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.
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.
California Teachers Association
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.
California Small Business Association
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.
California Association for Nurse Practitioners
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.
California Technology Council
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.
Scholarships for Students in California
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Located on a sprawling campus with Pacific Ocean views, UC San Diego promotes collaboration and multidisciplinary learning, preparing graduates for leadership roles in a variety of organizations. With over 100 degrees and programs, undergraduates and graduate students can find a good fit at UC San Diego.
UC San Diego uses an undergraduate college system to divide students into smaller communities. The college system allows undergrads to connect with opportunities and customize their experience. Students can choose from majors in the arts and humanities, the biological sciences, and the social sciences.
UC San Diego's Scripps Institute of Oceanography ranks among the world's best research institutions. The unique Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute offers collaborative opportunities in an emerging field.
A public university founded in 1965, UCI promotes research, academics, and public service. Today, UCI enrolls over 30,000 undergraduates, making it among California's largest universities. It also offers top-rated academic programs.
The university offers dozens of academic programs, including over 80 undergraduate majors. Enrollees can study the arts, humanities, and biological sciences at UCI. The university also offers programs in business, engineering, and education. These programs strengthen analytical and critical thinking skills while preparing graduates to act as leaders. In addition to undergraduate programs, UCI offers over 100 graduate and professional degrees.
UCI ranks among the most affordable California programs thanks to its low in-state tuition rates. The university also supports students through merit-based and need-based scholarships, with opportunities for freshmen, transfer students, and graduate students.
A private liberal arts college for women, Scripps dates back to 1926. The college promotes interdisciplinary learning in an inclusive environment. Students benefit from a residential college environment and small class sizes. Scripps' approximately 1,000 undergraduates can choose from dozens of areas of study.
The most popular majors include the social sciences, psychology, English, the life sciences, and natural resources and conservation. Undergrads can also study linguistics, computer science, and organizational studies at another Claremont college. Incoming freshmen complete a three-semester interdisciplinary program to strengthen their analytical and critical thinking skills.
Scripps promises to meet 100% of every student's financial need, as determined by the college. More than half of students receive grants and scholarships, with an average need-based award of around $44,000.
A Catholic institution in Los Angeles, LMU promotes purpose and justice through its academic programs. Founded in 1911, the university offers degrees from its 142-acre campus on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With just under 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, LMU reports a low student-to-faculty ratio and small class sizes.
LMU offers 60 majors and over 40 graduate programs. Students can earn a degree in business administration, pursue a liberal arts major, or study science and engineering at LMU. The university also offers a School of Film and Television and a College of Communication and Fine Arts. With its close links with Hollywood, LMU also offers a bachelor's in animation, a master of fine arts in writing and producing for television, and degrees in film and television production.
The university supports students through over $200 million in scholarships, grants, and other forms of institutional aid.
A Catholic college in the Bay Area, SMC dates back to 1863, making it one of the oldest colleges in the West. The comprehensive university encourages intellectual curiosity and exploration through its low student-to-faculty ratio and small class sizes. With around 3,500 students, SMC offers a small college feel with rigorous academic training.
SMC offers over 40 undergraduate majors in addition to graduate programs in leadership, education, counseling, and business. The college includes four schools: the School of Liberal Arts, the School of Science, the School of Education, and the School of Economics and Business Administration. Undergraduates complete collegiate seminars as part of the core curriculum. In these seminars, learners analyze texts and debate ideas. Students can also study abroad and take classes during the January term to explore new areas of study.
One of the best value colleges in California, 91% of SMC students receive financial aid. The college connects students with grants, need-based and merit-based scholarships, and other financial aid opportunities. In 2018-19, students received an average financial aid package of around $38,000.
Founded in 1851, Pacific offers personalized learning through its small classes and nearly 100 majors. Established by Methodist ministers, the university grants degrees from its campus in Stockton. One of California's first universities to admit women and offer a four-year graduation guarantee, Pacific features a rich history.
Students can choose from nine schools and colleges, with majors in areas like business administration, computer science, communication, actuarial science, and athletic training. Students can also participate in research fellowships to gain practical experience.
The university's accelerated programs help dedicated students prepare for a graduate-level program after completing their bachelor's degree. Nearly 90% of students receive financial assistance to help cover their tuition costs. The university reports an average financial aid award of nearly $28,000 per student.
A liberal arts college in Los Angeles, Oxy welcomes students to its 120-acre campus. The college encourages students to balance their time in the classroom with learning in the lab, field, and community. Enrollees benefit from small class sizes, supportive faculty, and mentorship opportunities. Oxy also encourages an interdisciplinary approach to learning.
Oxy offers over 40 majors and minors. The school also offers unique opportunities to participate in research, campaigns, and internships with organizations like the United Nations. Learners can study the humanities, the arts, and the sciences at Oxy. Learners can also create a self-designed major. The university encourages strategic thinking and collaboration throughout its programs.
As one of the best value colleges in California, Oxy prioritizes affordability. The university meets 100% of each student's demonstrated financial need, supporting learners with merit-based scholarships, need-based grants, and other financial aid support.
