Best Value Colleges and Universities in California 2021

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Staff Writers
Updated December 18, 2020

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If California were a country, its $3.1 trillion economy would be the fifth largest in the world, according to Forbes. Earning a college degree from one of the many universities in California can help individuals access careers in the state. California's public universities charge a lower average tuition rate than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Entry-level positions in education, healthcare, technology, and business often require a bachelor's degree. Many of these career paths offer above-average salaries and strong job growth in California. For example, high school teachers in the state earn an average salary of $85,080 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered nurses in the state earn an average salary of $113,240 per year, and software developers earn an average annual salary of $134,370.

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This guide ranks the best value colleges in California to help prospective students identify schools that provide high academic quality at affordable prices. Many of these schools offer financial aid for qualifying students, and learners enrolled in California programs can apply for scholarships to help cover the cost of earning a degree.

Accreditation for Schools in California

Before applying to colleges in California, prospective students should verify each school's accreditation status. Accredited institutions meet the highest standards for educating students and granting degrees. To earn accreditation, colleges must undergo a rigorous review process that evaluates student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and graduation requirements.

Institutions can hold regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation is the gold standard for liberal arts and research institutions, while vocational and religious institutions often receive national accreditation.

Accreditation benefits students in important ways. Schools are more likely to accept transfer credits earned from accredited institutions, and many professional licenses require a degree from an accredited school. Additionally, only learners at accredited institutions can qualify for federal financial aid.

In California, the WASC Senior College and University Commission grants regional accreditation to four-year universities. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges accredits community colleges. Students can verify a school's accreditation status using the U.S. Department of Education's searchable database.


Question Answer
How long do you have to live in California to get in-state tuition? Students must live in California for 366 days to claim residency and receive in-state tuition rates. Undergraduate students must demonstrate either financial independence or financial dependence on a guardian who resides in the state.
Is there free college in California? California students receive two free years of education at in-state community colleges. Many California programs guarantee financial aid to cover students' demonstrated need.
How many colleges and universities are located in California? California is home to more than 400 colleges and universities, according to Statista, making it the U.S. state with the most postsecondary institutions.
What is the average cost of college in California? California public universities charge about $8,000 per year in tuition and fees, while private schools cost about $35,000 per year, according to NCES data.

What Are the Requirements for a Degree in California?

Universities in California typically require undergraduate applicants to possess a high school or GED diploma. Applicants may need to submit standardized test scores, recommendation letters, and essays.

Admitted students complete general education requirements, declare a major, and take elective courses. Most colleges allow students to apply prior credits toward their degree. Bachelor's programs generally require about 120 credits. Graduate students may need to complete a capstone project, thesis, or internship.

Certifications and Licensure for Students in California

Many California careers require a professional certification or license. For example, teachers, social workers, and counselors need state licensure to practice. Professionals in fields that do not require a license often pursue voluntary certifications to stand out in the job market. Learners attending colleges in California should research requirements for jobs in their discipline.

California Teaching License

Teachers at K-12 public schools in California need a state-issued teaching license. Candidates for licensure need a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited school and must have completed a state-approved teacher preparation program. Candidates must also demonstrate competence in their subject area, usually by passing exams.

California Social Work and Counseling Licenses

The California Board of Behavioral Sciences grants licensure to clinical social workers and counselors. Candidates for a social work license need a master's degree in social work from an accredited school. Social workers must have completed at least 3,000 supervised hours and must pass a national clinical exam. Clinical counselors need a master's degree and passing scores on a national clinical exam.

California CPA License

Certified public accountants in California must meet educational requirements and pass an examination. Candidates need at least 150 college credits and passing scores on the uniform CPA exam. In California, the Board of Accountancy grants CPA licenses. CPAs renew their license every two years and must meet continuing education requirements to qualify for renewal.

Professional Organizations for Students in California

Joining professional organizations can help students and early-career professionals develop a network. Organizations in California represent teachers, business professionals, healthcare workers, and tech industry professionals. Learners can join professional organizations in their field to access career support and continuing education opportunities.

CTA represents more than 300,000 educators in California. This state affiliate of the National Education Association dates back to 1863. The association maintains more than 1,000 local chapters in California and supports new educators. CTA also offers scholarships and professional development tools. The association publishes a magazine with information for teachers, student-support professionals, and administrators.

CSBA is a nonprofit that advocates for California's small businesses at the state and federal levels. The association maintains a small-business honor roll and provides a legislative tool kit for small-business owners. Members also receive weekly briefs, advisory council information, and opportunities to participate in events.

