Interested in online colleges or a traditional college education in California? Wondering which ones might be the best colleges in California for you? 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: California Community Colleges, 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 state university systems, including some of the top colleges in California listed below. Credits may also transfer between the various universities. An online ASSIST tool, shared below, makes it simple to see how transferred credits may be applied at different accredited schools.
Of course, the public college and university systems aren't the only option for students. More than 85 accredited private California colleges and universities — members of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities — offer on-campus and online degree programs as well. The group notes 20 percent of all bachelor's degrees and 50 percent of graduate degrees earned in the state are awarded by independent schools.
Whether you're interested in a public college or a private institution, there is likely a California college to meet your needs. Keep reading to learn more about the best schools in California and the wide variety of traditional and online degree programs they offer.
Best 4-Year Colleges in California
After you explore these four-year schools, be sure to check out the top community colleges in California for more insight into the state's educational offerings.
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 are all well-respected and regularly rank among the best programs in the nation.
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. Popular fields of study include biology, business economics and political science. 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.
Nearly 40,000 students attend the University of California, Davis each year. There, they can select from more than 200 undergraduate majors and graduate programs. Plus, they get access to a vibrant campus life, NCAA Division 1 athletics and a research program that receives nearly $850 million in annual funding.
UC Davis has earned a reputation as not only one of the best universities in California, but also as one of the top public institutions in the nation. The school can boast of a long list of accolades for individual degree programs ranging from agriculture to veterinary medicine.
For distance learners, UC Davis offers nearly a dozen online certificate programs and professional concentrations in fields such as accounting and project management. Meanwhile, the online MBA@UCDavis makes a top-ranked business education available to students from across the globe.
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 institution. Total student enrollment here was more than 41,000 at last count, making it one of the largest 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 — including recipients of Nobel Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, Fields Medals and National Medals of Science. Nearly two dozen programs are available fully online, including a certificate in paralegal studies and a master's in data science.
Along with online programs to consider and a 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.
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 completion degree for students to earn: a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in business administration.
With roughly 36,000 students enrolled, 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 — more than 90 SDSU students earned Fulbright awards since 2005.
Founded in 1965, the University of California, Irvine is a relatively young institution compared to other top universities in California. However, it has quickly made a name for itself. The school enrolls 36,000 students, is Orange County's second-largest employer and adds $5 billion to the local economy each year.
UCI offers more than 220 degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These cover the arts and humanities as well as professional fields such as law and medicine. Some graduate programs are offered online, such as the highly ranked Master of Advanced Study in criminology, law and society.
Beyond its academic programs, the university is known for its commitment to diversity, innovation and sustainability. It is one of only 65 research schools selected for admittance to the Association of American Universities.
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. The university maintains dedicated graduate schools for business and education.
While it doesn't offer any fully online degree programs, Stanford is one of the top colleges and universities in California for massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are available at no charge to the general public. The prestigious institution provides more than 100 distinct MOOCs with curriculums for self-motivated learners.
A short drive from San Francisco, Stanford also uses the virtual classroom to extend its educational resources to teenage students. Stanford Online High School allows talented high school students worldwide to earn accredited diplomas while learning from expert instructors in a variety of online programs.
The Long Beach campus of California State University stands out among California colleges and universities in a variety of ways. CSULB says it's one of the best value schools in California, for example, and has four LEED Certified Gold and two Certified Silver buildings on campus.
The list of most popular degree programs among the student body at CSULB includes business, management, marketing, communication, journalism, health professions and the social sciences. But the range of programs offered goes well beyond — encompassing more than 150 degree plans in all.
A few fully online degree programs 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.
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 in northern Orange County.
Cal State Fullerton students looking for online programs, specifically an online bachelor's degree, can enroll in one of three degree completion programs — business administration, sociology or humanities and social sciences. These two online plans 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 a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.).
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.
This Northern California CSU school consists of eight colleges, offering nearly 150 degree programs, some of them online programs, and more than 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 2019 for undergraduate students, while software engineering was the most popular choice for graduate students. Design studies, kinesiology, biological sciences and justice studies also attracted a significant number of students.
Known to most people simply as Cal Poly Pomona, this university emphasizes learning by doing. As one of the best universities in California, it embraces values such as collaboration, innovation and diversity. California State Polytechnic University-Pomona is also known for providing good value and inclusive programs that promote critical thinking.
Founded in 1938, Cal Poly Pomona has a long history of academic excellence. While enrollment at the school is close to 26,000, students won't necessarily get lost in the crowd. The average undergraduate class has 35 students while the average graduate class has only 15 students.
The university includes nine colleges that cover fields such as business, environmental design and engineering. Through the Cal Poly Pomona Open University, students who have not been admitted to the school can take an undergraduate or graduate course.
