By Iris Stone
If any one U.S. state could be given an award for its education system, it might very easily be California. California’s public school system in higher education is the envy of its neighbors, and its state schools rank as some of the very best in the nation – and even the world. California has also become home to some of the world’s most renowned private universities, from the California Institute of Technology to Stanford. You may also want to check our our ranking of best value online colleges in California.
Convenient Online Options
It’s hard to go wrong by choosing to attend a school in California. The state works to keep public tuition low, so you’re practically guaranteed to find an affordable option that meets your budget needs. In fact, in the list below, nearly 65% of the schools offer an annual net price less than $23,000. Of course, all these schools also have plenty to offer in the way of quality academics and stimulating research.
Our Ranking Methodology
Graduation Rate: This indicator refers to the percentage of students who complete their degree within 150% of normal time (six years for a typical four-year degree program). Schools that perform well in this area have a track record of keeping students engaged and successful for their entire time on campus. We weighted this category 30% of the total and retrieved the information from College Navigator.
Net Price: In order to make sure that cost was still a factor in the ranking, we also considered overall net price as an indicator. Taken from data on College Navigator, “net price” is an approximate value that refers to the average amount of money a student could expect to pay each year after taking into account tuition, room and board, living expenses, scholarship awards, and financial aid packages. We weighted this category 25% of the total.
Acceptance Rate: Academically challenging, popular universities tend to be more selective and thus have a lower acceptance rate. In order to pinpoint those colleges that boast rigorous academics and also receive a large number of applications, we considered acceptance rate – the percentage of students out of the total number of applicants who receive an acceptance letter. We retrieved this information from College Navigator and weighted it 30% of the total.
20-Year Net Return on Investment: Taken from information on the website PayScale, this statistic provides a picture of how much students can expect to make after they graduate from a particular college. More specifically, the figure is calculated by taking the average income an alumnus will make over his or her first 20 years after graduation and subtracting the amount paid in tuition. Schools with a high ROI tend to be better at preparing their students for the job market. We weighted this category only 15% because data was not available for all colleges considered.
After adding all the points, we gave each university a final score out of 200. The schools below have scores ranging from nearly 60 to 180, and each has something different to offer in terms of its cost, quality, and reputation. No one college is perfect (which is why the scores vary so much) but this ranking offers you a premier selection of universities to help get you started on your search for an education in California.
50. Pacific Union College
Pacific Union College’s main campus is located on a 1,900-acre, mostly undeveloped property in California’s Napa Valley and features over 30 miles of trails. It is a fully accredited Seventh-day Adventist College and offers a Christ-centered education with over 70 degrees and programs, including 43 majors and 36 different emphases. The school is affiliated with Discoveryland Preschool, the local elementary and middle schools, and it has a Preparatory High School on campus. With around 1,500 students enrolled, Pacific Union has one teacher for every 13 students.
Net Price: $22,738/yr
Total Score: 58.72
49. Simpson University
Simpson University is a Christ-centered community with a liberal arts focus to develop the character, mind, and faith of its students. Simpson embraces five Core Values: Community, Excellence, Accountability, Integrity, and Service. Since it moved to its current campus in 1989, Simpson’s undergraduate enrollment has risen from less than 200 to more than 1,200 students. It has also added the adult studies program ASPIRE, and includes the A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary. Simpson University is committed to Christ-like attitudes – including an appreciation for diversity – and is one of the best universities in California for those wanting to learn in a welcoming faith-based community.
Net Price: $18,275/yr
Total Score: 60.06
48. California Lutheran University
Thousand Oaks, California
Cal Lutheran, a school dedicated to helping students from diverse backgrounds and faiths pursue their passions, opened its doors to 330 students in 1961 and is now home to nearly 3,000 undergraduate students from more than 60 countries and numerous faiths. Cal Lutheran is one of the top universities in California for its small class sizes, hands-on learning with dedicated faculty, and many competitive men’s and women’s sports teams. The university offers small class sizes – with a ratio of 16 students to one teacher – and various on-campus events such as “Paws for Petting,” which helps students relax prior to exams. Two-thirds of Cal Lutheran students graduate their degree programs on time – well above the state average.
Net Price: $29,614/yr
Total Score: 60.84
47. Whittier College
Founded in 1887 and grounded in Quaker heritage, this top California college values individuality, tolerance, and the uniqueness of the individual. Whittier College presses its students to be effective communicators and active citizens who promote and embrace diversity. Whittier is one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in America, with students of color making up about 60% of the student body. Only qualified faculty members – NOT teaching assistants – lead class lectures. Opportunities for campus involvement include sports teams, political organizations, and sustainability clubs, to name a few.
