UC vs. CSU: How Do the Two University Systems Compare?

California's two public university systems include over 30 schools. But how do the UC schools compare to the CSU schools? Find out in this guide.

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

Published on March 7, 2022 · Updated on May 11, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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UC vs. CSU: How Do the Two University Systems Compare?


California is home to two extremely popular public university systems: The University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU). Together, these systems enroll more than 660,000 undergraduates, attracting students from all over the world.

Despite their shared renown, these two school systems differ in terms of factors like student experience, cost, and admission requirements. For example, whereas the UC system appears often on best colleges rankings lists, the CSU schools are considered far more affordable.

Learn more about how the UC schools and CSU schools compare, and get tips on which system may be a better fit for you.

What Are the UC Schools?

Founded in 1868, the University of California system predates the California State University system by nearly a century. The UC system comprises 10 schools, nine of which enroll undergraduates. The 10 UC schools include top-ranked institutions like UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego.

Compared to the Cal State schools, the UC schools generally report lower acceptance rates, with UCLA and UC Berkeley accepting just 14% and 17%, respectively, of first-year applicants in fall 2020. Each year, UCLA alone receives over 100,000 applications.

More than 225,000 undergraduates enroll at all UC schools. Several factors attract students, including the system's strong research programs, its Nobel Prize-winning faculty, and its world-class reputation.

List of UC Schools
School Nickname(s) Undergraduate Enrollment (Fall 2020) Acceptance Rate (Fall 2020)
University of California, Berkeley UC Berkeley; Berkeley; Cal; California 30,799 17%
University of California, Davis UC Davis; UCD 31,162 46%
University of California, Irvine UC Irvine; UCI 29,638 30%
University of California, Los Angeles UCLA 31,636 14%
University of California, Merced UC Merced 8,276 85%
University of California, Riverside UC Riverside; UCR 22,693 66%
University of California, San Diego UC San Diego; UCSD 31,842 37%
University of California, San Francisco* UC San Francisco; UCSF N/A N/A
University of California, Santa Barbara UC Santa Barbara; UCSB 23,196 37%
University of California, Santa Cruz UC Santa Cruz; UCSC 17,207 65%

Source: NCES

*Enrolls only graduate students.

What Are the Cal State Schools?

The oldest CSU campus in San Jose predates UC Berkeley. In fact, San Jose State University is the oldest college in California.

The Cal State system as a whole, however, dates to 1960, when the state legislature passed a plan for California public colleges. Today, CSU includes 23 schools that enroll over 435,000 undergraduates.

Compared to UC schools, CSU schools maintain slightly smaller student bodies and report higher acceptance rates. While most UC campuses are based in California's major cities, CSU campuses can be found in a mix of urban and rural areas.

The newest CSU campus in Channel Islands is one of the smallest public universities in California.

List of CSU Schools
School Nickname(s) Undergraduate Enrollment (Fall 2020) Acceptance Rate (Fall 2020)
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona Cal Poly Pomona 27,912 65%
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Cal Poly 21,456 38%
California State University, Bakersfield CSU Bakersfield; CSUB 9,979 78%
California State University, Channel Islands CSU Channel Islands; CSUCI 6,947 79%
California State University, Chico Chico State 15,747 90%
California State University, Dominguez Hills CSU Dominguez Hills; CSUDH 16,022 81%
California State University, East Bay Cal State East Bay 13,141 73%
California State University, Fresno Fresno State 22,704 90%
California State University, Fullerton Cal State Fullerton; CSUF 36,975 68%
California State University, Long Beach Cal State Long Beach; CSULB 34,216 42%
California State University, Los Angeles Cal State LA 22,832 76%
California State University Maritime Academy Cal Maritime 907 82%
California State University, Monterey Bay CSU Monterey Bay; CSUMB 6,509 86%
California State University, Northridge CSUN 34,916 66%
California State University, Sacramento Sacramento State; Sac State 29,296 83%
California State University, San Bernardino Cal State San Bernardino; CSUSB 17,250 78%
California State University, San Marcos CSU San Marcos; CSUSM 15,040 79%
California State University, Stanislaus Stanislaus State; Stan State 9,903 89%
Humboldt State University Humboldt State 6,008 85%
San Diego State University San Diego State; SDSU 31,491 37%
San Francisco State University San Francisco State; SF State 24,024 84%
San Jose State University San Jose State; SJSU 27,701 67%
Sonoma State University Sonoma State; SSU 7,255 89%

Source: NCES

UC vs. CSU: 7 Key Differences

What's the difference between schools in the University of California system and schools in the California State University system? This section breaks down seven key differences when comparing UC vs. CSU schools.

1. Enrollment

Overall, the CSU system enrolls nearly twice as many undergraduates as the UC system does. That said, the average UC campus has more undergraduates.