Located in the San Fernando Valley, California State University, Northridge enrolls more than 38,000 students annually. It has been serving Los Angeles residents since 1958 when it was established as San Fernando Valley State College.
Today, CSUN offers more than 140 educational programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. They are housed in nine different colleges such as the Michael D. Eisner College of Education and the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media and Communication. Many programs make use of service learning experiences and community partnerships with area organizations.
Online programs at CSUN are available through the Tseng College and include a mix of certificates and degree programs. While most online degrees can be earned at the graduate level, bachelor's degree completion programs are offered in public sector management and liberal studies.
The top colleges in California aren't all public institutions. Loyola Marymount University is a Catholic school founded in the Jesuit and Marymount traditions. It was founded in 1911, maintains a high level of research and offers a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
Academically, LMU has more than 175 degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Its seven colleges and schools serve more than 9,000 students and cover popular subjects such as psychology and business. LMU also has a School of Film and Television which seems especially appropriate for a university based in the hometown of Hollywood.
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 you're looking to earn a degree online in the state.
Diversity and distinction are two words that describe the University of California, Riverside. Containing three colleges and four professional schools, UCR enrolls approximately 24,000 students each year. In addition to being one of the top California schools, UC Riverside has also been noted as one of the best in the nation in terms of graduation success for black and Latino students.
The faculty at UCR have impressive credentials and include Nobel Laureates, Fulbright Scholars, Guggenheim Fellows and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellows. They teach in nearly 200 degree programs ranging from bachelor's degrees to Ph.Ds.
Distance learners can select from a number of online business certificates. There are also online options in the fields of education, healthcare, landscape and law and criminal justice. What's more, the UC Riverside Master of Engineering can be earned online in as little as 13 months.
A scenic campus along the coastline is only the start of what makes the University of California, Santa Barbara one of the top California schools. The institution is an elite research university with faculty that includes Nobel Laureates, Guggenheim Fellows and members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Nearly 26,000 students are enrolled at UC Santa Barbara. They can choose from more than 200 education options. With the school being home to 10 national institutes and centers, there are plenty of opportunities for student research, even at the undergraduate level.
While the vast majority of programs are available only on campus, UCSB does offer two fully online programs through its Professional and Continuing Education Division: a child life professional program and an applied behavior analysis certificate.
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 get mentions on national rankings lists.
Online graduate students have a couple of virtual curriculum options at Cal Poly. The Master of Science (M.S.) in fire protection engineering and the professional certificate in packaging for business logistics are available entirely through the online classroom.
As a testament to it being one of the best schools in California, the University of California, Santa Cruz, was recently admitted to the Association of American Universities. This prestigious group of 65 institutions represent the top research universities in the nation.
UC Santa Cruz was founded in 1965 and enrolls more than 18,000 students annually. These students have access to more than 100 degree programs, including noteworthy options in computer engineering, computer science and games and playable media. The university is also home to the Long Marine Laboratory, which is among the world's best marine mammal research centers.
Classes at UC Santa Cruz are taught by distinguished faculty who include fellows for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Originally founded as a two-year teacher training college in 1899, San Francisco State University has grown into a four-year school offering more than 130 degree programs. SF State is affiliated with California State University and enrolls nearly 30,000 students each year.
The top majors at San Francisco State cover diverse interests and include business administration, cinema and biology. Many programs emphasize hands-on learning through internships, field work or volunteerism. The average class size has less than 30 students, providing opportunities for more personalized instruction.
While most learning at SF State happens on campus, the school does have several courses available online. The College of Extended Learning also offers more than a dozen fully online certificate programs in fields such as big data, medical billing and coding and event and meeting planning.
Rounding out our list of the best colleges in California, California State University, Fresno, embraces the values of discovery, diversity and distinction. It enrolls more than 24,000 students each year and has been federally designated as both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. Nearly two-thirds of its undergraduates are first-generation students.
The degree programs at Fresno State are divided among eight schools and colleges. These include the Craig School of Business, which dates back to 1928, and the College of Health and Human Services, which awards the most degrees of any college at the university. Its nursing and physical therapy programs have ranked among the best in the state.
Distance learners can earn an online bachelor's degree in liberal arts from Fresno State — a degree completion program intended for students who have previously earned some college credit.
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, which are among the most popular degrees in California. Some of these may potentially be available online.
Costs, Financial Aid and Scholarships in California
The price of tuition plays a crucial role in deciding where to go to school. How much you pay depends on several factors, including whether you attend a private or public school and if you're a state resident. Costs may also be determined by whether you plan to earn one of the online degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the following were the average published costs of tuition and fees at California colleges for the 2017-18 school year:
- Public 2-Year Schools (in-state): $1,268
- Public 2-Year Schools (out-of-state): $7,504
- Public 4-Year Schools (in-state): $8,020
- Public 4-Year Schools (out-of-state): $29,173
- Private 4-Year Schools (in-state): $33,483
A seemingly pricey tuition shouldn't keep you from checking out in-person or online degree programs though. As we outline in our How to Pay for College Guide, there are a number of ways to reduce the cost of attendance.
