Best Value Colleges And Universities In California

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Best Value California Schools

By Iris Stone

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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.

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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.

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  1. Stanford University
    Location

    Stanford, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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!

  2. University of California Berkeley
    Location

    Berkeley, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

  3. California Institute of Technology
    Location

    Pasadena, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

  4. University of California Los Angeles
    Location

    Los Angeles, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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%.

  5. University of California San Diego
    Location

    La Jolla, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

  6. Harvey Mudd College
    Location

    Claremont, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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!

  7. University of California Irvine
    Location

    Irvine, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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 and the world's largest water blaster fight.

  8. Pomona College
    Location

    Claremont, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

  9. University of California Santa Barbara
    Location

    Santa Barbara, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

  10. California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo
    Location

    San Luis Obispo, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    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.

Sources:
College Navigator
PayScale ROI

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.

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