Interested in online colleges or a traditional college education in California? The state is home to a wide selection of educational institutions, with many schools offering high-quality, affordable campus-based or online degree programs.
The State of California funds three systems of higher education. These are California Community College, California State University and University of California. Students who want to start their education at a community college can often easily transfer credits to a school within one of the university systems. Credits may also transfer between the various universities. An online ASSIST tool, shared below, makes it simple to see how transferred credits will be applied at different accredited schools.
Of course, the public university system isn't the only option for students. More than 70 accredited private California colleges and universities offer on-campus and online degree programs as well. While none on this list are fully online colleges, you may find an opportunity to engage in online curriculum at many campus-based California schools.
Best 4-Year Colleges in California
After you explore four-year schools, be sure to check out the top community colleges in California for more insight into the state's educational offerings.
Although its name doesn't make it obvious, San Diego State University is a member of the California State University (CSU) system. Founded in 1897, this longstanding southern California school is the oldest higher learning institution in its home city.
The university's list of academic colleges includes business, arts, engineering and health and human services. In 2017, San Diego State University launched its first fully online undergraduate degree for students to earn: a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in business administration.
With roughly 36,000 students enrolled in 2017, SDSU has the sort of large campus where you can either find a home in a social group or blend anonymously into the crowd. Something about the campus seems to be inspiring, at any rate -- no fewer than nine SDSU students earned Fulbright awards in 2016.
California State University, Chico -- also known as Chico State -- allows students to use their life experience to test out of certain classes. This can be a great help if you're returning to school after spending some time away from higher education. The school also allows dual enrollment and credit for AP classes.
Chico State first opened its doors in 1889 and became a part of the CSU system in 1972. Today, the Butte County institution offers more than 60 bachelor's degree programs, including the only computer animation and game development program in the CSU system.
Though not a fully online college per say, several online programs at the bachelor's degree level are available, including sociology, social science and religious studies. Grad students have 21 master's degree options, including online programs in nursing and agricultural education that can help if looking for an online degree in the state.
The Long Beach campus of California State University stands out among California colleges and universities in a variety of ways. CSULB has been named one of the best value schools in California by Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine, for example, and recently added 165,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratory, classroom and research space to its science building.
The list of most popular degrees among the student body at CSULB includes business, management, marketing, communication, journalism, health professions and the social sciences. The range of programs offered goes well beyond those top degrees, encompassing more than 90 degree plans in all.
A few fully online degrees at the master's level can be found at CSULB, in subjects such as criminal justice and business administration. Partially online programs in business administration at the bachelor's degree level are available as well if a future in criminal justice isn't quite up your alley.
Stanford University, in operation since 1891, is one of the handful of California schools to report a larger number of graduate students than undergraduates. Enrollment in advanced and terminal degree programs was larger than bachelor's degree enrollment by about 25 percent in 2016-17.
While it doesn't offer any fully online degrees, Stanford is one of the top colleges and universities in California for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are available online at no charge to the general public. The prestigious institution provides more than 100 distinct MOOCs with curriculum for self-motivated learners.
A short drive from San Francisco, Stanford also uses the virtual classroom to extend its educational resources to teenage students. As a high schooler, you might find online degrees could be for you: Stanford Online High School allows talented students worldwide to earn accredited diplomas while learning from expert instructors in a variety of online programs.
Another accredited member of the CSU system, California State University, Fullerton prides itself on being a model for innovative and high-impact educational programs. Total student enrollment here is around 40,000, so students who like the hustle and bustle of a large campus are likely to feel right at home on this campus a couple hours north of San Diego.
Cal State Fullerton students looking for online programs, specifically an online bachelor's degree, can enroll in one of two degree completion programs -- business administration or sociology. These two online degrees are intended for those who already have an associate degree or equivalent education. This approach can allow students to complete their upper level classes with more flexibility.
On-campus undergraduates can choose from a list of more than 50 bachelor's degree programs, including a criminal justice degree program, one Bachelor of Music (B.M.) program, and two plans that lead to Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) degrees.
The University of Southern California opened in 1880, in a time when its home city of Los Angeles had no paved roads or electric lights. Since its founding, USC has grown into a distinguished university, adding to the Los Angeles educational landscape with a selection of more than 170 degree programs in its undergraduate catalog.
USC features a list of individual academic departments that shows administrative dedication to some subjects that might not get much attention at other schools. Cinematic arts, gerontology and occupational therapy each have their own departments here, to name a few, some potentially with offerings in online programs.
What's more, USC can claim a spot among the best colleges and best universities in California for online graduate degrees in their cache of online programs. The online master's programs in engineering, business administration and computer information technology were all ranked among the top ten in their field by national education ranking agencies.
While San Jose State University operates under the slogan "powering Silicon Valley," the university predates computer technology by about a century. SJSU was founded in 1857 and stands as the oldest public institution of higher education on the West Coast.