Net Price: $24,289/yr
Total Score: 61.64
46. California Maritime Academy
Since 1929, this affordable California college has been committed to developing its role as a leader in technology, engineering, and the transportation industry. With only 1,047 students, Cal Maritime is structured, small, and focused, offering a high-quality education in several majors: business administration, marine engineering, marine transportation, mechanical engineering, facilities, engineering, and global studies. Cal Maritime graduates professionals in maritime areas related to the ocean as an engine and a resource for the global economy. Though it has its students wear uniforms during the class day, Cal Maritime is not a “military” academy, and graduates have no obligation to join the armed services.
Net Price: $11,210/yr
Total Score: 62.91
45. San Francisco Conservatory of Music
San Francisco, California
Founded in 1917, San Francisco Conservatory of Music has about 400 students from 37 states and 25 countries. It was the first degree-granting chamber music program in the United States. With nearly 30 members of the San Francisco Symphony on its faculty, the Conservatory works to inspire the imagination and hone the intellect to produce graduates who can stand out in any career. It is also selective, admitting only 37% of applicants. The Conservatory’s Graduate String Quartet Fellowship Program mentors working string quartets, who can work with faculty and visiting professionals tuition-free. Conservatory outreach programs offer credit for community service and link students with opportunities throughout the Bay Area.
Net Price: $32,012/yr
Total Score: 64.30
44. Fresno Pacific University
The only accredited Christian university in the San Joaquin Valley, Fresno Pacific University values spiritual vitality and academic excellence, making it one of the best colleges in California at preparing students for wise and faithful service. Fresno Pacific consists of four schools: Humanities, Business, Education, and Natural Sciences. These schools are all devoted to collaboration, inclusiveness, and innovation as well as a commitment to Christian values in order to strengthen and improve the Church and society. Fresno Pacific’s expectations and standards are based on three Community Life Values: Integrity, Respect, and Stewardship. Through the Student Life Division, Fresno Pacific offers counseling services and career development, as well as leadership opportunities like becoming a mentor or peer ministry lead.
Net Price: $16,325/yr
Total Score: 64.34
43. University of La Verne
La Verne, California
The University of La Verne is dedicated to the idea that quality, values-based education enriches the human condition. It promotes professionalism, scholarly accomplishment, and service, as well as the respect of individuals, justice, and the health of the planet. La Verne has programs in more than 70 majors with a student to faculty ratio of 12 to one. In addition to the usual undergraduate programs, La Verne offers accelerated education for adult learners. With more than 50 student clubs and organizations, the university encourages students to get involved. This includes an active series of student blogs, which promotes an understanding of unique, individual college experiences.
Net Price: $24,435/yr
Total Score: 66.86
42. Chapman University
Chapman University strives to create an interconnected campus community in the heart of Orange County, offering small classes to 7,500 students who come from all over the world. Chapman boasts the small-town charm of Old Town Orange, as well as easy freeway access to Los Angeles, local mountains, and beaches — making it one of the best California colleges not only for its nearly 75% graduation rate, but also for its location. Students can choose from over 50 undergraduate majors, learning from world-class faculty who hold prestigious awards in their field. The university’s Semester at Sea program comprises a unique study abroad experience in exotic locales such as Singapore, South Africa, and Kenya, and a sailing journey of 24,000 miles.
Net Price: $35,258/yr
Total Score: 68.41
41. California State University Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
Cal State L.A. is an excellent choice for students interested in a high-quality but cheap California college at a diverse urban campus, serving over 20,000 students and offering 112 different majors that include forensics science, education, business, health, and sea floor engineering programs. The university, which provides a high return on investment, also offers an Early Entrance Program (EEP) for gifted high school students. Cal State L.A. offers numerous campus involvement opportunities, from Student Government (ASI) and Golden Eagle Radio to the University Times newspaper. And the campus’ more athletically inclined students can enjoy cheering for the esteemed baseball, track, and basketball teams. Finally, the Erika J. Glazer Family Dreamers Resource Center offers services designed to ensure undocumented students have equal access to a university education.
Net Price: $2,735/yr
Total Score: 69.33
40. La Sierra University
La Sierra University’s three tenets of education – academic research, Christian faith, and service to others – shape the campus experience that began more than 90 years ago. Students enjoy small classes taught by attentive, supportive faculty as they explore one of a variety of majors that are spread across four schools: Business, Arts and Letters, Divinity, and Education. The university also has the distinction of being named the most diverse in the western United States the past five years, according to U.S. News & World Report. Students at La Sierra have committed more than 45,000 hours to serving others, earning the university a place on the 2007 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.
