Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools

Between top schools and sunny weather, California has a lot to offer. Discover the best colleges in California and get a full list of schools in the state.
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Updated on September 7, 2023
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  • There are many online and traditional on-campus colleges to choose from in California.
  • It's important to verify your prospective school's accreditation status before applying.
  • The highest-paying jobs in California tend to be in the medical field.
  • The cost of living in California is higher than average, making college more expensive there, too.

Known as the “Golden State,” sunny California is an attractive choice for prospective students who choose to attend college there in person.

But if relocating to California isn't an option for you, there are still plenty of California colleges that offer online programs. Either way, California is home to over 200 four-year nonprofit colleges, including many top-rated schools. And the best colleges in California may just make the higher cost of living worth it.

Featured Online Programs

Best Colleges in California

Methodology

California has more colleges than any other state. So what makes these schools stand out as the best colleges in California?

Our methodology considers factors such as academic quality, student experience, and cost. By including public and private institutions, as well as small and large colleges, our list offers a variety of online and on-campus experiences.

We use datasets from sources like the National Center for Education Statistics to inform the data for these schools. 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. from our partners appear among these rankings and are indicated as such. All data is current as of the date this article was published. Program-specific information may vary.

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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#1 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

Stanford University

  • Stanford, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

It's one of the most selective universities in the country. With a 3.68% acceptance rate for the Class of 2026, it's not easy to get into Stanford University. But if you do get in, you can benefit from attending the best college in California. 

From its Palo Alto campus, Stanford links San Francisco with Silicon Valley. Founded in 1885, today, the private university enrolls over 17,000 students. Undergrads can choose from over 65 majors, while grad students can enroll in nearly 200 programs. 

Stanford fully covers tuition for students from families with incomes under $150,000 and covers tuition plus room and board for those with an income below $100,000.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$55,473
Out-of-state
$55,473
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$54,315
Out-of-state
$54,315
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
86%
Acceptance Rate
5%
Students Enrolled
15,953
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
6% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#2 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

University of California-Berkeley

  • Berkeley, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

The founding member of the University of California (UC) system dates back to 1868. At the University of California, Berkeley, you can earn a top-ranked degree at an affordable in-state tuition rate. 

History abounds on the UC Berkeley campus. Even the school's colors trace their roots back to 1873, with blue representing the California sky and Pacific Ocean and gold for the Golden State. Today, UC Berkeley offers over 350 degree-granting programs to its 35,000 students. The public university also boasts one of the country's largest college library systems, with 32 libraries housing over 13 million volumes.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$41,196
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$26,544
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
96%
Acceptance Rate
17%
Students Enrolled
42,327
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
97% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#3 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools

Pomona College

  • Claremont, CA
  • 4 years
  • Campus

Pomona is California's top-ranked liberal arts college. Pomona College — part of the Claremont Colleges — dates back to 1887. Its 1,800 students can choose from nearly 50 majors. With an average class size of 13, Pomona also encourages close relationships with faculty. 

From its tree-lined campus 35 miles from Los Angeles, Pomona educates students on a liberal arts model. Over 60% of Pomona students conduct research with faculty and participate in study-abroad programs. 

Any of the Claremont Colleges, which include Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College, could easily appear on a list of the best colleges in California. Pomona gets the nod as the founding member of the Claremont Colleges. 

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$54,380
Out-of-state
$54,380
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
Not provided
Out-of-state
Not provided
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: Medium

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
Medium
Retention Rate
86%
Acceptance Rate
9%
Students Enrolled
1,475
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
Not provided
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#4 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

University of California-Los Angeles

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

This public school boasts the largest undergraduate enrollment of any UC campus. The University of California, Los Angeles welcomes 31,600 undergrads and over 14,000 grad students to its programs. Around a third of undergrads are first-generation college students, and a similar number receive Pell Grants.

