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Updated: July 17, 2020 4:04 PM ET | Originally published: February 18, 2020
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East-coast Ivy League schools don’t have anything on California colleges. Whether it’s Stanford, Cal Tech, or any one of the excellent schools in the University of California or Cal State systems, there’s no shortage of choices. If you’re lucky enough to live in California, you’ll have more high-quality options available to you as an in-state resident than in any other state in the nation.

The downside is that the wealth of options can quickly lead to analysis paralysis. It’s tough to choose the best fit for you with so many strong in-state options available to you. Each college has its own unique culture, focus and cost. And given the price tag of college these days, it’s definitely not a decision to take lightly.

With that in mind, we put together this list of the 10 best colleges in California, using Money’s 2019 list of the Best Colleges For Your Money. Each of these options scored highly on a survey of affordability, quality of education, and student outcomes.

Top 10 Colleges in California

University of California-Irvine

  • $14,900 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $57,700 average salary within three years
  • 85% graduation rate

University of California – Los Angeles

  • $15,800 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $60,000 average salary within three years
  • 91% graduation rate

University of California – Davis

  • $17,600 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $59,400 average salary within three years
  • 85% graduation rate

Stanford University

  • $17,700 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $76,500 average salary within three years
  • 94% graduation rate

University of California – San Diego

  • $15,600 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $61,300 average salary within three years
  • 85% graduation rate

University of California – Berkeley

  • $19,400 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $68,300 average salary within three years
  • 91% graduation rate

University of California – Riverside

  • $13,200 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $54,000 average salary within three years
  • 75% graduation rate

California State University – Long Beach

  • $10,300 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $51,100 average salary within three years
  • 69% graduation rate

California Institute of Technology

  • $26,100 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $83,400 average salary within three years
  • 89% graduation rate

California State University – Fullerton

  • $9,100 estimated price in 2019-2020 with an average grant
  • $49,400 average salary within three years
  • 66% graduation rate
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Best Colleges in California Reviews

Regardless of whether you’re looking to break into the agricultural or tech fields (or anywhere in between), there’s a school for you in California. That’s especially true in the southern half of the state, where the best colleges tend to be concentrated.

University of California – Irvine

The best college in California also happens to be the best college in the nation, according to Money’s 2019 Best Colleges ranking. The youngest university admitted to the Association of American Universities, UC-Irvine (UCI) is a research institution founded in 1965 and is one of 10 campuses in the University of California public university system. The full price of attending UC-Irvine for the 2019-2020 school year is an estimated $35,500 for California residents, although students who receive grants can expect to pay half of that. Out-of-state students, meanwhile, will owe much more: about $64,000, which includes the tuition, fees, room & board, and books.

About 85% of UCI freshmen go on to graduate within six years, which Money found is about 29% higher than the average for schools with similar student bodies. Another strong point for this school: it’s built a name for itself as a college that promotes accessibility and upward economic mobility. In 2015, the New York Times featured it as “California’s Upward-Mobility Machine,” and it has consistently scored well in Money’s college analysis, placing in the top 20 for the past five years.

Although UCI’s first academic programs centered on the arts and sciences, business, and engineering, today it is highly regarded for its health sciences programs. Yet like any elite research university, one of UCI’s strong points is that its academic highlights are vast. Students at the university can choose from more than 85 undergraduate degrees and 120 graduate and professional programs in areas such as the arts, law, social sciences, computer science, and education, among others. The university is also known for its strong graduate-level programs through the Paul Merage School of Business and the Henry Samueli School of Engineering.

Campus life is vibrant and diverse, with over 500 student organizations and more than 200 community engagement and teaching programs. UCI’s baseball, basketball, soccer, and volleyball programs are competitive at the Division I level, and fans cheer on the teams with calls of “Zot! Zot! Zot!” to mimic the sound of their mascot, an anteater.