Founded in 1977, CANP represents more than 26,000 nurse practitioners working in California. The association advocates for nurse practitioners, provides advice and standards of practice, and offers professional development resources. Members can network at local chapter meetings, and CANP offers continuing education classes.

CTC promotes technology and advocates for research, workforce development, and technology-focused educational programs in California. Members receive discounts on business expenses, exclusive offers from other members, and a company profile on the CTC job board. The council also offers continuing education programs and career resources.

Students attending colleges in California can qualify for many scholarships. Nonprofits, professional organizations, and private donors award scholarships that help learners pay for college. In addition to the following opportunities, degree-seekers can research scholarships based on their field, county of residence, and community service experience.

Good Tidings Community Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This scholarship supports high school seniors planning to attend college. Applicants must live in one of 17 northern California counties. Applicants submit a recommendation letter and agree to volunteer for at least one shift during the Good Tidings Foundation's toy giveaway program. The foundation awards 10 scholarships annually.
Amount: $10,000

PBWC Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Professional BusinessWomen of California offers this scholarship to support California high school seniors who plan to pursue a postsecondary business degree. Recipients must choose an accredited college or university, and scholarship winners attend the organization's annual conference.
Amount: Up to $15,000

Horatio Alger State Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This California scholarship supports incoming college students who demonstrate critical financial need. Applicants should plan to attend an accredited college or university and need a minimum 2.0 GPA. Candidates must also provide evidence of community service and a history of overcoming adversity.
Amount: $10,000

Best Value Colleges and Universities in California 2021

  1. University of Southern California

    Los Angeles, CA



    A private research institution in Los Angeles, USC encourages interdisciplinary study and collaboration. Founded in 1880, the university enrolls nearly 20,000 undergraduates and over 26,000 graduate students annually. USC's 22 academic schools and units offer degrees in diverse fields, including the liberal arts, law, social work, and healthcare.

    Some of the university's strengths include the arts, technology, and international business. The School of Cinematic Arts and the School of Dramatic Arts connect students with Southern California's vibrant film and television industry.

    USC offers generous financial aid packages, distributing more than $450 million in financial aid each year. Over 75% of USC's aid comes in the form of gift aid, which does not require repayment. The university recently adopted a new policy to waive tuition for families earning less than $80,000. Thanks to its high-ranking academic programs and strong financial aid support, USC ranks among the best value colleges in California.

  2. Stanford University

    Stanford, CA



    Founded in 1891, Stanford enrolls more than 16,000 students annually. Considered an Ivy-Plus institution, Stanford offers a low student-to-faculty ratio, opportunities for research, and top-ranked academic programs.

    Stanford offers over 65 undergraduate majors and 90 graduate degrees. Majors include architectural design; computer science; international relations; and science, technology, and society. The School of Engineering prepares students for careers in technology, research, and medicine. Stanford also offers graduate degrees in education, law, and medicine.

    Stanford represents one of the best value universities in California thanks to its commitment to covering the demonstrated financial need of all admitted undergraduates. This commitment guarantees that qualifying students earn their degree without student debt. At Stanford, around 70% of students receive financial aid.

  3. Pomona College

    Claremont, CA



    Founded as a private liberal arts college in 1887, Pomona enrolls 1,670 students annually and emphasizes small class sizes and mentoring relationships with faculty. In addition to learning in the classroom, Pomona students can complete internships, research projects, and field study. Pomona is the founding member of the Claremont Colleges consortium.

    Pomona offers nearly 50 majors, including Africana studies, classics, computer science, and environmental analysis. Undergrads can also major in media studies, molecular biology, and neuroscience. More than half of students conduct research with a faculty member.

    The college covers the full demonstrated financial need of admitted students. More than half of Pomona undergrads receive financial aid, with an average financial aid package of nearly $55,000.

  4. University of California-Los Angeles

    Los Angeles, CA



    A public university founded in 1918, UCLA enrolls over 31,000 undergraduates and 13,000 graduate students annually. UCLA receives more undergraduate applications than any other university in the country. In 2020, the public university counted over 100,000 applications. The university encourages multidisciplinary approaches to learning in an intellectually engaging environment.

    UCLA offers over 300 majors, minors, and graduate degrees. The most popular majors include biology, political science, psychology, and economics. At the graduate level, 40 doctoral programs rank in the top 10 for their fields, making UCLA one of the nation's highest-ranked academic institutions.

