cost of groceries and utilities falls close to the national average, while healthcare costs are less expensive than average.

However, wages tend to be higher in California compared to many other states. While the average annual wage across the country was $56,310 in May 2020, California's mean salary ranked at $65,740, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Cultural and Community Offerings

California's cultural institutions draw in more visitors than any other state. A major tourist destination, the state offers attractions like the Golden Gate Bridge and Disneyland. The Getty Center, Balboa Park, and Alcatraz Island also educate and entertain visitors.

The state's natural beauty also attracts many people who enjoy the great outdoors. The soaring heights of Yosemite National Park, the crashing waves of Big Sur, and the mountain scenery of Lake Tahoe all offer a natural escape for college students.

Climate

When it comes to climate, few states can match California. The state's Mediterranean climate makes it the perfect place to grow grapes and visit beaches. Many college students choose California for its warm weather and perfect beach-going climate along the coast.

But California also offers snowy ski villages in the Sierra Nevadas, sprawling deserts like Death Valley, and cooler climates filled with redwood forests in the north. The variety of climates make California a great state for adventurous students.

Top Degree Programs in California

Best Online Business Administration Programs Best Online Healthcare Administration Programs Best Online RN-to-BSN Programs Best Online Web Development Programs Best Online Software Engineering Programs Best Online Master's in Biotechnology Programs Best Online Master's in Data Science Programs Best Online Master's in Psychology Programs

Related Programs That Might Interest You

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

California Employment Outlook

California reports a strong employment outlook, particularly for professionals with a college degree. The state's labor force topped 19 million workers in September 2021, and the unemployment rate continues to drop. Many of the highest-paying jobs and fastest-growing careers in California require a college degree. For example, California reports high demand for green jobs — workers in many of these positions require a postsecondary education.

According to California's Employment Development Department, the state's fastest-growing occupations include positions in allied health fields like speech-language pathology and occupational therapy. California also reports growing demand for information security analysts and operations research analysts. Home to Silicon Valley — the nation's largest technology hub — California also reports high demand for software developers.

5 California Jobs in Demand for 2021

Financial Managers

Financial managers evaluate an organization's investment strategies, risk, and financial health. As part of overseeing a team of financial analysts, they review budgets, financial statements, and business activity reports. Financial managers also recommend strategies to maximize profits. They work in industries like financial services and healthcare.

Statisticians

Statisticians can pursue opportunities in several areas, including business intelligence, clinical data management, and data mining. These professionals use statistical and computational methods to address problems. For example, they may analyze data to forecast economic trends, evaluate healthcare outcomes, and research public opinion.

Film and Video Editors

Film and video editors work closely with directors and producers to edit video footage. They use editing software to create a final product. Film and video editors also shape the look of the final content in consultation with directors. California employs nearly one-third of the film and video editors in the U.S.

Market Research Analysts

Market research analysts examine data on consumer demand, sales trends, and customer satisfaction. They analyze this data to determine the demand for new products, potential target customers, and competitors. Market research analysts design data collection tools like surveys. After gathering data, they create reports summarizing their findings.

Information Security Analysts

Information security analysts prevent and investigate cybersecurity breaches. They implement security measures such as data encryption and firewalls to protect private data. When a cyberattack occurs, information security analysts report on the breach and recommend measures to prevent future attacks. Information security analysts also test security systems to identify vulnerabilities.

Popular Career Paths in California

Business Administration Healthcare Administration Political Science Software Engineering Web Development Public Policy Biotechnology Nursing

2021 Best Accredited Colleges in California

Rankings compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team

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How We Rank Schools

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.

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.

Best Colleges in California

  1. Stanford University
    Location

    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.

  2. Pomona College
    Location

    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.

  3. California Institute of Technology
    Location

    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.

  4. Claremont McKenna College
    Location

    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.

  5. University of California-Berkeley
    Location

    Berkeley, CA

    Tuition

    $17862

    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.

  6. University of Southern California
    Location

    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.

  7. University of California-Los Angeles
    Location

    Los Angeles, CA

    Tuition

    $15002

    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.

  8. Harvey Mudd College
    Location

    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.

  9. Pitzer College
    Location

    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.

  10. Scripps College
    Location

    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.

Frequently Asked Questions About Colleges in California

How many colleges are in California? true

With more than 400 institutions of higher learning, California has more colleges and universities than any other state. The state also has more college students than any other — about 2.7 million students in 2020.

In 2019, California reported a total of 416 higher education institutions. That number included 262 four-year colleges and 154 two-year colleges. The California community college system features 116 colleges and enrolls one in four community college students in the nation. The California State University system operates 23 campuses throughout the state, while the University of California system operates 10 campuses. California is also home to many top private universities.

Does California have good colleges? true

Multiple California colleges rank among the best colleges in the world. The best colleges in California include major public research institutions like UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego. Private universities like Stanford and Caltech also rank high for academics and research.

With more colleges than any other state, California offers a variety of learning environments for students. The state's mix of four-year and two-year colleges helps degree-seekers reach their goals and save money. Students can also choose between large, urban colleges like the University of Southern California and liberal arts institutions in a smaller-town environment such as the Claremont Colleges.

How much does it cost to go to college in California?

California colleges charge a below-average tuition rate. According to 2019-20 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, public colleges in California charged an average of about $8,200 per year in tuition and fees, compared to a national average of $9,350. California's private colleges cost an average of $37,000 per year. And California's community colleges rank as the most affordable in the country, with an average cost of $1,270 per year.

When researching college costs, be sure to consider the true program cost rather than simply looking at the tuition rate. Prospective students can also research the most affordable online colleges.

What are the cheapest colleges in California?

California's public colleges and universities charge below-average tuition rates for in-state students. With an average annual cost of $8,200 per year, in-state tuition rates save California residents money.

However, California's out-of-state tuition at public universities outpaces the national average by over $4,000 per year. Out-of-state students considering UC or CSU schools can look into schools with the lowest out-of-state tuition and the most financial aid opportunities.

California's two-year colleges offer some of the cheapest tuition rates in the country for in-state learners. The California community college system offers free tuition to nearly half of students and charges a low tuition rate of $46 per credit.

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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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