Best Community Colleges in California
California has one of the most prolific community college scenes in the country. The Golden State is home to more than 110 public two-year schools and features some of the lowest reported costs for community college tuition of any state in the U.S.
Back in 2015, President Obama proposed America's College Promise, an initiative to make community college tuition-free for qualifying students in 2015. It didn't become a reality at the national level, but legislators and education administrators in California have brought the dream to the Golden State. Recipients of the California College Promise Grant can have their tuition and mandatory fees waived at participating two-year schools in California.
Whether you're looking to save money on your first two years of school before transferring to one of the dozens of California universities or learn a new set of skills to help you advance in your career, the best community colleges in California have programs that can help you get there. We crunched the numbers and sorted the top ten California community colleges from the rest — check out the list below.
Irvine Valley College (Irvine)
Irvine Valley College tops the list of the best California community colleges, but that's not all. No other two-year school nationwide put up a better total score on our analysis than this Greater Los Angeles institution.
It won the overall crown in part thanks to the strength of its combination of student success and affordability. California community college tuition is already affordable, and IVC reported the lowest average in-state tuition and fees on our list. It also had one of the highest rates in the country of university success among transfer students, beating all but five schools nationwide in that category.
More than 70 academic majors are available here, in a diverse mix of subjects that includes computer science, journalism, history, dance and laser technology. Around 60 career and technical programs are available as well.
De Anza College (Cupertino)
Only one school had a better record of students transferring successfully to four-year programs than our No. 1 school, and De Anza College holds that honor. The 62 percent transfer rate at this Cupertino institution ranked third on that metric out of all 800+ two-year schools we surveyed.
Programs of study here include high-tech fields like cyber forensics and enterprise computer security as well as traditional majors like English and economics. Students looking to major in the media arts can study animation, production and screenwriting.
De Anza charged just $31 per credit hour of study in 2018, tying it for the most affordable per-credit tuition in the state. It also had the best graduation rate on our list, and 80 percent of all newly enrolled students continue their programs into their sophomore year.
Ohlone College (Fremont)
Ohlone College posted student success rates that were among the state's best, placing third for its percentage of on-time graduates and taking the statewide top spot for first-year student retention. It was also one of California's more flexible institutions in terms of scheduling, offering a range of weekend courses and reporting a distance enrollment rate of 42 percent.
This institution in Alameda County operates two brick-and-mortar campuses and an online division and offers a total of nearly 200 degree and certificate programs for students to choose from. The catalog contains more than 500 individual online courses that can be mixed into the schedules of most associate programs.
Mt. San Jacinto College (San Jacinto)
More than 50 academic and career programs are available at Mt. San Jacinto College, including around 20 associate degrees designed for university transfer. More than 15,000 students attend courses here each semester, and nearly 2,400 associate degrees and 150 certificates were awarded in 2018-19.
MSJC operates a total of four brick-and-mortar locations to serve potential students throughout Riverside County. The main campus in San Jacinto is complemented by a full-service second location in Menifee, an education complex in Temecula and a small satellite campus in Banning.
The degree in environmental studies here can teach students to engage with the human impact on environmental systems. A 2+2 program in business administration allows you to shift smoothly into the second half of a four-year business program at CSU San Marcos at Temecula after graduation.
College of the Canyons (Santa Clarita)
If you're one of the thousands of students choosing to return to school after spending some time in the workforce or the military, College of the Canyons has a few perks that might help you readjust to college life. The Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) support initiative can provide grants for child care and transportation, and course credit can be earned for life experience that's relevant to the degree you're seeking.
The School of Kinesiology at Canyons offers four associate degree plans, in subjects like physical education, sports medicine and recreation management, as well as certificate programs for aspiring personal trainers. A wide range of social science degrees can be earned here, including Associate of Arts (A.A.) programs in psychology, sociology and communication studies.
Taft College (Taft)
Getting the right financial aid package can sometimes mean the difference between graduating and dropping out, and the data for Taft College show this principle in action. Around 86 percent of students at this institution in the San Joaquin Valley were awarded some form of financial aid in 2018, and its graduation rate was better than 83 percent of two-year schools in the country.
Career-ready programs at Taft include court reporting, welding, dental hygiene, energy technology and industrial health and safety. Students hoping to transfer to a university can complete the first two years of degrees in biology, studio arts, administration of justice, journalism and more.
Student athletes may find an outlet for their passions here, as well. Taft fields intercollegiate teams in a total of eight sports for men or women.
Golden West College (Huntington Beach)
Founded in 1965, Golden West College educates roughly 11,500 students each semester and offers a total of nearly 90 for-credit degree and certificate programs. Non-credit programs are available as well, for students looking to learn specific skills for personal enrichment or career advancement rather than enrolling in a full-fledged degree plan. Students who transferred from GWC went on to complete their bachelor's degrees at one of the highest rates in the country.