Net Price: $24,027/yr
Total Score: 70.03
39. Loyola Marymount University
Los Angeles, California
Founded in 1911 on 142 acres in Los Angeles, LMU aims to educate the whole person – and not simply provide information, facts, and figures. This strategy keeps students engaged from start to finish, and a full 80% graduate on time. LMU fields teams in Division I sports ranging from baseball and basketball to track and field and soccer. The West Coast Conference team has won numerous championships, and has produced Olympic athletes and All-Americans. Loyola Marymount really does have something for everyone; entertainment-minded students will note that the School of Film and Television is eighth in the nation, according to The Hollywood Reporter. What’s more, the Princeton Review noted the university’s focus on volunteerism, with students contributing about 200,000 hours across various nonprofits and schools throughout Los Angeles.
Net Price: $40,757/yr
Total Score: 71.81
38. University of California Merced
The University of California, Merced offers a well-rounded, high-quality education just miles from Yosemite National Park. The campus serves s a model in sustainable design – a big plus for eco-conscious students – and serves as a major hub for advanced research in the Central Valley. UC Merced offers more than twenty distinct majors, each of which will gain you access to world-renowned professors and visiting guest lecturers. Students can take advantage of the Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center for intramural sports, exercise equipment, and fitness classes. What’s more, UC Merced features more than 150 student clubs – in the arts, professional societies, and cultural and religious groups, among others – making it one of the best universities in California for students who want to get involved on campus and in the community.
Net Price: $12,009/yr
Total Score: 73.03
37. San Francisco State University
San Francisco, California
San Francisco State University boasts a diverse campus representing students from over 100 different countries, and it consistently ranks in the top 20 in the nation for minorities earning bachelor degrees. Established as a teacher-training school in 1899, SFSU employs award-winning faculty members and innovative researchers who are also committed to undergraduate education. In addition to teaching, this cheap college in California offers outstanding programs in Dietetics, Apparel Design, Communicative Disorders, and Theater Arts. Students remain active and involved outside the classroom with over 200 available clubs and organizations, including fraternities and sororities, competitive and intramural sports, and campus recreation activities. The university offers a valuable degree with an exceptional return on investment.
Net Price: $9,356/yr
Total Score: 75.70
36. California Institute of the Arts
Walt and Roy Disney established Cal Arts, one of the top colleges in California, in 1961 to nurture artists and to promote innovation. Recently named the #5 American film school in the nation by the Hollywood Reporter, this selective school – which admits less than a quarter of applicants – offers extraordinary teachers, the newest technologies and equipment, and career connections. The university offers BFA degrees in areas such as Aesthetics and Politics, Animation, Performance, and Composition. Students also enjoy one-on-one interaction with faculty in the pilot Research and Practice Fellowship Initiative. And if you’re interested in teaching, consider the Cal Arts Community Arts Partnership, which grants students the opportunity to teach arts classes to elementary and high school students at social services agencies, public schools, and community centers throughout southern California.
Net Price: $43,457/yr
Total Score: 79.46
35. California State University San Marcos
San Marcos, California
For more than 20 years, California State University, San Marcos, one of the most affordable colleges in California, has provided San Diego’s North County area with an educational experience that combines hands-on training with theoretical learning. Today, CSU San Marcos features cutting-edge research and science, as well as real-world experiences, to empower the next generation to succeed in increasingly technical career fields. Serving the community is key at San Marcos, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recognized the school for engaging the community through service, research, and teaching. Attending CSU San Marcos for its low net price is not just a bargain, it’s an investment; the school’s 20-year return on investment tops $330,000.
Net Price: $7,725/yr
Total Score: 79.86
34. Hope International University
Hope International University serves Orange County and a host of Internet-connected students worldwide with a mission to develop faithful graduates who improve the world and spread the word of Christianity. This top California college, which accepts less than one-third of applicants, offers both undergraduate degrees and credential programs to qualified learners. Hope International students can explore athletics as well as various student clubs and organizations, including Ultimate Frisbee, the International Justice Mission, and the Black Student Union. Undergraduates complete their studies at the Fullerton campus, tackling even the most difficult subjects with ease thanks to a comfortable 14-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.
