Since its founding a handful of decades ago, California State University, Bakersfield has become one of the best colleges at vaulting diverse students up the socioeconomic ladder. The school's approximately 9,300 undergrads and 1,600 graduate students are predominantly women and Hispanic or Latino. Most qualify for the university's affordable in-state tuition.

CSU Bakersfield offers over 50 bachelor's and master's degree programs spread over four schools: arts and humanities; business and public administration; natural sciences, mathematics and engineering; and social sciences and education. The university couples strong STEM offerings with wide-ranging humanities courses and a flexible interdisciplinary major program, which lets students meld two or more fields into a customized academic path.

Located in one of the most oil-rich counties in California, the university also houses a renowned petroleum geology program that readies students for the energy industry. CSU Bakersfield has a reputation as a commuter school — about 95% of students live off campus. But the school's 85 or so student organizations and 16 Division I sports teams ensure there's always an event to attend or a game in which you can cheer on the Roadrunners — "Runners," as students call them. And if students want a taste of the big city, well, they can run down the road to Los Angeles, a two-hour drive away.