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 may be 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 some programs, the only requirement is to fill out the FAFSA to confirm eligibility.
For more insight into scholarships available for campus-based or online colleges, including the top California schools, 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
Careers in California
Deciding between available California degree programs, whether through campus-based or an online college, can be a daunting task. However, it can help if you know which careers are expected to be in demand. You can also take our career quiz to see what occupations may be a good fit for you. Then, based on the results, you can look for accredited on-campus and online degree programs tailored to those occupations.
In California, job growth for certain occupations is driven by a number of factors. Here are a couple of examples:
- California's Silicon Valley and start-up culture drives demand for tech professionals such as software developers.
- Net energy metering programs and other initiatives provide energy customers with credits that encourage the use of solar and other renewable energy sources, increasing demand for professionals like solar photovoltaic installers.
- The California Economic Summit notes health care is one of the state's largest sectors and has a shortage of workers ranging from home health aides to primary care clinicians.
|Career Title||Projected Job Growth||Total Employment||Annual Salary|
|Solar Photovoltaic Installers||130.6%||4,970||$47,640|
|Home Health and Personal Care Aides||41%||595,760||$28,780|
|Software Developers and Software Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers||40.1%||249,620||$134,370|
|Physical Therapist Aides||33.8%||7,220||$31,480|
|Occupational Therapy Assistants||31.6%||2,640||$70,150|
|Physical Therapist Assistants||30.8%||5,750||$66,150|
|Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary||29.9%||9,180||$117,800|
|Operations Research Analysts||29.7%||10,000||$101,150|
|Information Security Analysts||28.4%||9,200||$114,620|
|Market Research Analysts and Marketing Specialists||28.3%||98,760||$79,070|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||26.2%||3,970||$101,930|
|Diagnostic Medical Sonographers||25.9%||6,650||$100,960|
|Tile and Stone Setters||25.8%||7,230||$52,650|
|Cartographers and Photogrammetrists||25%||860||$91,100|
|Therapists, All Other||25%||810||$64,470|
|Helpers--Brickmasons, Blockmasons, Stonemasons, and Tile and Marble Setters||25%||4,400||$41,540|
|Medical and Health Services Managers||24.7%||36,940||$133,040|
|Floor Layers, Except Carpet, Wood, and Hard Tiles||24.2%||4,590||$53,400|
- 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 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. In order to be included in the ranking, schools had to report data for each of the following data points, and each school was then scored on a 100-point scale:
- The in-state tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018-19
- The average amount of aid awarded to full-time, first-time undergraduate students, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of full-time first-time undergraduates awarded any financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Median debt of graduates, College Scorecard, 2017-18
- 3-year student loan repayment rate of graduates, College Scorecard, 2016-17
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered on campus, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- No. of degree and certificate programs offered via distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2018
- Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2018
- Graduation rate within six years, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018-19
- 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
- About CSUN, California State University, Northridge, Accessed January 2020, https://www.csun.edu/about-csun
- Academic Rankings, University of California, Davis, Accessed January 2020, https://www.ucdavis.edu/about/rankings
- And Now for Some Facts, University of California, Santa Cruz, Accessed January 2020, https://news.ucsc.edu/awards/files/some-facts.pdf
- Average Undergraduate Tuition and Fees, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed January 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_330.20.asp?current=yes:
- California Distributed Generation Programs, Go Solar California, Accessed January 2020, https://www.californiadgstats.ca.gov/programs/
- California's vast health care industry requires growing workforce pipeline, April 15, 2019, California Economic Summit, Accessed January 2020, https://caeconomy.org/reporting/entry/californias-vast-health-care-industry-requires-growing-workforce-pipeline
- Degree/Program Offerings, San Francisco State University, Accessed January 2020, https://puboff.sfsu.edu/sfsufact/archive/1819/degree
- Facts & Figures, Loyola Marymount University, Accessed January 2020, https://www.lmu.edu/about/factsfigures/
- Facts and Figures, University of California Santa Barbara, Accessed January 2020, https://www.ucsb.edu/about/facts-and-figures
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2018-19, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2017-18, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- Our Colleges, Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, Accessed January 2020, https://aiccu.edu/page/ourcolleges
- Our Polytechnic Advantage, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Accessed January 2020, https://www.cpp.edu/polyadvantage/index.shtml
- Quick Facts, California State University, Fresno, Accessed January 2020, http://www.fresnostate.edu/academics/oie/quickfacts/index.html
- Ranks and Facts, University of California, Riverside, Accessed January 2020, https://www.ucr.edu/about/ranks-and-facts
- University Facts, University of California, Irvine, Accessed January 2020, https://uci.edu/university-facts/index.php