Net Price: $22,275/yr
Total Score: 80.31
33. Providence Christian College
Providence Christian College is one of the best colleges in California for those looking to earn a high-quality and affordable liberal arts education rooted in 21st-century Christian faith. Adhering to the values of Faith Guided Learning, the school’s mission aims to ground students in biblical truth, encourage church engagement, and promote service to the community. The Liberal Studies degree offers many specializations, including Biblical Languages, Theological Studies, and Education, among others. Active students may want to join the intercollegiate cross country, cycling, soccer, or volleyball team, or make friends and give back through the Avodah Program. This group encourages work and service to the community and hosts recurring excursions such as the Mexico Cross Cultural Study and the Study of Skid Row.
Net Price: $20,187/yr
Total Score: 85.31
32. California State University Fresno
Fresno State University boasts strong academics and a mix of student activities and highly ranked Division I athletics to remain one of the best and most affordable California colleges in the state’s San Joaquin Valley. CSU-Fresno has also proven to be a good value, with a 20-year return on investment of over $300,000. There are many opportunities for students to stay active, get involved in a group, conduct research, or even take in a game at Bulldog Stadium or the Save Mart Center. Students can choose from a host of sororities and fraternities, club sport groups, and effect positive change through service-oriented activities. Each April, the university hosts Vintage Days, a community-wide, student-led celebration that draws more than 50,000 people from the Fresno area.
Net Price: $5,559/yr
Total Score: 87.21
31. California State University Northridge
As one of the largest single-campus universities in the country, CSU Northridge brings an unprecedented collection of resources, high-tech facilities, and curious students together into one 356-acre space. The campus is comprised of nine colleges, which together offer nearly 60 different degrees just for undergraduates. CSU Northridge also sponsors an important venture known as the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which works to help low-income, first-generation college students be successful in class and graduate on time. Alumni include distinguished members of society, from Grammy award winners to successful journalists – even an astronaut! It’s no wonder the 20-year net ROI for Northridge tops $300,000.
Net Price: $7,654/yr
Total Score: 87.55
30. Bethesda University
Bethesda University is not like other affordable California colleges. Founded by Dr. David Yonggi Cho, a Korean minister and the pastor of one of the world’s largest congregations, BU is an extension of his spiritual vision. The university is committed to developing a new generation of leaders who let a strong Christian compass guide their careers. Undergraduate majors include just a few key areas, such as Biblical Studies, Pastoral Ministry, and Child Care Education, as well as programs in Legal and Business Administration. Bethesda works to improve students’ cultural understanding as well, and many opt into the study abroad program at Hansei University in Korea.
Net Price: $8,383/yr
Total Score: 87.66
29. California State University Dominguez Hills
California State University at Dominguez Hills earns the unique distinction of having the lowest overall net price on this list. After awards and financial aid, you could potentially attend this university for less than $2,000 a year! Even for its low price, CSUDH provides a “transformative” education that encourages students to step outside their comfort zones. In addition to a slew of undergraduate degree programs, this top university in California supports exciting opportunities like the “America Happens Here” Contest. Part of the school’s annual inaugural activities, this contest invites students to reflect on their experience on campus and express the school’s representative diversity through creative means.
Net Price: $1,640/yr
Total Score: 87.75
28. San Jose State University
San Jose, California
Students from all over the country flock to San Jose State for its premier location, which is central to both tech-savvy San Francisco and the laid back Monterey/Carmel area. It’s impossible not to take full advantage of SJSU’s sunny skies and perfect geography; campus activities include the Outdoor Fitness Adventure Program, the Cesar E. Chavez Community Action Center, and the Spartan Squad – a robust athletic booster group that makes school spirit its number one priority. Couple these benefits with academic programs that excite every interest – from Aerospace Engineering to World Languages and Literatures – and a low net price, and it’s no wonder satisfied graduates go on to recoup a serious return on investment.
Net Price: $10,729/yr
Total Score: 90.67
27. Occidental College
Los Angeles, California
What makes Occidental College different? “Oxy,” as it is affectionately known, offers an intimate haven away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Undergraduates come together to form a tight-knit community of dedicated learners, committed to furthering the values of community, creativity, and conversation. The campus is home to just over 2,000 avid learners, and if you gain admittance to this selective school you’ll enjoy small class sizes that average just 19 students. But classwork is just one aspect of the experience at Oxy; you’ll learn just as much in your activities outside of school, whether you join the Glee Club, help run the student-led TV network “CatAList,” write for the Occidental Weekly, or fuel a student entrepreneurial initiative like the Green Bean Coffee Lounge. These fun activities are also skill builders, and they’re part of the reason this top college in California maintains an 85% graduation rate.