A private Catholic institution founded in 1949, USD enrolls over 9,000 students annually. The university promotes innovation and original thinking throughout its community. The university's seven schools and colleges offer multiple academic programs for undergraduate and graduate students.
The College of Arts and Sciences offers over 60 majors and minors, while the School of Business offers eight undergraduate business majors and a master of business administration program. In the unique School of Peace Studies, students can earn a master's in peace and justice to learn how to resolve conflicts and protect human rights.
As one of the best value universities in California, USD reports that most students receive financial assistance. Undergraduates and graduate students benefit from scholarships, grants, and other financial aid.
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
Founded in 1901 on the Central Coast of California, Cal Poly enrolls nearly 22,000 students annually. The public institution emphasizes hands-on learning, connecting students with local research opportunities in agriculture, tech, and other industries. The university's 9,000-acre campus ranks as one of the largest in the country. The state university offers over 180 areas of study at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Cal Poly emphasizes learning by doing. Undergraduates complement their classroom experience with real-world learning opportunities. For instance, the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences connects learners with partners in the Central Coast ecosystem. The university also offers over 500 study-abroad programs.
A private Jesuit university, USF offers an affordable education in the heart of San Francisco. The university encourages complex thinking and social justice through its liberal arts education. Undergraduates can choose from over 100 majors and minors through the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Management, and the School of Nursing and Health Professions.
Undergraduates complete a core liberal arts curriculum designed to challenge assumptions and promote complexity. The university's majors include advertising, comparative literature, critical diversity studies, data science, and architecture. At the graduate level, USF offers programs in education law, and management.
USF also offers over 100 study-abroad options, encouraging students to incorporate international experiences into their education. Most undergraduates at USF receive financial aid. In fall 2019, incoming students received an average of over $26,000 in financial aid, with 90% of first-year students receiving financial assistance.
Founded in 1907, Redlands operates several campuses in Southern California. The university enrolls 2,500 students in over 50 areas of study. The liberal arts institution also prioritizes community service, reporting more than 120,000 community service hours.
At Redlands, undergraduates receive an interdisciplinary liberal arts education. Students can major in areas like accounting, Asian studies, business administration, and creative writing. In the unique communication sciences and disorders major, undergrads learn to identify abnormal communication processes and offer clinical treatments. Redlands also offers a May term, which lets students complete a focused course of study or study abroad.
Over 90% of Redlands students receive financial aid. The university offers merit-based and talent-based scholarships in addition to other forms of financial aid. The Redlands Promise guarantees that the university will cover the cost of any additional courses after four years of study for students on track to earn their degree.
A public university with over 23,000 undergraduate students, UC Santa Barbara ranks among the best value colleges in California. UC Santa Barbara encourages curiosity, ambition, and connection through its programs. The university emphasizes independent thought and critical reasoning while offering research and interdisciplinary opportunities.
UC Santa Barbara offers over 200 areas of study through its colleges, which include the unique College of Creative Studies, the College of Letters and Science, and the College of Engineering. The school offers master's and doctoral programs in areas like international studies, media arts and technology, and materials sciences.
California residents benefit from the low tuition rates of the University of California system. UC Santa Barbara also offers ScholarshipUniverse, a tool for students to identify and apply for scholarships.
A liberal arts and sciences college in the Claremont Colleges system, Pitzer dates back to 1963. The college enrolls 1,000 students annually and emphasizes a personalized approach. Undergraduates can design custom majors and complete local projects as part of their education. Pitzer offers over 40 majors, including popular options like psychology, economics, and environmental analysis.
Enrollees can also study management engineering; media studies; Asian American studies; and science, technology, and society. In addition, undergrads can choose from majors offered at the other Claremont Colleges to widen their academic options.
With a student-to-faculty ratio of 10-to-1 and an average class size of 16, Pitzer offers a small liberal arts feel with many of the resources of a major research institution. Pitzer pays for 100% of admitted students' demonstrated financial need, including scholarships for academic achievement and undocumented students.
Incoming students identify their interests based on what motivates them, including creative expression, helping people, innovation, and decision-making. Chapman's unique areas of study include majors that emphasize analytical thinking, social change, and leadership. The university promotes creative thinking through its inclusive community.
Each year, Chapman invests over $120 million in financial aid for its students. Over 80% of undergraduates receive financial aid, with an average award in 2020 of more than $28,000 per student. The university's awards include merit- and need-based support, and around 18% of Chapman students receive federal Pell Grants.
A private Christian university, PLNU grants degrees from its campus in San Diego. The university's mission includes building service-minded and engaged citizens. Undergraduates complete a foundational explorations curriculum that emphasizes service and faith. The university prioritizes a low student-to-faculty ratio to encourage learners to build relationships with their instructors.
PLNU offers over 60 undergraduate and graduate degrees. Students can pursue study in the arts, health sciences, and social sciences. PLNU also offers a major in Christian studies. At the graduate level, students can pursue a master's in clinical counseling, a doctorate in nursing practice, or a graduate degree in education.
In addition to its on-campus programs, PLNU offers hybrid and online options for students seeking a flexible learning format.
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