The Northern California CSU school consists of eight colleges, offering nearly 150 degree programs, some of them online programs, and over 100 concentrations. On top of that, SJSU claims that it funnels more graduates into Silicon Valley companies than any other school in the country.
Psychology was the top major at SJSU in 2017, making up 15 percent of total graduates that year. Design studies, kinesiology, biological sciences and business administration/marketing also accounted for more than 10 percent of graduates apiece.
You might know the University of California, Los Angeles for its history of athletic success, but it's also got plenty going on off the field. UCLA is an internationally renowned public research university that has been named a top public school not just among California universities but nationwide.
There are over 100 separate academic departments at UCLA, serving approximately 125 majors. The faculty here includes Fulbright Scholars, Nobel Prize winners and a recipient of the Fields Medal, a prestigious prize for young mathematicians.
UCLA is also active in helping its surrounding communities, via campus programs, online programs, and dedicated outreach. One such program is the Mobile Clinic Project, through which students in medicine and public health bring clinical services to underserved populations in the Los Angeles.
Founded in 1868, the University of California, Berkeley, sometimes called Cal, is the oldest University of California school and serves as the system's flagship. Total student enrollment here was over 41,000 at last count, just a few thousand shy of UCLA's top enrollment figure among University of California colleges.
More than 70 percent of UC Berkeley's undergraduate courses consist of fewer than 30 students. It's also one of the top schools in California for faculty accolades -- seven Nobel Prizes, four Pulitzer Prizes, three Fields Medals and fifteen National Medals of Science were held by faculty members in 2017.
Along with online programs to consider and an well-regarded faculty, there's also a history of great discoveries and achievements here in this city across the water from San Francisco. The Berkeley campus was home to the beginnings of modern statistical theory and the co-founding of the Sierra Club with legendary naturalist John Muir.
The flagship location of California Polytechnic State University -- Cal Poly for short -- gives students a lot of space on which to learn. This Central Coast institution, technically in the California State University system, holds the title to more than 15 square miles of land at the main campus and in the surrounding area.
Cal Poly has grown from its founding as a vocational high school in 1901 into one of the best colleges in California, especially for engineering students. Its programs for aerospace, civil, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering all placed at No. 3 or higher on national rankings lists in 2017.
Online graduate students have a couple of virtual curriculum options at Cal Poly. The online degrees for Master of Science (M.S.) degrees in fire protection engineering and packaging for business logistics are available entirely in the online classroom.
Most Popular Degree Programs in California
Many of the best on-campus or online colleges in California share a common trait when it comes to curriculum. They may all offer the following degree programs, some potentially online programs, which are among the most popular degrees in California.
In-Demand Careers in California
Deciding between available California degree programs, whether through campus-based or online colleges like in the school profiles mentioned above, can be a daunting task. However, it can help if you know which careers are expected to be in demand. Then, online students, nontraditional students, or any student can look for accredited on-campus and online degree programs tailored to those occupations.
|Career Title||Projected Job Growth||Total Employment||Annual Salary|
|Solar Photovoltaic Installers||130.6%||3,920||$46,390|
|Home Health Aides||41%||24,560||$33,680|
|Software Developers, Applications||40.1%||148,550||$127,950|
|Personal Care Aides||39.9%||558,350||$27,210|
|Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs||34.8%||27,790||$32,990|
|Physical Therapist Aides||33.8%||6,420||$31,090|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants||31.6%||2,280||$67,470|
|Physical Therapist Assistants||30.8%||5,150||$64,210|
|Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary||29.9%||11,540||$161,770|
|Operations Research Analysts||29.7%||11,340||$95,470|
|Information Security Analysts||28.4%||7,830||$110,340|
|Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists||28.3%||98,590||$78,090|
|Nonfarm Animal Caretakers||26.4%||21,430||$29,830|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||26.2%||3,390||$101,320|
|Diagnostic Medical Sonographers||25.9%||6,770||$92,660|
|Tile and Marble Setters||25.8%||7,090||$50,820|
|Helpers--Brickmasons, Blockmasons, Stonemasons, and Tile and Marble Setters||25%||3,890||$39,100|
|Cartographers and Photogrammetrists||25%||1,010||$84,540|
|Therapists, All Other||25%||730||$63,060|
Financial Aid and Scholarships in California
A seemingly pricey tuition shouldn't keep you from checking out in-person or online degree programs. While the best accredited traditional and online colleges in California offer institutional grant aid, there are other options for financial aid to consider when looking for tuition cost or books and supplies coverage. Federal loans and grants as well as private scholarships are available as additional resources. Plus, the State of California offers its own assistance to college students through programs such as the California Dream Act and the California Middle Class Scholarship. For more insight into scholarships available for campus-based or online colleges, you can browse our scholarship database starting with the items listed here.