Net Price: $32,746/yr
Total Score: 96.49
26. University of California Riverside
UC Riverside attracts students who dream big and think differently. The university supports an ample research program that explores topics you didn’t even know existed, from the characterization of inorganic materials at the Central Facility for Advanced Microscopy and Microanalysis to the study of how architecture represents power at the Center for Ideas and Society. In fact, UC Research has been responsible for nearly 90 distinct startups and more than 1,500 inventions in just one year. This entrepreneurial spirit tends to stick with students after graduation, and alumni’s success has earned this top university in California an average 20-year net ROI of more than $360,000.
Net Price: $13,110/yr
Total Score: 98.52
25. University of California Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California
From UCSC’s humble beginnings in 1965, when it first invited just 650 students to its campus, it now proudly houses more than 15,000 undergraduates each year. But the university hasn’t just grown in size – it has also quickly gained in prestige, from wielding international research influence (tied with none other than MIT, according to Times Higher Education) to its top performance in the natural and social sciences. Yet despite its success, Santa Cruz has maintained a laidback attitude and attracts students with fun-loving personalities. The student body even opted to institute the banana slug as its mascot, a quirky choice that serves as just one more reason UCSC is one of the best universities in California for out-of-the-box thinkers.
Net Price: $14,759/yr
Total Score: 99.77
24. Santa Clara University
Santa Clara, California
Santa Clara University is one of the premier religious institutions in the state, following Jesuit, Catholic traditions as it leads students toward faith-inspired learning. And despite being a private college with a slightly hire price tag, SCU does plenty to assuage tuition costs – enough that Money Magazine recognized the university for its “best value” in education. Attending Santa Clara pays off, and the proof is in the statistics. A full 85% of students graduate on time, setting them up for success that will help them succeed the school’s average 20-year ROI of nearly $600,000. And of course the school’s stellar academic programs don’t hurt; from study abroad options to community based learning, you’ll soon forget that learning was once limited to the classroom.
Net Price: $36,645/yr
Total Score: 100.15
23. Scripps College
Scripps College is one of the renowned “Claremont Colleges,” a consortium of Claremont-based universities that share a devotion to student-centered liberal arts education on a small scale. Scripps further individualizes itself by being a women-only school, and one of the best in the nation at that. The top California college admits fewer than a third of applicants but graduates more than 85% on schedule. You’ll start your experience at Scripps with the one-of-a-kind, three-semester Core Curriculum in Interdisciplinary Humanities, which features tough classwork in history, sociology, economics, international relations, literature, social justice, culture, and more, all organized within the unique framework of classes like “Eat the Rich! Capitalism at Work” and “Cyberculture and the Posthuman Age.”
Net Price: $35,037/yr
Total Score: 102.60
22. University of San Diego
San Diego, California
The University of San Diego is a traditional university with Catholic roots, propelling its students forward on the values of intellectual curiosity, faith, and social justice. The campus is perched on 180 acres overlooking a canyon, offering spectacular views and plenty of quiet spots for students to contemplate their future (and given that the average 20-year ROI for these students is $625,000, the future is usually bright!). Downtown San Diego, beaches, and the mountains are all just a short drive away, but that doesn’t mean USD students are easily distracted. You’ll have more than 40 different majors to choose from, and more than 70% of students study abroad at least once in their four years – making USD one of the best colleges in California for international travel. Other unique opportunities include the Changemaker Hub, a program founded as a way to empower students, bring them together, support their ideas, and celebrate the community at large.
Net Price: $13,693/yr
Total Score: 104.59
21. California State Polytechnic University Pomona
The California State Polytechnic University at Pomona is just one of two campuses associated with “Cal Poly.” You’ll see the San Luis Obispo campus further down on this list, ranked higher for its selectiveness and graduation rates. However, Pomona provides a smart option for students who seek all the resources of a polytechnic university for a lower overall cost. Cal Poly Pomona prioritizes hands-on learning and practical application of real skills, preparing students for career work in a way that exceeds many universities. As such, it’s not surprising that the university’s 20-year net ROI comes in just short of $560,000. Students who are ready to dive into active learning should consider Pomona’s programs in agriculture, business, engineering, education, or environmental design.
Net Price: $9,824/yr
Total Score: 106.84
20. University of the Pacific
The University of the Pacific reaches across three distinct campuses but concentrates its activities primarily in Stockton, California. Described as one of America’s most beautiful places to attend college, U of P features ivy-covered buildings, shady foliage, and manicured hedges, presenting an air of distinction that matches the college’s focused academic attitude and commitment to success. And despite being a small liberal arts school, the University of the Pacific has a robust research department and encourages undergraduates to get involved. You can even get funding for your original ideas and present your results at an annual conference the school hosts. Although its name doesn’t draw the same attention as schools like Stanford or CalTech, this university is about as selective as they come – its admission rate hovers around 11% from year to year.
