UC Berkeley, or Cal for short, is one of the most selective public colleges in the country, with an acceptance rate of about 12%. A respected research institution, Cal gives students access to a faculty that includes numerous MacArthur fellows, Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates, including biologist Randy Schekman, who received the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine, and astrophysicist George Smoot, who won the 2006 award in physics.

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As with many big universities, lower-level classes are large, and class sizes have grown over the past few years. The average class size for undergraduates was 53 during the 2023-2024 academic year, and some classes have more than 1,000 students.

Sports are a big attraction on campus, and the Golden Bears' Division I sports teams tend to be very strong — the football rivalry with nearby Stanford is legendary and results in an annual "Big Game."

As a public university, Cal is one of the most affordable elite schools on our list, and the degree can help graduates earn solid salaries. Cal grads go on to earn a median of $88,000 in the first 10 years after enrolling, which is more than what peers from comparable schools typically make. Famous former students include the author Maxine Hong Kingston, Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, actor John Cho, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and "Myspace Tom" Anderson.