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
March 2 (Priority)
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
Renewable if recipient remains in good academic standing and is making timely progress towards a degree or vocational certificate.
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
Renewable for up to four years if recipient maintains A or A- grades while in residence.
MAX. AWARD AMOUNT
- The California State University System
- The University of California System
- California Career Center
- The Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities
- California State Aid Commission
- California Postsecondary Education Commission
To get our list of the best colleges, we ranked 1,383 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Each school was scored on a 100-point scale, using the following data points and the weights specified. In order to be included in the ranking, schools had to report data for each of the following data points:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- The average amount of institutional grant aid awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduate students as a percentage of in-state tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Percent of full-time first-time undergraduates awarded any financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2015-16
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2015-16
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered on campus, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2016
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2016
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2013-14
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Dual credit
- Credit for life experience
- Advanced Placement credit
- Programs of study that can be completed entirely on weekends or in the evening
- Remedial services
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
- Guaranteed tuition plan
- Tuition payment plan
- Any other alternative tuition plan
Note:Tuition prices are based on data for the 2016-17 academic year reported to the National Center for Education Statistics. The actual cost of tuition may vary.
All of the National Center for Education Statistics data came from IPEDS:
Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2015-16, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- School pages, accessed March 16-19, 2018: Achievements and Distinctions, San Diego State University, http://advancement.sdsu.edu/AandD/index.html; Online Bachelor’s Business Degree, San Diego State University, https://business.sdsu.edu/online; Fast Facts, College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management, California State University, Chico, http://www.csuchico.edu/ecc/about/fast-facts.shtml; Chico Facts, California State University, Chico, http://www.csuchico.edu/about/chico-facts.shtml; Online Degree and Certificate Programs, California State University, Chico, rce.csuchico.edu/online/; Colleges and Departments, California State University Long Beach, http://www.csulb.edu/academic-affairs/menu/academics/colleges-departments?utm_source=website&utm_medium=homepage&utm_content=menulink&utm_campaign=JumboMenu; CSU Long Beach Online Degree Programs, The California State University, https://www.calstateonline.net/Cal-State-Campuses/CSU-Long-Beach; Enrollment Statistics, 2016-17, Stanford University, https://registrar.stanford.edu/everyone/enrollment-statistics/enrollment-statistics-2016-17; About Stanford Online, Stanford University, http://online.stanford.edu/about; Fast Facts and School Profile, Stanford Online High School, https://ohs.stanford.edu/about/school-profile; Fact Sheet, California State University, Fullerton, http://news.fullerton.edu/_resources/multimedia/factsheet.pdf; CSUF Fast Facts, California State University, Fullerton, http://news.fullerton.edu/media/facts.aspx; Online Degree Programs, California State University, Fullerton, http://onlinedegrees.fullerton.edu/; Undergraduate Degree Programs, University of Southern California, http://catalogue.usc.edu/content.php?catoid=6&navoid=1553; About USC, University of Southern California, http://about.usc.edu/; Programs, USC Online, University of Southern California, https://online.usc.edu/programs/; Office of Institutional Effectiveness and Analytics, San Jose State University, http://www.iea.sjsu.edu/; Discover SJSU, San Jose State University, http://www.sjsu.edu/global/about-sjsu/discover-sjsu/index.html; Community Programs and Partnerships, University of California, Los Angeles, http://www.ucla.edu/ucla-in-the-community/community-programs-and-partnerships; By the numbers, University of California, Berkeley, https://www.berkeley.edu/about/bythenumbers; History and discoveries, University of California, Berkeley, https://www.berkeley.edu/about/history-discoveries; Cal Poly Quick Facts, California Polytechnic State University, https://calpolynews.calpoly.edu/quickfacts.html; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Online Degree Programs, The University of California, https://www.calstateonline.net/Cal-State-Campuses/Cal-Poly-San-Luis-Obispo;
- Higher Education, U.S. News and World Report, accessed March 19, 2018: Online Programs, University of Southern California, https://www.usnews.com/education/online-education/university-of-southern-california-123961; Overall Rankings, University of California, Los Angeles, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/ucla-1315/overall-rankings; Overall Rankings, California Polytechnic State University—San Luis Obispo, https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/cal-poly-1143/overall-rankings;
- The Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA, accessed March 19, 2018, http://www.mobileclinicproject.org/
- The California State University, Accessed March 2017, https://www2.calstate.edu/
- Financial Aid Programs, California Student Aid Commission, Accessed March 2017, http://www.csac.ca.gov/doc.asp?id=33
- California College Systems, California Career Center, Accessed March 2017, https://www.calcareercenter.org/Home/Content?contentID=278
- Scholarship directory data is copyrighted material which is reproduced on this website by permission of Wintergreen Orchard House, a division of Carnegie Communications. Copyright © 2017-18 by Wintergreen Orchard House. All rights reserved.
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2016-17, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/