UC Irvine and COVID-19:

The University of California – Irvine transitioned its course offerings to online instruction in March when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. The University is scheduled to begin its fall quarter on time on Sept. 28, 2020, with most of the instruction continuing to be provided remotely or by a combination of remote and in-person instruction for those disciplines that require it. UCI is following all public health directives, requiring the use of masks on all university property, consistent testing, and following social distancing guidelines. While there are still issues the university needs to resolve, particularly related to student housing and activities where large crowds tend to gather, it is working with different government entities to provide a safe and healthy campus environment.

University of California – Los Angeles

Another member of the University of California system, UCLA recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Today the university offers more than 3,800 courses in 109 academic departments, with more than 125 undergraduate majors.

UCLA is the toughest college to get into within the University of California system, accepting only 16% of the roughly 100,000 applicants who apply each year. The full cost of attendance for 2019-2020 undergraduate students is about $35,000 for California residents and nearly $64,000 for non-residents, not taking grants and other financial aid into account. The graduation rate for the school is an impressive 91%. In fact, only two other public colleges (the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan) can claim higher rates.

UCLA is known for a number of its academic programs, including psychology, business, economics, political science, and economics. Last but not certainly not least, its well-known School of Theater, Film and Television offers degrees in everything from film to costume design to animation.

The UCLA campus is located in the residential area of Westwood — about equal distances from the pier at Santa Monica Beach and West Hollywood’s famous Sunset Strip. Students can join over 1,000 clubs and student organizations and 65 local and international fraternities and sororities. There is also a very active athletic community, with the Bruins participating in most major Division I sports. UCLA’s long list of famous athletic alumni includes tennis player Arthur Ashe, basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and football player Troy Aikman.

UCLA and COVID-19:

The fall quarter at the University of California Los Angeles campus is scheduled to begin on time on September 28 and the university is following public health guidelines as it plans a slow reopening of all facilities. The university estimates that between 15% to 20% of all coursework will be conducted in-person or by a combination of in-person and remote instruction, with the balance of classes being taught entirely online. UCLA is also anticipating being able to provide housing, at a lower than normal population density, for as many students as possible. Students returning to campus will have to fill out a daily symptom-monitoring survey and receive a clearance certificate before being able to enter the campus or any of the university facilities.

University of California – Davis

UC-Davis began as an agricultural off-shoot from UC-Berkeley in 1905, becoming its own separate university in 1959. Today UC-Davis offers more than 100 undergraduate and 100 graduate programs through 11 different colleges and schools.

Agriculture and animal sciences remain among the college’s best-known programs. The campus is home to a dairy center, a meat-processing lab, and a 100-acre arboretum. And UC-Davis was promoting sustainability — for example, designing energy-efficient buildings and using local produce — long before it was the norm on college campuses.

Yet like any major research university, there are plenty of high points among Davis’s vast academic offerings. For example, the university is also home to the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory which houses a 76-inch isochronous cyclotron, a unique tool that draws faculty and students, as well as scientists from private companies, for research in nuclear physics, medicine, radiation, and more.

Estimated 2019-2020 attendance costs for in-state undergraduates at Davis vary between about $28,000 and $36,000 depending on whether students live on or off-campus. Out-of-state students will pay up to about $65,000. The majority of students — about two-thirds — receive grants and scholarships to reduce those costs, lowering the average net-price to about $17,600. Nearly four out of 10 students are from lower-income backgrounds, and those who attend have a pretty good shot at upward mobility: 52% of low-income students eventually make their way to the upper-middle-class after graduating, according to data from Opportunity Insights.

Despite its rural feel, campus activities at UC-Davis are quite diversified. There are more than 800 student clubs and 68 fraternities and sororities, as well as a number of volunteering opportunities in the community. The campus is home to a performing arts center and a number of museums, and Sacramento is just a 20-minute drive away.

