Having opened in 2005, University of California, Merced says it's "the first American research university of the 21st century," complete with 30-some bachelor’s degree programs and over 200 student organizations.

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Because of its relative youth, UC Merced is also somewhat new to Money’s college list, first appearing in 2020. The university’s graduation rate is 70%, which is 13% higher than schools with similar populations, according to Money's calculations.

The student body is diverse and largely local, with few hailing from out of state or country, and eight in 10 of students receive grants to help them afford their studies.

It's clear the school is in a growth phase. Students say courses can be hard to get into at UC Merced, but professors are helpful and engaging. Research is a priority and touches on everything from renewable energy to artificial intelligence. In total, UC Merced has about 60 academic programs for undergrads to choose from.

Despite its young age, the university already has something for everyone. Whether your passion is Dungeons and Dragons, investing or hip hop, there's a club for you. If sports are more your style, look out for the varsity teams in basketball, cross country, soccer and volleyball. Students can check out farmers markets and stores in the city of Merced, which is also within driving distance of San Francisco, Sacramento and Yosemite National Park.