Community service is a key feature of San Francisco State's programs. The school of more than 23,000 undergrads and more than 3,000 graduate students was one of the first universities in the U.S. to offer academic credit for community work, as well as one of the first to include community service learning hours on students' transcripts. Students can choose from more than 200 courses with a community service element in a wide variety of fields, including health care, education and community organizing.

Bachelor's degrees are available in around 100 areas of study from six different colleges, including the College of Ethnic Studies, which houses programs in Asian American Studies, Africana Studies, Latina/Latino studies and other disciplines. Business is by far the most popular bachelor’s degree program, and biology, communications, education and criminal justice round out the rest of the largest programs on campus.

The school takes pride in its entertainment-oriented coursework, such as cinema, music, and writing, and counts an impressive number of Oscar, Emmy, and Pulitzer Prize nominees among its alumni, including actors Annette Bening and Danny Glover. Two off-campus centers provide on-the-ground opportunities for field work: the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, which focuses on tidal marshes and estuarine habitat; and SFSU's Sierra Nevada Field Campus, a site for classes and research in environmental subjects.