UC Davis and COVID-19:

The University of California – Davis is planning on starting its fall quarter on September 30 with most of its courses being offered remotely. Some classes that require hands-on experience or in person instruction will be allowed, following public health recommendations and guidelines, and will be offered in larger than usual classrooms. For students who are enrolled in courses that require in-person instruction but for some reason cannot attend classes, academic advisors are working to accommodate their needs and allow them to continue toward obtaining their degrees. Student housing will be provided, although with a lower population density, and students will be required to fill daily symptom monitoring surveys. Other social distancing measures and safety precautions will be implemented according to public health recommendations.

Stanford University

Stanford is one of the most elite universities in the country, drawing top minds from all over the world to study, research and teach.

Anyone who’s heard of Stanford knows that getting in isn’t easy. The university is one of the most selective universities in the country, accepting a scant 5% of applicants. Those who get in have the chance to learn from some of the country’s top thinkers. The faculty boasts an array of prestigious awards and includes17 Nobel laureates, 32 MacArthur Fellows, and four Pulitzer Prize winners. Tuition isn’t cheap: undergraduates without grants can expect to pay $72,200 for the 2019-2020 school year.

Don’t let that price tag scare you away, though. For those who qualify, Stanford offers generous financial aid packages (the school boasts a $27 billion endowment fund, after all). Parents earning under $65,000 per year aren’t expected to pay anything toward their student’s college education. Families earning under $150,000 are expected to chip in, although tuition will be fully covered. In all, six in 10 students receive grants to lower the sticker price, and they pay an average of $17,700.

Stanford has a strong background in technology and engineering education. In fact, longtime engineering professor Frederick Terman, who taught at Stanford between 1925 and 1965, encouraged his students to develop and commercialize their ideas. He — and his students’ successful ideas — helped start Stanford Research Park, which grew into what was later dubbed Silicon Valley. Former Stanford students founded Google, Yahoo, Cisco, Hewlett Packard, and many other tech companies.

The university’s close ties to major industries pays off: Recent graduates report earning an average of $76,500 within three years of graduating, according to Payscale; Money finds that’s 21% higher than comparable schools.

When students aren’t hitting books or busy in the lab, they can entertain themselves with over 625 organized students groups, an on-campus “arts district,” and two world-class museums. Plus, the university isn’t just an academic powerhouse: Stanford has won at least one NCAA team championship for 42 consecutive years.

Stanford University and COVID-19

Stanford is in the process of a phased reopening of campus activities. In terms of the fall quarter, it is expected that to begin on September 14. Classes will be offered remotely, and no student will be required to attend in-person classes during any academic quarter. For those students who need to be on campus, Stanford plans to have only half the undergraduate student body on campus at any given time. Freshmen and sophomores will be invited for the summer and autumn quarters, while seniors and juniors will be invited back for the winter and spring quarters. Face coverings will be required in order to enter any university facility, and students who decide to attend in-person classes must live in University housing. Plans are in place for daily monitoring through Stanford’s Health Check tool.

University of California – San Diego

Although the University of California-San Diego was founded in 1960, its origins date all the way back to 1903 with the founding of what is today the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The research lab became part of the University of California in 1912, eventually becoming the nucleus for the foundation of the San Diego branch.

As you’d expect from its beginnings, oceanography is one of the top programs at UC-San Diego. Yet the university’s scientific chops extend far beyond oceanography today. UC-San Diego boasts 16 Nobel laureates among its alumni, in subjects ranging from chemistry to physiology to medicine. It’s also one of the largest research universities in the world. It raked in $1.35 billion in research funding in 2018 alone.

Like all the University of California system colleges, UC-San Diego is a great value for state residents. Among students who borrow, the average debt at graduation is $17,500, about half the national average. The full cost of attendance for the 2019-20 academic year is an estimated $32,000, though nearly 60% of students get financial aid to reduce that price. The graduation rate at UCSD is 85%, which is 15% higher than in similar schools, according to Money’s calculations. One unique aspect of UC-San Diego’s campus life: Students are assigned to one of six colleges, which the university says gives students the benefits of both a major research university and small liberal arts college. Each college has its own educational philosophies, traditions, and general education requirements.