Computer science students here can earn A.A. degrees in software development and video game development. The nursing department offers an Associate Degree in Nursing (A.D.N.) program suitable for new students as well as those with experience in licensed vocational nursing, and students who want to make a difference in the global community can earn an A.A. in peace studies.
Saddleback College (Mission Viejo)
This Orange County institution is one of the top online community colleges in California in terms of enrollment. The nearly 49 percent of students here who take some of their credits in the virtual classroom represents the largest such percentage among schools that made our list.
Saddleback College also features one of the largest catalogs of purely online programs in the state, offering more than 40 degrees and certificates that can be earned without ever setting foot in a classroom. Online students can earn transfer degrees in anthropology, political science, sociology and more, and subjects of study in certificate plans include American Sign Language, real estate appraisal, business communication and entrepreneurship.
More than 90 programs are available on campus, as well. Traditional students can study oceanography, horticulture, architecture, theatre arts and more.
West Hills College-Lemoore (Lemoore)
The Lemoore campus of West Hills College was another hot destination for distance education students in 2018-19, boasting an online enrollment rate of more than 45 percent. It also had one of the best first-year student retention rates in the state, and a larger percentage of the student body took advantage of financial aid programs than at all but one other school on our list.
Students who prefer a fairly quiet study environment might appreciate the close-knit feel of WHC Lemore. Fewer than 4,300 students attend classes here each semester, so you're less likely to feel like an anonymous face in the crowd.
Transfer degrees are available in geology, physics, geography and communication, among other subjects. Career training includes certificates for apprentice chefs, bookkeepers and computer programmers.
San Diego Miramar College (San Diego)
Student success seems to be in the DNA of San Diego Miramar College. This institution of close to 16,000 students had a better rate of on-time graduation than all but one other school on our list and posted a retention rate that landed in the 94th percentile nationwide.
What's more, the record of success at Miramar doesn't stop when its students graduate. The rate of bachelor's degree completion by transfer students fell just percentage points shy of landing among the top 20 two-year schools in the country on that metric.
Students here can choose from a rage of certificates in aviation operations, including a remote pilot certificate that teaches the nuts and bolts of drone flight. The one-semester yoga teacher training program meets the criteria for the 200-hour registered yoga teacher (RYT) certification.
CTE in California
CTE is short for career technical education, which is an instructional approach that focuses on providing high school and college students with the right mix of academic and technical courses to give them a leg up either on the career market or in continued academic study. Most often, it's technical schools and community colleges that house CTE programs. The California Department of Education (DOE) works hard to promote CTE in California, through a range of policies and initiatives.
Here's a quick breakdown of CTE statistics in California:
- California schools reported a graduation rate of 92 percent among high school students who concentrated on CTE courses — 9 percentage points higher than the overall statewide average rate.
- CTE students in California tend to follow through with their degree plans in college, as well, according to the 89 percent rate of CTE program completion at community colleges and vocational schools.
- The California legislature appropriated more than $320 million to promote, deliver and create new opportunities for career technical education in 2018.
If you're interested in learning more about CTE in California, California College Pathways features a CTE page that can give you more details. The California Career Resource Network (CalCRN), a California DOE program designed to support students and graduates as they develop essential career skills, may be helpful as well.
Transferring Credits in California
California community college students have access to numerous initiatives designed to promote seamless transfer to California universities once you've finished your associate degree. Here's a quick breakdown of a few of the transfer agreements and other resources available:
- The California Community Colleges-Associate Degree for Transfer (CCC-ADT) program offers transfer agreements via Associate in Art for Transfer (AA-T) and Associate in Science for Transfer (AS-T) programs, which feed into the two state university systems and participating private, non-profit colleges in California.
- In addition to CCC-ADT, the University of California (UC) system offers a Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) application for community college students and provides ASSIST, a course credit equivalency lookup tool for students and advisers.
- A 2015 transfer agreement between California's community colleges and nearly 40 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country extends the CCC-ADT program to select institutions in other states.
The transfer curriculum can differ slightly for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students. A special segment of the state's Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC), which includes more math and science courses than the typical courseload, is used when calculating a STEM degree transfer.
For specific tips designed for students transferring from two-year schools, check out our guide to how to transfer credits.
Resources for Community College Students in California
- The California Community Colleges (CCC) site provides detailed insight into the more than 110 public two-year schools in the state.
- The Foundation for California Community Colleges is a portal to a wealth of knowledge on state-based initiatives and assistance programs relevant to students at even the best California community colleges.
- The CCC Transfer Counselor Website can provide some insight into the community college transfer process from the counselors' side of the desk.