UCLA offers over 125 majors. The school's quarter system means you take more classes each year, which helps undecided majors find the best fit. Outside of the classroom, you can join over 1,000 student clubs and organizations, attend a local film screening, or watch the Bruins compete.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$41,196
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$26,544
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
96%
Acceptance Rate
14%
Students Enrolled
44,589
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
94% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#5 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

California Institute of Technology

  • Pasadena, CA
  • 4 years
  • Campus

It's one of the top-ranked technology institutes in the world. The California Institute of Technology, better known as Caltech, also enrolls a small number of students on its 124-acre campus in Pasadena. 

Around 1,000 undergrads and 1,400 grad students attend Caltech, which reports a three-to-one student-to-faculty ratio. That faculty includes 46 Nobel Prize winners, who teach students in a rigorous, collaborative environment. You can choose from 28 majors or 30 graduate programs at Caltech. 

Over half of undergrads receive need-based aid to cover costs. Caltech is committed to meeting the demonstrated financial need of all students.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$54,570
Out-of-state
$54,570
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$54,570
Out-of-state
$54,570
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
94%
Acceptance Rate
7%
Students Enrolled
2,240
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
Not provided
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#6 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

University of California-Santa Barbara

  • Santa Barbara, CA
  • 4 years
  • Campus

Santa Barbara is known as the American Riviera for its weather, architecture, and art. And at the University of California Santa Barbara, you can attend a top-ranked university for an affordable price. 

The sprawling, ocean-front campus boasts its own beach, a unique feature for a top-ranked university. UC Santa Barbara offers over 200 areas of study to its 26,000 students. Undergrads participate in research projects and creative opportunities. In particular, the institution offers research opportunities in the social sciences, engineering, natural sciences, and humanities.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$41,196
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$26,544
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
91%
Acceptance Rate
37%
Students Enrolled
26,179
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
100% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#7 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

University of California-San Diego

  • La Jolla, CA
  • 4 years
  • Campus

Considered one of the top 15 research universities in the world, the University of California, San Diego is a great place to earn an undergraduate degree. 

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean on 1,200 acres of coastal woodland, UC San Diego offers more than 140 majors in its 12 divisions and schools. The institution also houses the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

What are the most popular majors at UC San Diego? Biology, psychology, economics, and math rank at the top of the list.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$41,196
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$26,544
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
94%
Acceptance Rate
37%
Students Enrolled
39,576
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
93% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#8 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools Best Value

University of California-Irvine

  • Irvine, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Orange County's coastal hills are home to one of the state's best colleges. Founded in 1965, the University of California Irvine is one of the younger members of the state's public university system. Today, UCI enrolls over 37,000 students and offers more than 220 degrees. It also pumps $8 billion into the state's economy.

If you're looking for a unique mascot, UCI has Peter the Anteater. But even more importantly, the university reports a 94% one-year retention rate, showing that students want to return to UCI.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$41,196
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$11,442
Out-of-state
$26,544
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: High

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
High
Retention Rate
94%
Acceptance Rate
30%
Students Enrolled
36,303
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
99% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#9 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools

University of Southern California

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Ever visited the Los Angeles Downtown Arts and Education Corridor? It's home to the University of Southern California, a private research institution in the heart of L.A. USC stands out for its arts, business, and technology programs. Around 49,000 students attend the university, which reports an admission rate of 12%. 

USC boasts a large financial aid budget, awarding over $640 million in scholarships and aid. The university's programs guarantee tuition-free attendance for those from families making $80,000 or less.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$59,260
Out-of-state
$59,260
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$47,880
Out-of-state
$47,880
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: Medium

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
Medium
Retention Rate
91%
Acceptance Rate
16%
Students Enrolled
46,287
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
89% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission
#10 Best Colleges in California + Full List of Schools

Occidental College

  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 4 years
  • Campus

You've probably seen its campus on screen. Clueless and NCIS were both filmed at the school that once enrolled Barack Obama. But Occidental College is best known for its liberal arts education. At Oxy, you'll choose from over 40 majors. Students also participate in field research and experiential learning opportunities. 

Plus, life at Oxy continues outside of the classroom. In fact, one in four students participates in the athletics program. The 120-acre campus offers a refuge from the excitement of Los Angeles. And Oxy commits to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need, including for undocumented students.