UC-San Diego sits on about 1,200 acres of woodland overlooking La Jolla Shores and Black’s Beach. Its premiere coastal location helps it snag the title of best surfing college, according to Surfer Magazine.

University of California – San Diego and COVID-19

UC San Diego is implementing a gradual reopening of campus for the fall quarter. About 30% of course subjects will be in-person classes, while 70% of classes will be offered remotely or in hybrid (a combination of in-person and remote) fashion. In-person classes will be limited to 50% of normal capacity or a maximum of 50 students, whichever is lower. UC San Diego expects most in-person classes to have 25 students or less. On-campus housing will be available, although at reduced population density, and the use of masks will be required both indoors and outdoors. The university will provide regular and free testing for both students and staff.

University of California – Berkeley

Founded in 1868, the University of California-Berkeley (“Cal” for short) is another academic powerhouse and one of the founding members of the AAU. Today, it’s one of the most selective colleges in the country, admitting just 17% of applicants. More than nine in 10 freshmen go on to graduate, a rate that places Cal among the country’s most elite public universities.

The college’s claims to fame are vast. Just take a glance at the mix of some of Cal’s notable alumni: Author Joan Didion. Soccer star Alex Morgan. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. There’s also the 16 elements on the periodic table that were discovered by researchers at the Berkeley National Laboratory (including its namesake “berkelium”). The university counts 31 Nobel laureates among its alumni and it produces more Peace Corps volunteers than any other university.

Students at Berkeley can choose from over 120 majors, spread out over 14 schools and colleges. With more than 40,000 students, including thousands from around the world, life on campus is filled with an assortment of extracurricular options. There are over 1,000 different student organizations to consider joining, intramural sports and a Division I athletic program that fields teams in nearly 30 different sports.

More than half of students receive financial aid to discount the estimated $39,000 cost of attendance in 2019-2020. (Out-of-staters pay about $69,000.) In fact, the university says that 38% of undergraduates receive enough grants and scholarships to cover tuition. According to Payscale.com, recent graduates report average salaries of $68,300–that’s on par with the salaries reported by graduates of top-tier technology and engineering schools.

University of California – Berkeley and COVID-19

For the 2020-2021 academic year, the University of California at Berkeley is not requiring students to attend in-person classes. Almost all course subjects, even those with in-person discussion sessions, will be available by some form of remote instruction. All final exams will also be delivered and taken remotely. On-campus housing will be limited to a maximum of 6,500 students in single and double occupancy rooms, reducing population density. Arrival times on campus will be staggered to avoid a crowded move-in experience. Participation in outdoor activities will be limited, in accordance with public health guidelines and all student who return to campus are required to follow public health guidelines relating to the use of masks, social distancing, and personal hygiene.

University of California – Riverside

University of California-Riverside is a relatively young university — it only received full status as its own university in 1954, after nearly five decades as a citrus research station.

Today, it distinguishes itself as being a top pick not only for the strength of its engineering and plant science programs but also for its diverse study body. Six out of 10 undergrads are the first in their families to go to college and about 50% of undergraduates qualify for a Pell Grant, a federal program designed for students from lower-income backgrounds. Unlike the system’s flagship universities, which draw applicants from all over the world, 97% of Riverside’s undergraduate students are Californians.

Even without an internationally recognized name, UCR’s academic programs are full of bright spots. The university is home to 48 Fulbright scholars and 49 National Endowment for the Humanities fellows. True to its origins, research conducted at Riverside on plant biology led to the development of more than 40 new varieties of citrus fruit. Research in entomology, genomics, and environmental sciences help protect the state’s $32-billion agricultural industry. The university also houses some of the world’s most important research on citrus diversity and entomology.