Net Price: $33,141/yr
Total Score: 108.46
19. Soka University of America
Alisa Viejo, California
Earning the distinction of being a “best value” university isn’t just about low cost – it’s about providing students an exceptional experience for their tuition dollars. Not only is Soka University of America affordable, but it also builds study abroad travel into the cost of tuition, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn about other cultures and expand their worldview. What’s more, Soka’s incredible financial aid program offers free tuition to any students whose family income falls below $60,000 a year (room and board fees still apply). Further distinguishing itself, SUA operates based on a “nonsectarian curriculum” loosely based on the Buddhist values of peace and human rights.
Net Price: $13,635/yr
Total Score: 110.48
18. California State University Fullerton
There are plenty of reasons to choose CSU Fullerton for your college education, not the least of which is its commitment to diversity. Students from all backgrounds collaborate in and out of the classroom and enjoy community-building events like Concert Under the Stars, a Motown-inspired night of music that kicks off the school year and sets the tone for future campus-wide activities. When you’re ready to get down to business more than 50 different undergraduate academic programs await, including Asian American Studies, Comparative Religion, Environmental Engineering, Military Science, and Radio/TV/Film. And from a financial perspective, the California State University at Fullerton is a steal; yearly tuition is low enough to keep many students debt-free and supports quick success after graduation. In fact, its 20-year net ROI tops $360,000.
Net Price: $5,542/yr
Total Score: 111.60
17. Pepperdine University
As a Christian University, Pepperdine continually works to put the religious values it upholds to work. The principles of purpose, service, and leadership act as moral guidelines but also as a way to enhance students’ academic lives. In addition to being a beautiful place to study, Pepperdine University offers a challenging academic environment with 44 distinct undergraduate majors, from International Business and Advertising to Nutritional Science and Philosophy. The university supplements rigorous classroom study with engaging research programs and extracurricular opportunities. Pepperdine students can attend a seminar at the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture; explore their spiritual side at the Center for Faith and Learning; or develop a plan for a cleaner future through the Center for Sustainability.
Net Price: $27,644/yr
Total Score: 114.59
16. Pitzer College
Noted as a “hidden gem” among small California colleges, Pitzer is a haven for socially responsible, environmentally conscious, academically engaged students. The college’s five core values (social responsibility, environmental sustainability, intercultural understanding, student engagement, and interdisciplinary learning) serve as a foundation for all Pitzer’s activities. Whether you choose to major in the arts or sciences, this appreciation for the world around you – and the people living in it – will be paramount. Many students choose to not only embrace this perspective, but also take it with them as they travel the globe; study abroad opportunities are available in Botswana, Japan, Nepal, Italy, Australia, Morocco, and everywhere in between. And as a member of the prestigious group of “Claremont Colleges,” Pitzer College is unquestionably selective: its admission rate sits at just 13%.
Net Price: $26,082/yr
Total Score: 123.95
15. San Diego State University
San Diego, California
“The Aztec Experience” is a unique one, as SDSU encourages students to step outside their comfort zone and create unforgettable college memories. Above all, SDSU distinguishes itself as a center for entrepreneurism and encourages students to turn their passions into prototypes. The Lavin Entrepreneurship Center blends business curriculum with hands-on learning opportunities to help students get their ideas off the ground, while the Zahn Innovation Center acts as a social incubator for entrepreneurial students, providing mentorship and resources for groups who are ready for the next step. Although San Diego State hosts nearly 35,000 students at a time and is one of the oldest institutions in the California system, it isn’t open access; the selective college only admits about 34% of its applicants each year.
Net Price: $10,085/yr
Total Score: 126.56
14. California State University Long Beach
Long Beach, California
At CSU Long Beach, you’ll have the opportunity to explore any and every subject under the sun – and Long Beach has plenty of sunshine! The university promotes a love of learning and encourages students to explore science and technology, develop their artistic expression, and cultivate an appreciation of other cultures all at the same time. Majors at Long Beach span from art (including Design, Dance, and Film and Electronics) and Engineering (including Chemical, Computer, and Aerospace concentrations) to the Liberal Arts (such as Comparative World Literature and Peace Studies). CSU Long Beach also participates in the local Ocean Studies Institute, a collaborative of universities that supports research and academic programs related to marine biology and ocean conservation.
