How Much Does It Cost to Study and Live in California?

portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix
Published on November 10, 2021

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California boasts some of the top public universities in the country. The University of California system, for example, encompasses 10 campuses, five medical centers, and three national laboratories.

While California offers many opportunities for college students, from cultural events to alumni networking and hands-on learning opportunities, the cost of studying in California can be unaffordable for many students. In 2020, California had the third-highest cost of living in the U.S. This high cost of living, driven by a competitive housing market, adds to the overall cost of college.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), California residents attending four-year public schools in the state were charged an average of $8,192 for tuition during the 2019-2020 academic year, which was less than the national average of $9,349 per year. However, after factoring in expenses related to room, board, and supplies, the average total cost for California students was $23,037 — about $2,000 more than the national average.

Careful planning, state financial aid, and frugal living can help reduce the cost of college in California.

How Much Does It Cost to Study in California?

NCES reports that California college students paid an average in-state tuition of about $8,200 at public four-year universities in 2019-2020, compared to the national average of about $9,350. However, financial aid and living costs can have a large impact on the true price of education in California.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, the typical out-of-pocket cost of tuition, living costs, books and supplies, and fees at California colleges ranges from around $1,140 per year at Skyline College — a two-year school in San Bruno — to more than $54,000 a year at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

Tuition

The cost of college in California varies by the type of school you choose. According to NCES, the average cost of tuition for an in-state student at a public two-year college in California was $1,270 in 2019-2020. At four-year colleges, the cost of tuition averaged $8,192. Private four-year schools charged an average of $37,009 the same year. These costs do not factor in additional fees like room and board.

Out-of-state students who choose to study in California often pay a premium to attend state schools. NCES reports that the average out-of-state student paid $8,194 to attend a public two-year college during the 2019-2020 academic year. The average cost jumped to $32,177 per year for non-resident students attending public four-year universities in California.

However, there are ways for some out-of-state students to reduce the cost of a college education in California. California participates in the Western Undergraduate Exchange, which allows residents of the 16 states in the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education to attend schools in other states at a lower cost. The program caps tuition at 150% of the resident tuition rate.

Tuition Costs in California, 2019-2020
Institution Type Average Annual Cost of Tuition and Required Fees
Public 4-year (in state) $8,192
Public 4-year (out of state) $32,177
Private 4-year $37,009
Public 2-year (in state) $1,270
Private 2-year (out of state) $8,194

Source: NCES

Fees

In addition to mandatory fees, colleges and universities may also charge for student activities, on-campus parking, and access to school facilities. These amenities — plus room and board, books, and other necessary supplies — can drive up the cost of college in California.

You can check if certain classes contain hidden or additional costs, such as lab or off-campus facility fees. If those classes don't align with your major, you might want to consider other course options to reduce costs. Also, if you choose not to drive at school, you can avoid fees for parking permits.

Textbooks and Supplies

Textbooks and school supplies can add to your college costs. You'll likely need pens and paper, a laptop, a flash drive, and a sturdy backpack. Students at public four-year colleges and universities paid an average of $1,334 for textbooks and supplies in 2021, according to EducationData.org.

Textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars. To save money, some students choose to rent textbooks. Rental programs ensure you get the latest editions at relatively affordable prices. If you do not plan to keep the textbook as a reference after college, renting may make more sense.

On-Campus Housing

On-campus housing can provide students with convenience, social opportunities, and academic support. College dorms can also be an economical choice in states with high housing costs, like California. Nationally, students paid $11,451 for room and board at public four-year institutions in 2021, according to EducationData.org.

Dorm fees typically include rent, utilities, and internet. Room and board may also include the cost of a meal plan for on-campus dining. Depending on your eating habits, this can reduce out-of-pocket food costs, especially if dorms do not offer kitchen access.

How Much Does It Cost to Live in California?

Tuition and fees make up a large portion of the cost to study in California, but students also need to consider other items that impact the total price of college. Overall, California's cost of living exceeds the national average by about 50%. However, the cost of living can vary widely from community to community. Living in a big city like San Francisco or Los Angeles typically costs more than living in a smaller urban hub, such as Sacramento or Chico.

Rent

Housing costs have been on the rise in California for several years. According to the California Budget and Policy Center, the median household rent in the state has increased by over 13% since 2006. Individuals living in a single-adult household paid an average of $1,046 in housing and utility costs in 2017.

San Francisco has among the highest housing costs in the country. The California Budget and Policy Center reports that individuals living in a single-adult household paid about $1,915 in housing and utility costs in 2017.

Students who want to live off campus can find roommates to share the cost. Consider the cost of renting compared to the cost of on-campus housing. Don't forget to calculate the cost of rental security deposits, first and last month's rent, and utilities, as well.

Utilities

In 2020, California residents paid an average of $117 a month for energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. However, the average cost of utilities per month can vary depending on what part of the state you live in.

You can save energy — and money — by taking simple steps to cut your power use. Choose energy-efficient LED light bulbs. Close your blinds to keep the afternoon sun out. Use fans or open the windows to cool down your apartment instead of using air conditioning. You can also talk to your landlord if you spot repairs that would improve efficiencies, like gaps between doors and walls.

Food

Good nutrition can help students stay healthy and perform their best. But college students may struggle with food costs. Many schools require students living on campus to purchase a meal plan. Off-campus students may find a limited meal plan suits them best, allowing them access to food when they're on campus without much additional cost.

Eating at home can save money over dining out. In California, single adults paid about $270 a month for food in 2017, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. However, these costs vary widely by location. For example, according to PayScale, the average loaf of bread costs $3.89 in Sacramento and $4.28 in San Francisco.