Estimated costs for 2019-2020 at UC-Riverside range from $26,800 to $36,600 for California residents, depending on their living arrangements. More than 80% of undergraduates receive grants to lower the cost of attendance. Students at Riverside are known as Highlanders, a mascot that’s a nod to the university’s high elevation on the edge of the Box Springs Mountains. In addition to a botanical garden and (naturally) a 22-acre Citrus Variety Collection, you’ll find the the world’s largest collection of science fiction and fantasy literature on campus.

University of California – Riverside and COVID-19

For the fall quarter, the University of California Riverside is offering all instruction remotely, with some exceptions for in-person sessions receiving approval only if a remote option is also available. If remote instruction is not available, the course will not be offered. For approved in-person courses, the number of participating students will be limited to a maximum of 30. The use of masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfectant wipes will also be required, and daily screening for symptoms of COVID are in place. Campus housing will be limited in order to reduce population density.

California State University – Long Beach

Cal State-Long Beach, or “the Beach” as it is commonly referred to, is the largest of the 23-school California State University system. The university gets its nickname thanks to its location, 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

One of the biggest colleges in California, with 32,000 undergraduates, CSULB is known as an affordable college with a track record of promoting socioeconomic mobility. Seven in 10 students receive a grant or scholarship, and they pay an average of $10,300 a year. Graduates leave with about $15,000 in debt, less than half the national average.

The university offers 63 undergraduate, 65 graduate, and 4 doctoral degree programs divided into 8 colleges. Those degrees fall into subjects as diverse as fashion design, consumer affairs, and recreation studies, among the more common disciplines like finance, education, and English. Cal State-Long Beach is also home to a large physics department.

Nearly half of the student body is Hispanic, earning CSULB the distinction of a Hispanic-Serving Institution. Most students are Californians. Campus scenes include a popular 125,000-square-foot fitness center, more than 3,000 peach trees, and the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden.

California State University – Long Beach and COVID-19

Most classes will be offered remotely when Cal State Long Beach begins its fall semester, although some pre-approved courses may be offered in hybrid form or in-person form. All students and staff will be required to use a mask and practice social distancing while on campus. As for on-campus housing, no more than 1,000 students will be accepted into student housing and all rooms will be single occupancy. For the moment, no athletic, theatrical or other activities that require large gatherings will be allowed.

California Institute of Technology

Located on a 124-acre campus in Pasadena, California Institute of Technology is one of the world’s top technological and research universities.

The university offers 28 undergraduate and 30 graduate degree options, and thanks to its emphasis on the sciences and engineering, students have a chance to participate in many world-class research opportunities. Two examples: the Einstein Papers Project, which produces the historical editions of the writings and correspondence of Albert Einstein, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been at CalTech since the 1930s.

Academics at CalTech are notoriously tough. Freshmen even take their first year of courses pass/fail to ease into the demands of the university. But that pressure seems to pay off: Recent graduates report average salaries above $80,000, which is high even compared with other STEM-focused schools.

Although small in size, CalTech still offers a well-rounded campus environment. There are more than 150 student organizations on campus, as well as a performing arts center and a public events series of seminars. CalTech fields eight men’s and eight women’s athletic teams at the Division III level. The university also has a 70-piece orchestra fielded in collaboration with nearby Occidental College.

Like other elite private colleges, CalTech’s sticker price is high. The estimated cost of attendance for 2019-2020 is more than $75,000. But if you get in — no small feat, with an 8% acceptance rate — the university hands out significant financial aid. The average price for students who receive aid is closer to $25,000.

California Institute of Technology and COVID-19

In terms of coursework, CalTech will begin its fall term on September 29, offering some pre-approved courses that require in-person instruction, but all other courses will being taught remotely. In-person courses will be taught until Thanksgiving week, at which point all students who are on-campus will return to their homes and finish the 2020 term remotely. In terms of housing, capacity will be reduced to one-third its normal volume to lower population density, and all rooms will be single occupancy. Athletic and other campus activities that require large gatherings will be restricted until public health guidelines allow.