Net Price: $7,672/yr
Total Score: 130.19
13. University of California Davis
UC Davis ranks among the country’s top public research universities and has earned a slew of other honors as well. The university’s biggest strengths are in agriculture and forestry, earth sciences, and veterinary medicine, and you’ll see its name on many of the top resumes circulating Silicon Valley. The surrounding community is friendly and eco-conscious, welcoming new residents who care about the earth and each other. As a student you can attend the Davis Farmers Market, join one of 44 on-campus sororities and fraternities, or hit the trail in one of the country’s most bike-friendly cities. The relaxed atmosphere combined with stimulating academics contribute to the university’s enviable six-year graduation rate of 83%.
Net Price: $16,231/yr
Total Score: 134.96
12. Claremont McKenna College
Claremont McKenna College is one of a group of schools known as “The Claremont Colleges,” all of which are small, selective liberal arts colleges in Claremont, California. CMC supports a student body of around 1,200 and provides an intellectually stimulating environment for some of the nation’s most promising young people. The college features plenty of unique activities on campus, such as the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, a biweekly meeting where students, faculty, and visiting speakers come together to share ideas and socialize in an intellectual environment. In terms of affordability, CMC is leading the charge against rising tuition costs; its “Student Imperative” plan has established a goal to generate $100 million in financial aid and scholarships for incoming students.
Net Price: $23,982/yr
Total Score: 135.75
11. University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California
The University of Southern California shares the city of Los Angeles with a few other top institutions (including the well-respected University of California Los Angeles) but it certainly doesn’t fade into the background. On the contrary, USC is at the forefront of research, arts, and development in the surrounding community, from the annual “Trojan Games” event that helps serve local special needs kids to the more than 75 active research centers on campus. The latter category includes the very popular SETI Institute, which supports space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the Game Innovation Lab, which is entirely dedicated to “experimental game design research.” If this campus sounds like fun to you, prepare to study hard – USC’s yearly acceptance rate is a slim 18%.
Net Price: $31,189/yr
Total Score: 137.69
10. California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo
San Luis Obispo, California
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cal Poly provides easy access to all the best spots on the West Coast. Aside from its prime location, California Polytechnic State University excels in its ability to offer practical education for practical careers. The university earns the highest marks in business, engineering, and architecture, and boasts one of the highest alumni earnings rankings in the country for public schools. More specifically, 97% of Cal Poly grads find employment after graduation and secure an average starting salary north of $50,000. And this trend of financial success is not short-lived: the 20-year net ROI for undergraduates from this school nearly tops $670,000.
Net Price: $16,783/yr
Total Score: 137.72
9. University of California Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California
The University of California Santa Barbara offers the best of all worlds; from temperate weather and an idyllic campus setting to competitive academics and one of the most successful sports clubs in the country, UCSB is a well-rounded haven for multitalented students. Santa Barbara’s academic breadth provides further evidence of its love of diversity, and you can major in Chemical Engineering, Aquatic Biology, History of Public Policy, Japanese, Zoology, or just about anything in between. UCSB also supports an impressive linguistics program (with seven unique emphases) and a gargantuan music department, which offers specializations in more than a dozen different instruments. All this and more contribute to the university’s stellar graduation rate (81%) and attractive 20-year ROI of $445,000.
Net Price: $14,966/yr
Total Score: 139.48
8. Pomona College
Pomona College exemplifies everything that makes liberal arts colleges great – a small student body, intimate classes with attentive professors, and a beautiful campus that makes students want to stick around. Life at Pomona is about “diversity and opportunity,” and you’ll see avenues to get involved everywhere you look. Students can take ballroom dance lessons, join the “Studio 47” video organization, or enjoy all that the great outdoors have to offer with “On the Loose” adventure club. And since Pomona is one of the five “Claremont Colleges,” students benefit from five times the social and networking opportunities without losing their way in the crowd. Students who are lucky enough to gain admittance to PC have their work cut out for them, but it pays off – 93% of undergraduate students secure their diploma in six years or less.
Net Price: $19,205/yr
Total Score: 142.61
7. University of California Irvine
With nearly 30,000 students, UC Irvine is one of California’s largest and most popular academic institutions. Irvine is also one of the country’s younger public universities (founded in 1965) but has achieved an impressive amount in such a short time. The university has quickly earned distinctions as one of the most environmentally sustainable college campuses, one of the “best value” schools for its affordability, and its top-rated creative writing and information/computer science programs. But UCI students find plenty of time for fun, too. When they’re not busy supporting the “Peter the Anteater” mascot at athletic events, they’re helping the university break some pretty creative records; Irvine is in the Guinness Book for hosting the world’s largest dodge ball game (2010) and the world’s largest water blaster fight (2013).
