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Published: May 16, 2022 7 min read
Aerial view of the Stanford university Campus
Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service

Stanford University is Money’s top private college in the West, while powerhouse UCLA — formally the University of California, Los Angeles — is the highest scoring public college in the region.

Money’s 2022 Best College rankings reward campuses that are affordable, as measured by tuition and fees, average financial aid package, student and parent borrowing, and loan repayment rates. But being affordable alone isn’t enough. We also focus on graduation rates and average earnings to find colleges that offer a strong return on your investment. (You can read the full breakdown of how we ranked the 2022 Best Colleges here.)

Because most students attend a college relatively close to home, in addition to our overall ranking, we’ve also divided up the top-scoring colleges into regional lists.

The Golden State dominates on our "Best in the West" sublist, with California-based colleges comprising about three-quarters of the full list, including the top 10 spots. Most of the full list of 50 is made up of public colleges thanks to the state’s strong University of California and California State systems, plus appearances by flagship public universities in Arizona, Colorado and Washington.

Here’s a breakdown of the top 10. See the full list of Best Colleges in the West here.

1. Stanford University

Courtesy of Stanford University
  • Location: Stanford, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $21,000
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Early career earnings: $97,800

The faculty at Stanford features a stunning array of innovative and important thinkers, including 20 Nobel laureates, more than 20 MacArthur fellows and three Pulitzer Prize winners. But getting the chance to learn from them requires winning a lottery of sorts: Stanford is one of the hardest schools in the country to get into, accepting less than 5% of applicants.

2. University of California, Los Angeles

Matt Harbicht / UCLA
  • Location: Los Angeles
  • Estimated price with average grant: $17,400
  • Graduation rate: 91%
  • Early career earnings: $73,740

More than nine out 10 of freshmen at UCLA earn a degree within six years. That rate is impressive on its own. But it’s also about 16% higher than is expected for schools with similar student bodies, according to Money’s analysis.

3. Pomona College

Courtesy of Pomona College
  • Location: Claremont, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $32,100
  • Graduation rate: 94%
  • Early career earnings: $69,150

With about 1,600 undergraduates, Pomona is fairly small, so students can expect to develop close relationships with their professors, both in and outside the classroom. More than half of students participate in faculty-led research projects by the time they graduate.

4. University of California, Berkeley

Courtesy of UC Berkeley
  • Location: Berkeley, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $20,400
  • Graduation rate: 92%
  • Early career earnings: $80,360

UC Berkeley, or Cal for short, is one of the most selective public colleges in the country, with an acceptance rate of about 17%. As with many big universities, lower-level classes are large — one computer science course usually draws more than 1,000 students. But with scale also comes a mind-boggling array of choices for non-academic pursuits, including more than 60 sororities and fraternities, as well as hundreds of clubs.

5. University of California, Irvine

Courtesy of UC Irvine
  • Location: Irvine, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $13,800
  • Graduation rate: 85%
  • Early career earnings: $71,960

At just over 50 years old, Irvine is one of the youngest campuses in the state's public university system. But it's already among the world's most respected research institutions — three former faculty members have received Nobel Prizes. It's also one of the most diverse schools in the country. About six in 10 undergraduates are the first in their families to go to college.

6. University of California, Davis

Courtesy of UC Davis
  • Location: Davis, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $18,000
  • Graduation rate: 88%
  • Early career earnings: $69,770

UC Davis's graduation rate is well above the average for schools that enroll a comparable population of students: About a third of the student body, for example, is considered lower-income. Students can earn undergraduate degrees in about 100 majors, and the university is well-known for its specialties in agriculture and animal sciences.

7. University of California, San Diego

Courtesy of UC San Diego
  • Location: San Diego
  • Estimated price with average grant: $16,100
  • Graduation rate: 88%
  • Early career earnings: $74,770

One of the top research universities in the world, the University of California, San Diego is renowned for its science programs and stellar faculty. It's also home to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the oldest and largest centers for global earth science research.

8. California State University Maritime Academy

Courtesy of California State University Maritime Academy
  • Location: Vallejo, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $22,200
  • Graduation rate: 68%
  • Early career earnings: $91,460

Cal Maritime is one of seven degree-granting maritime institutions in the U.S. — and the only one on the West Coast. It boasts one of the highest job placement rates within the California State University system, with alumni earning median salaries of nearly $92,000 per year a decade after they enrolled.

9. California State University, Long Beach

Courtesy of California State University-Long Beach
  • Location: Long Beach, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $11,200
  • Graduation rate: 78%
  • Early career earnings: $57,120

The campus environment as Cal State Long Beach, or "The Beach," is quintessentially California, with scenic, landscaped grounds just three miles from the beach. Strong academic departments in practical subjects such as accounting, health care administration and engineering help students who go to CSULB nab decent-paying jobs after they leave.

10. California State University, Stanislaus

Courtesy of California State University-Stanislaus
  • Location: Stanislaus, California
  • Estimated price with average grant: $7,800
  • Graduation rate: 67%
  • Early career earnings: $53,960

Like much of the Cal State system, Stanislaus State is an affordable college that enrolls a high number of students from lower-income backgrounds. Money's analysis of graduation rates finds the university's graduation rate is 14% higher than expected of colleges with similar student body demographics.

More from Money:

The Best Colleges in America, Ranked by Value

How to Pay for College

How to Choose a College