California State University – Fullerton

With over 39,000 students, Cal State-Fullerton is the largest campus within the California State University system.

Located in Orange County, a short drive from L.A. as well as the beach, Fullerton often touts its diversity. The student body has large populations from Hispanic, Asian, white, and international communities. Plus, more than half are first-generation college students. The college is known for its computer science, business, education, nursing, and anesthesiology programs, but students have more than 50 undergraduate majors to choose from. (There’s another 55 graduate degree programs.)

Tuition and room & board costs for full-time undergraduate students are about $28,000, prior to receiving financial aid. Yet as with other Cal State campuses, students who qualify for need-based financial aid will pay far less than the sticker price, about $9,100.

Outside of studying, students can busy themselves with more than 350 clubs and organizations, from the weightlifting club to the video game design club.

California State University – Fullerton and COVID-19

The majority of CSU Fullerton’s courses will be offered online, with a limited number of courses requiring in-person instruction. All students and staff are required to use face masks while in public spaces as well as during in-person instruction. Classroom capacities have been reduced to provide appropriate distancing for in-person courses. Only 561 students will be allowed into on-campus housing in order to reduce population density and ensure social distancing. For the moment, athletic and other events where large crowds are usually present are paused.

How We Found the Best Colleges in California

We used Money’s 2019 ranking of Best Colleges For Your Money to find the 10 best colleges in California. For example, the University of California-Irvine was the #1 ranking college in 2019, and so it was also first on our list. California State University-Fullerton was the 10th California college in the ranking (and the 22nd best in the nation).

The Money survey used a comprehensive statistical approach to rank each school according to three equally-important factors: affordability, quality of education, and student outcomes.

For affordability, Money measured factors such as the net price of a degree, how much debt the average student takes on, how well students are able to repay that debt, and more. Quality of education was measured with variables such as the six-year graduation rate, outcomes for Pell Grant recipients, and the student-to-faculty ratio. Finally, student outcomes were measured by things such as socio-economic mobility, earnings among graduates, and employment outcomes.

Going to College in California: Making the Most of the Master Plan

California is home to some of the best research universities in the nation and, as you can see from our list, eight of the top ten colleges in the state are public institutions.

The fact that California’s public university system is so strong is a testament to the state’s commitment to providing quality, affordable education to residents and non-residents alike. Many of the University of California schools, such as UC-Irvine, UCLA, and UC-Davis, are considered to be “Public Ivies,” meaning that the schools are on a par with private Ivy League colleges in terms of academic rigor, overall college experience, and the ability to attract research funding and an all-star faculty.

The success of California’s public university system can be traced back to the 1960 Master Plan for Education, which provided the framework for three distinct higher education tracks — community colleges, the California State University colleges and the University of California colleges. The primary goal was to provide an accessible path to higher education for all residents at all levels.

The paths were separate, but still connected: The plan allowed students to transfer from one system to another, allowing those who initially enrolled and graduated from a community college to transfer to either a CSU or UC school and complete a bachelor’s degree. It helped make California a leader in creating easy pathways between two-year and four-year colleges.

One of the reasons why California schools score so well in Money’s rankings are the high graduation rates, with most of the colleges mentioned here graduating 85% or more of their students. They also offer lower initial costs for in-state students and solid financial aid, a combination that helps students graduate with less debt.

One side effect of such impressive results: every one seems to want to go to a California state school. Acceptance rates have decreased–the public colleges are difficult to get into even for students with high SAT/ACT scores and GPAs–and today, some UC campuses receive more than 100,000 applications per year. As long as there is space, California high school seniors in the top 9% of their statement class are guaranteed a spot at one of the UCs, although not necessarily their first choice. And California families have complained that admissions in recent years have grown not only more competitive but also more unpredictable.

Imagining college life in California can drum up a lot of different images — sun, surf, college football teams, show business — and according to Money’s rankings, affordable degrees that are valued by employers.

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Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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