Nestled between downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel mountains, California State University, Los Angeles attracts students who want to excel in the areas of business, nursing, engineering and the solar system. (The school's NASA University Research Center offers courses in aerospace technology and aims to inspire students to pursue STEM-related careers.)

Undergraduate class sizes are reasonable, too, with about 65% having fewer than 30 students. The school also has robust cultural offerings — the Luckman Fine Arts Complex provides a venue for theater, dance, music and other performances, and it features one of the biggest stages in the Los Angeles area. So far this year, performers have included filmmaker, director and writer John Waters and the “godmother of soul” Patti LaBelle.

The school is also home to the first-ever Chicano studies program in the U.S., founded in 1968. For go-getters, the Early Entrance Program in CSULA Honors College accepts promising middle and high school students into full-time college courses (accepted students are as young as 11). While the university's six-year graduation rate is 65%, that rate is significantly higher than expected based on colleges that enroll similar student populations. Where Cal State LA really stands out, though, is by helping students from low-income families climb up the socioeconomic ladder; the university has one of the highest score on think tank Third Way's economic mobility index.