The nine undergraduate-enrolling UC campuses average 25,000 students each, while the average CSU campus has around 19,000 undergraduates. UC Davis, UC San Diego, and San Diego State all enroll around 31,000 undergraduates.

2. Student Demographics

While both university systems report diverse student bodies, CSU schools tend to enroll more historically marginalized students.

In 2018, nearly half of CSU students were Latino/a, compared with 29% of students at UC schools. White students made up around 21-22% of the student population at UC and Cal State schools, while Black students made up less than 5% in both systems.

3. Location

Most UC schools are located in California's major metropolitan centers, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Bay Area. In contrast, CSU campuses cover more geographically diverse regions, from urban to rural.

Whether students want an urban college experience or a college town experience, both Cal State and the UC system offer opportunities.

4. Selectivity

All in all, the UC schools report lower admission rates, with some standing as highly selective institutions. For example, UCLA accepts just 14% of applicants, and UC Berkeley accepts 17%. UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced, and UC Riverside are the only UC schools that accept more than 50% of applicants each year.

In contrast, the CSU schools report higher admission rates. The most selective, Cal Poly and San Diego State, accept 37-38% of applicants, while the least selective, Fresno State and Chico State, admit a whopping 90% of applicants.

5. Cost of Attendance

In general, the UC schools charge higher tuition rates than the CSU schools. And due to the higher cost of living in cities with UC campuses, students may also pay more in room and board.

California residents pay an estimated $13,000 per year in tuition to attend UC schools. CSU, meanwhile, charges just $5,700 in tuition per year.

At public colleges, out-of-state students pay higher rates. At UC campuses specifically, out-of-state students typically pay over $44,000 in tuition each year.

6. Academic Offerings

While both Cal State schools and UC schools offer a variety of academic majors, the Cal State system more strongly emphasizes technical and vocational programs.

At Cal Poly, for example, undergraduate fields of study include industrial technology and packaging, culinology, and viticulture.

7. Campus Experience

Students looking for a traditional college experience will likely find that at a UC campus. CSU schools predominantly enroll nontraditional and commuter students, lending them a less traditional campus feel.

The UC system is designed more so for residential students who require campus housing. In comparison, CSU students are more likely to live off campus and commute to classes.

Cal State vs. UC: Which Is Right for You?

So which should you choose: a University of California school or a California State University school?

The answer depends on your unique circumstances. Out-of-state students can count on higher acceptance rates and lower costs at CSU schools. California residents, meanwhile, may still need an impeccable GPA to gain admission to certain UC schools.

Be sure to consider factors such as cost, how competitive your application is, and whether you want to live on campus. You should also factor in the location of the school and majors offered.

Ultimately, many prospective California-based college students apply to both UC and Cal State schools. A campus visit after receiving an admission letter can help break the tie.

Frequently Asked Questions About UC vs. CSU Schools

Which is better: UC or Cal State? true

UC schools tend to have a better academic reputation than Cal State schools. When it comes to college rankings, for example, UC schools top many lists. Institutions like UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UC San Diego rank among the best public universities in the country, while CSU schools tend to rank lower.

Nevertheless, the better system for you depends on your needs, goals, and perspective. When California designed its public university system, the UC schools were meant to emphasize research and theoretical subjects. In contrast, Cal State schools were meant to train learners in practical topics with focused career paths.

Another factor to consider is cost of attendance. Whereas UC schools charge higher tuition rates, CSU schools maintain much more affordable tuition rates.

Which Cal State school is the best? true

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona tend to rank highest among Cal State campuses. The Cal Poly schools offer a public school education with a polytechnic focus, much like Caltech and MIT. As public institutions, however, Cal Poly charges much lower tuition rates.

Other top-ranking Cal State schools include Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton, and San Jose State. Compared to UC schools, these Cal State campuses offer higher acceptance rates. That means students with the same academic record will be more likely to receive an admission offer at a CSU school.

Can I transfer from CSU to UC?

Yes, you can transfer from a CSU campus to a UC campus. To do this, you must submit a transfer application during the regular fall admission cycle. A transfer option helps students with lower high school grades demonstrate a strong track record at the college level. UC schools evaluate college transcripts to make admission decisions.

Since the CSU and UC schools both operate as public institutions in California, more credits may transfer than they would to other institutions.

Many students also transfer from California community colleges into the UC system. According to the UC system, around one-third of undergraduates transfer into a UC school.

Why are CSU schools cheaper than UC schools?

UC schools charge around $13,000 in tuition per year, while CSU schools charge around $5,700 per year. Why are CSU schools more affordable? The cost difference comes down to key differences between UC vs. CSU schools.

UC schools operate as residential campuses focusing on research and graduate education. CSU schools, in contrast, largely enroll commuter students who do not live on campus. Their campuses also emphasize practical, career-focused training over research-heavy disciplines.

Feature Image: Steve Proehl / The Image Bank / Getty Images

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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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