- The U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid site can fill you in on the grants, loans, work-study programs and other aid available at the federal level.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we generated a list of colleges and universities that met the following criteria:
- Level of institution is either "At least 2 but less than 4 years" or " Less than 2 years (below associate)"
- Data is reported for all 14 ranking variables listed in the Methodology section
We ranked the resulting community colleges member schools on multiple factors related to educational opportunity, student performance and student services. Each school was scored on a 10-point scale, using the following data points:
- The published in-district tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- The published in-state tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- The in-district per credit hour charge for part-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- The in-state per credit hour charge for part-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- Percentage of students receiving financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016
- Percent of students that transferred to a 4-year institution and completed within 8 years, College Scorecard, 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- Percentage of students enrolled in distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Flexibility, based on the following data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- Whether the school offers credit for life experiences
- Whether the school offers programs of study that can be completed entirely in the evenings and on weekends
- Whether the school offers on-campus day care for students’ children
- Whether the school offers any kind of alternative tuition plan. These may include, but aren’t limited to, payment plans or guaranteed rates.
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- CCCApply, California Community Colleges System, accessed October 30, 2019: California College Promise Grant (formerly known as the BOG Fee Waiver), https://home.cccapply.org/money/california-college-promise-grant; California Community Colleges, https://home.cccapply.org/colleges;
- California College Promise Grant, I Can Afford College, California Community Colleges, accessed October 30, 2019, https://icanaffordcollege.com/Financial-Aid/California-College-Promise-Grant
- School pages, accessed October 30, 2019: Academics, Irvine Valley College, http://academics.ivc.edu/Pages/default.aspx; Degrees and Certificates, De Anza College, http://deanza.edu/academics/degrees-and-certificates.html; Quick Facts, Ohlone College, https://www.ohlone.edu/quick-facts; Academics, Ohlone College, https://www.ohlone.edu/academics; Current Online Course List, Ohlone College, https://www.ohlone.edu/ecampus/online-course?page=25; Academic and Career Programs for Certificate, Degree and Transfer, Mt. San Jacinto College, https://msjc.edu/programs/index.html; Environmental Studies, Mt. San Jacinto College, https://msjc.edu/environmentalstudies/; 2+2 Business Pathway Program through MSJC and CSUSM at Temecula!, Mt. San Jacinto College, https://msjc.edu/2plus2csusmtemecula/index.html; EOPS, College of the Canyons, https://www.canyons.edu/studentservices/eops/; Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education, College of the Canyons, https://www.canyons.edu/studentservices/eops/currentstudents/care.php; School of Kinesiology, College of the Canyons, https://www.canyons.edu/academics/schools/kinesiology/; School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, College of the Canyons, https://www.canyons.edu/academics/schools/socialsciences/; Degrees and Certificates, Taft College, http://taftcollege.smartcatalogiq.com/en/2018-2019/Catalog/Degrees-and-Certificates; 2019-20 Quick Stats, Taft College, https://www.taftcollege.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/2019-20_Quick_Stats.pdf; About GWC, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/isp/about-us/; Noncredit Courses, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/catalog/noncredit/; Academics, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/academics/; Peace Studies, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/peace/; Nursing, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/nursing/; Computer Science, Golden West College, http://www.goldenwestcollege.edu/cs/; Academic Programs, Saddleback College, https://www.saddleback.edu/vpi/Academic-Programs; Online Degrees and Certificates, Saddleback College, https://www.saddleback.edu/OnlineDegreesandCertificates; Degrees & Certificates, West Hills College Lemoore, https://westhillscollege.com/lemoore/degrees-and-certificates/; Career Focused Training, West Hills College Lemore, https://westhillscollege.com/lemoore/career-focused/; About Miramar, San Diego Miramar College, http://www.sdmiramar.edu/index.php/about; Our Programs, San Diego Miramar College, http://www.sdmiramar.edu/index.php/programs; Aviation Operations Catalog, San Diego Miramar College, http://www.sdmiramar.edu/sites/default/files/documents/2019-02/Aviation%20Operations%20Catalog%20Miramar%202018-2019.pdf; Yoga Teacher, San Diego Miramar College, http://www.sdmiramar.edu/programs/yoga-teacher;
- College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed October 30, 2019: California, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=CA&ct=1&ic=2; Mt San Jacinto Community College District, https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/?s=CA&ct=1&ic=2&pg=6&id=119216#programs;
- California, Advance CTE, accessed October 30, 2019, https://careertech.org/California
- Association for Career and Technical Education, accessed October 30, 2019: Why CTE?, https://www.acteonline.org/why-cte/; State Profiles, https://www.acteonline.org/why-cte/state-profiles/;