Average Undergrad Tuition
In-state
$55,980
Out-of-state
$55,980
Average Graduate Tuition
In-state
$55,980
Out-of-state
$55,980
ROI Score

ROI Value Score: Low

We’ve reviewed hundreds of schools to find the ones that give you the best bang for your buck.

We compared how much you could earn in 10 years with a degree from this school versus only having a high school diploma. Then we compared that amount against school costs and financial aid opportunities. A higher return for your investment results in a higher score for this school.

Our Methodology
Low
Retention Rate
82%
Acceptance Rate
41%
Students Enrolled
1,839
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
100% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior Colleges and University Commission

List of All Colleges in California

We've created a complete list of all four-year nonprofit universities in California. You can use the table below to compare data on student population, average net cost, acceptance rate, and number of applicants.

The following school data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Schools with fewer than 500 undergraduates were not included in this list.

All Colleges in California
School Total Student Enrollment Average Annual Net Price Acceptance Rate Number of Applicants
Art Center College of Design 2,319 $50,420 76% 982
Azusa Pacific University 8,126 $26,666 87% 3,438
Biola University 5,551 $31,522 57% 4,224
California Baptist University 11,489 $27,304 80% 7,654
California College of the Arts 1,630 $47,862 76% 2,987
California Institute of Technology 2,397 $20,755 3% 16,626
California Institute of the Arts 1,444 $55,225 25% 2,120
California Lutheran University 3,766 $30,416 87% 5,150
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo 22,231 $19,184 30% 58,774
California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt 5,908 $14,325 98% 8,505
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona 29,456 $12,480 55% 49,079
California State University Maritime Academy 925 $17,566 96% 756
California State University, Bakersfield 10,972 $7,521 87% 13,834
California State University, Channel Islands 6,966 $13,540 90% 10,420
California State University, Chico 15,702 $15,517 95% 21,417
California State University, Dominguez Hills 17,837 $5,068 89% 19,165
California State University, East Bay 15,189 $11,464 96% 12,461
California State University, Fresno 25,047 $7,507 95% 18,551
California State University, Fullerton 40,738 $7,925 67% 48,748
California State University, Long Beach 40,190 $9,346 40% 74,718
California State University, Los Angeles 27,513 $5,801 87% 33,939
California State University, Monterey Bay 7,503 $11,435 92% 12,568
California State University, Northridge 40,108 $8,936 91% 25,965
California State University, Sacramento 32,498 $11,596 93% 25,276
California State University, San Bernardino 19,514 $8,805 91% 15,501
California State University, San Marcos 16,255 $10,463 95% 14,774
California State University, Stanislaus 10,481 $7,555 97% 6,077
Chapman University 9,991 $45,033 73% 13,690
Claremont McKenna College 1,422 $28,701 10% 5,709
Concordia University Irvine 3,710 $29,508 69% 3,576
Dominican University of California 1,855 $49,907 93% 1,746
Fresno Pacific University 3,524 $15,255 75% 832
Harvey Mudd College 905 $39,850 13% 4,440
Holy Names University 1,015 $23,065 100% 921
Hope International University 1,138 $26,146 32% 810
La Sierra University 1,738 $25,076 92% 1,878
Laguna College of Art and Design 766 $42,896 100% N/A
Loma Linda University 4,280 N/A 88% 361
Los Angeles Pacific University 2,009 $22,605 100% N/A
Loyola Marymount University 10,184 $52,815 41% 21,695
Menlo College 745 $29,151 62% 3,357
Minerva University 636 $15,215 1% 20,816
Mount Saint Mary's University 2,625 $28,717 76% 2,405
National University 17,135 $30,527 100% N/A
Occidental College 1,964 $44,853 39% 6,305
Otis College of Art and Design 1,252 $48,198 83% 2,083
Pacific Union College 829 $21,841 48% 1,364
Pepperdine University 10,446 $47,804 49% 11,466
Pitzer College 1,168 $39,809 18% 3,500
Point Loma Nazarene University 4,445 $34,933 82% 3,149
Pomona College 1,764 $19,962 7% 10,666
Saint Mary's College of California 3,165 $32,129 88% 3,353
San Diego State University 36,484 $13,017 39% 77,250
San Francisco State University 26,899 $13,267 94% 29,932
San Jose State University 37,133 $14,219 77% 34,002
Santa Clara University 8,918 $50,551 52% 16,650
Scripps College 1,116 $43,923 28% 3,099
Simpson University 993 $25,251 100% N/A
Sonoma State University 7,371 $15,507 94% 10,806
Stanford University 17,680 $18,279 4% 56,378
The Master's University and Seminary 2,606 $30,783 78% 848
Thomas Aquinas College 516 $24,217 85% 262
University of California, Berkeley 45,036 $19,257 11% 128,209
University of California, Davis 40,050 $17,385 37% 94,747
University of California, Irvine 36,505 $14,033 21% 119,191
University of California, Los Angeles 46,116 $16,999 9% 149,801
University of California, Merced 9,093 $13,549 89% 29,920
University of California, Riverside 26,847 $14,487 69% 54,683
University of California, San Diego 41,885 $16,111 24% 131,197
University of California, Santa Barbara 26,124 $16,874 26% 110,995
University of California, Santa Cruz 19,841 $17,975 47% 65,912
University of La Verne 6,201 $25,103 74% 6,172
University of Redlands 4,059 $28,157 82% 3,872
University of San Diego 9,041 $36,008 53% 14,334
University of San Francisco 10,034 $42,953 71% 23,103
University of Southern California 49,318 $36,808 12% 69,062
University of the Pacific 6,066 $21,311 93% 5,891
University of the People 34,192 $1,744 100% N/A
Vanguard University of Southern California 2,268 $24,279 75% 2,778
Westmont College 1,238 $33,554 82% 2,326
Whittier College 1,387 $22,091 82% 2,884
William Jessup University 1,685 $27,591 66% 710
Woodbury University 1,036 $32,182 63% 1,460
Source: NCES