    Over half of UCLA undergrads receive financial aid, with 35% receiving Pell Grants and 46% paying no tuition thanks to their financial aid package. Forbes ranked UCLA in the top five best value universities thanks to low student debt for graduates.

  5. Claremont McKenna College

    Claremont, CA



    A liberal arts college in Southern California, CMC offers a residential college feel and access to the seven colleges of the Claremont Colleges consortium. The college encourages students to gain leadership experience through internships and fellowships. More than 90% of undergraduates complete an internship.

    CMC's academic programs offer focused areas of study for undergraduates. The college's departments include government, mathematical sciences, history, and science. Students can also study at CMC's School of Economics and Finance. At the Student Opportunity Center, undergrads receive mentoring and advising help to reach their goals.

    CMC admits students on a need-blind basis, looking for evidence of leadership. The Office of Financial Aid connects students with resources to help pay for their degree. With its low class sizes and emphasis on experiential learning, CMC stands out among colleges in California.

  6. California Institute of Technology

    Pasadena, CA



    A science and engineering institute with a world-class reputation, Caltech is a private university with a campus in Pasadena. With under 1,000 undergraduate students and around 1,300 graduate students, Caltech offers a small college feel with high-tech research facilities. The institute promotes collaborative relationships with faculty, research opportunities, and small class sizes.

    Students can choose from dozens of areas of study. Undergraduates can study science and technology while also taking courses in the humanities and social sciences. At the graduate level, learners gain advanced STEM training for careers in research, academia, and technology. Caltech reports a 3-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, one of the smallest in the state.

    About half of Caltech undergrads receive need-based financial aid. The institute's financial aid program makes it one of the best value colleges in California.

  7. University of California-Berkeley

    Berkeley, CA



    Founded in the wake of California's Gold Rush, Berkeley remains a world-class university. The school offers degrees in over 350 areas and hosts dozens of academic departments and interdisciplinary research units.

    Berkeley's academic strengths include programs in engineering, education, business, and information. The university also offers programs in environmental design, journalism, law, and public policy. At the undergraduate level, the College of Letters and Science hosts over 60 departments with majors in the social sciences, humanities, arts, and natural sciences.

    The university's research opportunities include technology-focused areas like artificial intelligence, archaeological digs, and medical research. Nine faculty members hold Nobel Prizes, and over 30 Berkeley alumni are Nobel Laureates. Around two in three undergraduates qualify for financial aid.

  8. Santa Clara University

    Santa Clara, CA



    A private Catholic university founded in 1851, SCU offers a low student-to-faculty ratio and a high student retention rate. At SCU, 95% of freshmen return for their second year, ranking among the top retention rates in the country. The university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees that promote community engagement, creativity, and ethics.

    Learners can pursue degrees in areas like the liberal arts, engineering, and business. At the graduate level, SCU offers degrees in disciplines like education, counseling, law, and theology. Thanks to the university's location in the heart of Silicon Valley, SCU connects students with many opportunities in tech and entrepreneurship.

    Over 70% of SCU's 5,500 undergraduate students receive financial aid. The university connects degree-seekers with scholarships, grants, and work-study programs to help pay for school.

  9. Pepperdine University

    Malibu, CA



    A private university in Malibu, Pepperdine blends academics with Christian values. The university's 830-acre campus overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Throughout its more than 80 programs, Pepperdine encourages students to gain hands-on experience and practical skills.

    Pepperdine hosts five schools, including a business school, a school of public policy, and a law school. The school's liberal arts programs emphasize analytical and critical thinking abilities. At Seaver College, students can study communication, international studies, religion, and the sciences.

    Undergrads at Pepperdine benefit from over $80 million in institutional grants and scholarships. The merit-based and need-based support helps make Pepperdine one of the best value colleges in California. Pepperdine also offers a broad alumni network with over 25 regional chapters and many opportunities for student mentoring.

  10. University of California-Davis

    Davis, CA



    Founded in 1908, UC Davis' sprawling campus covers over 5,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley. With over 200 undergraduate and graduate programs, UC Davis offers strengths in many disciplines.

    UC Davis offers programs in areas like agricultural and environmental sciences, engineering, the liberal arts, education, management, and law. The university also runs the top-ranked School of Medicine and School of Veterinary Medicine.

    UC Davis reports that more than half of students receive gift aid to cover their tuition and fees. Unlike student loans, which must be repaid, 75% of student aid at UC Davis comes in the form of grants, scholarships, and work-study programs, which do not require any repayment. As a result, more than half of all students graduate without debt.

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