Net Price: $12,072/yr
Total Score: 145.48
6. Harvey Mudd College
If you haven’t heard of Harvey Mudd College, you’re missing out. Although it’s a small school with a higher-than-average annual net price, it’s an ideal choice for students who see education as an investment. The 20-year net ROI for HMC is the highest in the country and stands at an enviable $985,000. Harvey Mudd graduates do so well because the college pushes them to solve problems and think critically rather than just memorize information. The school leans heavily on STEM topics and describes its common core curriculum as a rigorous “academic boot camp” in math and science. Regardless of major, all students take three semesters of math, two and a half semesters of physics, one and a half semesters of chemistry, and one semester of biology, computer science, and engineering – all before even starting their major intensive classes!
Net Price: $33,137/yr
Total Score: 147.43
5. University of California San Diego
San Diego, California
UC San Diego is another one of California’s top state schools, providing a wealth of undergraduate programs to suit every interest. Divisions within the university include the Jacobs School of Engineering, the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The university is also home to one-of-a-kind degree programs like Nano-Engineering, Pharmacological Chemistry, and Music Humanities. Research opportunities are just as diverse, and San Diego is ranked 5th nationally for R&D spending in areas that range from neuroscience to climate change. And whether you choose to pursue graduate study or go straight to industry, UC San Diego is a sound investment – its average 20-year ROI is $625,000.
Net Price: $13,693/yr
Total Score: 152.16
4. University of California Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California
As one of the most popular universities in the country, UCLA has plenty to offer undergrads. It’s actually the most applied-to school in the nation, and received more than 90,000 applications last year alone! UCLA fosters a close-knit community of active learners, as more than 95% of students choose to live on campus each year. The university offers more than 100 areas of study, but the most popular degree choices include business (as well as economics and political science) and psychology (as well as biology and psychobiology). Campus life is vibrant and embodies the attitude of surrounding LA; students can get side jobs acting as extras, attend Coachella, road trip up the PCH, and intern with local bigwigs like Sketchers and Boeing. UCLA’s ability to combine tough academics with fun extracurricular activities may be why it maintains a graduation rate above 90%.
Net Price: $12,510/yr
Total Score: 161.89
3. California Institute of Technology
The California Institute of Technology is unique, to say the least. Its reputation is immense; it’s one of the top-rated universities in the entire world and is nothing short of an innovator in science and engineering. And yet its physical size is small, as there are fewer than 1,000 undergraduate students enrolled and the student-to-faculty ratio is just 3:1. CalTech is about as selective as they come, touting an acceptance rate of just 9% (and 98% of admitted students each year are in the top 10% of their graduating class). That being said, the university does plenty to stay accessible from a financial perspective. In fact, more than half of students receive need-based aid and the average student debt is among the lowest in the nation.
Net Price: $26,910/yr
Total Score: 163.60
2. University of California Berkeley
The University of California Berkeley stands out amongst state schools – and not just in California. UCB’s reputation and resources far outpace the public institutions in most states, particularly when it comes to the teaching faculty. The university’s distinguished professors include even Nobel laureates, 77 Fulbright Scholars, four Pulitzer Prize winners, three Fields Medal winners, 32 MacArthur Fellows, 13 National Medal of Science winners, and three A.M. Turing Prize recipients. These professors will challenge you to reach beyond your comfort level in every academic field, and there are plenty! Berkeley’s degree options include Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern Civilizations, Chemical Biology, Global Poverty and Practice, Medieval Studies, Planetary Science, and Sustainable Design.
Net Price: $16,655/yr
Total Score: 166.10
1. Stanford University
It’s no surprise that Stanford is the #1 university in California; its academic programs are renowned for their excellence in multiple areas, particularly science, engineering, math, technology, and computer science. Stanford is also at the forefront of research in numerous disciplines and encourages students to get involved early on. The university supports nearly 100 research centers in collaboration with independent labs, such as the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, the PULSE Institute for Ultrafast Energy Science, the Center for the Study of Language and Information, and the Stanford Humanities Center. It’s not easy to gain access to this prestigious institution (the acceptance rate is a mere 5%) but the payoff is big – 95% of students graduate on time and the 20-year net ROI exceeds $800,000!
Net Price: $17,952/yr
Total Score: 177.58
About the Author:
Iris Stone began her writing career as a freelance writer and researcher. She now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Her work has included articles related to education policy, colleges and universities, academic programs, and careers.