Careful budgeting, meal planning, and coupon clipping can help reduce your food costs. Students with special dietary needs may need to budget more to cover the cost of vegan or gluten-free food options.

Transportation

Owning a car comes with additional costs, including routine maintenance, insurance, and fuel. In early November 2021, gas in California averaged about $4.60 per gallon — much higher than the national average of $3.40 per gallon. In Mono County, gas cost as much as $5.50 per gallon during the same period.

Consider how you will get around your college town and travel back home for visits. Many communities offer public transportation or have good walking routes to school. If you can avoid bringing a car to campus, you can avoid paying for a parking permit. Check to see if your college or community offers discounts on bus passes for students.

Miscellaneous

While food, housing, and tuition make up most of the cost of college in California, don't forget to budget for miscellaneous expenses. This category can include hair appointments, healthcare, concerts, and cultural activities. The average student attending a four-year institution spent between $3,201 and $4,471 on these items in 2021, according to EducationData.org.

You can have fun while sticking to your budget. Check with the office of student life or student affairs for information about special programs at discounted rates. Some schools may offer recreational opportunities or discounted concert tickets. In many communities, businesses offer college discounts if you show them your student ID.

Be sure to budget for healthcare costs. You may be able to access some care through student health centers or qualify for individual health coverage through the state's health insurance marketplace.

How to Lower the Cost of College in California

Apply for Financial Aid, Scholarships, and Grants

Financial aid can significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost of college in California. Be sure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year you're a student. Students should also apply for state education funding like the Middle Class Scholarship or Cal Grant Programs. Additionally, be sure to apply for scholarships through your school and local organizations.

Attend a Public College or University

Public colleges can offer significant savings over private schools thanks to state funding that supports academic programs. According to NCES, in-state students attending public four-year universities in California paid an average of $23,037 for tuition, room, and board in 2019-2020. In contrast, students at California private schools paid an average of $51,750.

However, learners may benefit from generous financial aid packages at private colleges to reduce out-of-pocket costs. Carefully compare financial aid awards when deciding where to study.

Transfer Credits

If you successfully completed college-level courses at another school, you may be able to transfer those credits toward your degree. You can reduce your college costs by attending an accredited two-year college first to complete general education courses. Then, you can transfer to a four-year college.

Find Free or Low-Cost Textbooks and Supplies

According to EducationData.org, students paid an average of more than $1,300 for textbooks and supplies at four-year public universities in 2021. Check online resellers or local student ads to find textbooks at lower prices than the campus bookstore offers. And choose used books over new books. Also consider renting books to get the latest editions at a lower cost. You may even be able to share books with friends and classmates.

Transfer Work, Volunteer, or Military Experience Into Credit

Professional, military, and volunteer experience can equip you with skills and knowledge. Many schools offer college credit for this experience through prior learning assessments. Adult learners who get credit for prior learning complete their degrees at higher rates than their peers. The average adult student earns about 17 credits through these assessment programs, reducing the time needed to graduate.

Frequently Asked Questions About Studying and Living in California

How much does it cost to be a college student in California?

According to NCES, in-state students at public four-year California schools paid an average of $23,037 in 2019-2020. This amount includes tuition and required fees, as well as the cost of room and board.

However, students often face other costs when attending college. Textbooks, school supplies, transportation, entertainment, and personal care all increase the cost of college.

Is California expensive to live for students?

While financial aid often considers tuition and fees, housing costs can compound the cost of college in California. The state's cost of living exceeds the national average significantly, mostly due to housing costs. Individuals living in a single-adult household in California paid an average of $1,046 in housing and utility costs in 2017, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.

The Center reports that a single adult needed an income of about $30,000 to pay for basic expenses in 2017. However, costs vary from city to city. Modoc County residents needed $19,500, for example, while San Francisco County residents needed nearly $45,000 a year to afford necessities.

Is California a good place to go to college?

The state boasts a large network of community colleges, state-supported universities, and prestigious private schools. The California State University system includes 23 campuses and serves about 486,000 students, while the University of California system includes 10 campuses with five medical centers and three national laboratories. And the community college network encompasses 116 campuses serving about 2 million students.

California offers generous state financial aid programs. About half of community college students qualify for tuition waivers. The Cal Grant program pays the cost of tuition at public universities, with some funding for private schools, as well.

Why is the overall cost of college so expensive in California?

In 2017, California spent about $12.3 billion on higher education funding for the University of California, California State University, and California Community Colleges systems.

However, the state cut back on higher education funding following the recession in 2008. The University of California System saw funding fall from the equivalent of $23,000 per student in 1976 to $8,000 per student in 2016. Schools responded by raising tuition costs. Nonetheless, community colleges in California remain some of the most affordable in the nation.

Like schools across the country, California has struggled to address increased demand from students. Administrative costs increased nationwide by about 61% between 1993 and 2007, according to EducationData.org. Amenities, like fitness centers and student activities, can also cost institutions money.

Does California offer free college?

The California College Promise Grant waives enrollment fees for eligible California residents. Students must meet financial need criteria and maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher. About half of all community college students in California have their tuition waived through this grant. Undocumented students can also qualify for this grant by completing a California Dream Act Application.

With more than 110 community colleges, students can often find a school nearby. If students plan on transferring to a four-year university, they can apply for the Cal Grant program, which helps pay the cost of tuition at several state universities. The state also offers grants that students can apply towards living expenses.

Is attending college in the Golden State the right choice for you? Our guide explores the most popular reasons to study in California. This article covers California's recent expansion of a program to grant qualifying students free access to two years of community college, as well as similar programs across the country. Most families don't pay "sticker price" for college, but learning the ins and outs of financial aid offers can be daunting. Here are some tips.

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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