Accreditation for Colleges in California

Schools become accredited when they meet set standards put forth by specific accrediting agencies. Accreditation is a sign that your school provides a quality education. An accredited college is seen as more prestigious. Many graduate programs only accept graduates from accredited schools.

Accrediting organizations in California include the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission and, for online schools, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

Highest-Paying Jobs in California

A higher cost of living in California necessitates higher salaries to live comfortably. Some of the highest-paying jobs in California with the largest growth potential are in the medical field. Other high-paying jobs include lawyer, air traffic controller, and nuclear engineer.

The 10 jobs listed below earn the highest salaries in California.

10 Highest-Paying Jobs in California
Job Annual Mean Salary (2022)
Dermatologists $371,450
Radiologists $339,140
Cardiologists $332,920
Psychologists $311,950
Surgeons $286,080
Chief Executives $275,040
Physicians $258,090
Oral Surgeons $257,690
Airline Pilots $252,110
Nurse Anesthetists $246,510
Source: BLS

What Is the Cost of Attending College in California?

The table below details the cost of college in California as of 2021. As is typical with most schools, out-of-state residents will pay significantly more than in-state residents.

You should also take into account the higher cost of living in California when calculating your total education costs.

Cost of College in California 2021
Institution Type Average 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

Frequently Asked Questions About Colleges in California

How many colleges are in California?

With more than 500 institutions of higher learning, California has more colleges and universities than any other state. According to NCES data, California is home to 306 four-year colleges and 248 two-year colleges.

What is the hardest college to get into in California?

Stanford and Caltech are the two hardest colleges to get into in California. According to fall 2022 NCES data, Stanford's undergraduate acceptance rate was 4%, while Caltech admitted an even smaller 3% of applicants.

Does California have good colleges?

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.

Is it expensive to go to school in California?

Yes, it's often more expensive to go to school in California than it is in other states. This is due to the overall higher cost of living in California, in addition to ever-increasing tuition rates. In fact, California is the third most expensive state to live in.