30 Best Colleges in California

Students interested in attending college in the Sunshine State have a very diverse selection of public and private schools to choose from. Take a look at our list of the 30 best colleges in California to help you find the right balance of location, educational quality, and affordability.

Best Colleges in California

An abundance of colleges and universities dot California's landscape, and if attending one of these schools is your goal, you'll need to narrow down your options. We took a look at public or private non-profit colleges in the state and selected the 30 best schools basing decisions from school data provided by the U.S. Department of Education such as tuition, graduation rate, and student retention. To narrow our search, we selected schools that offered a variety of student services and activities, a diverse campus, high-quality educational programs in many fields of study (such as business and education), and unique features like sustainability commitments or research collaborations between students and faculty. Take a look at our list below and see if one of these top California colleges fits your educational goals.

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1. University of California - Davis

This Northern California university tops our list because it stands out for its focus on sustainability, emphasis on research, and hands-on approach to learning. The Davis campus of the University of California is working towards a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal on its campus and features green-certified buildings, sustainability education and programs, and energy efficient residence halls. You can choose from more than 200 programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels as well as study abroad programs, mentoring options, and a robust undergraduate research initiative.

2. Humphreys University

Humphreys University has campuses in Stockton and Modesto and proudly reports that 93% of its graduates found employment or continued on to additional education within six months of graduation. You'll stand out from your peers in Humphreys' classrooms, where small class sizes are the norm and you can be an active participant in your education. Humphreys also offers courses led by full-time professional faculty, with no TAs in sight. You can choose from degree programs in ten different fields of study, in addition to a Juris Doctorate offered through the Drivon School of Law and special programs for international students.

3. University of California - San Diego

Located within easy reach of the beaches of La Jolla, this top research university offers you a wealth of opportunities to fulfill your educational and social awareness goals, from service learning trips to entrepreneurial projects, community service activities, social concerns, and undergraduate research projects. You'll also find more than 130 undergraduate degree options in addition to master's and doctoral programs. Your courses are led by award-winning faculty members, including several Nobel Prize winners and National Medal of Science honorees.

4. Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas Aquinas College offers a unique approach to education with a focus on the study of key Western philosophers and historians through an interdisciplinary program that doesn't allow for specific majors or minors. At this Catholic college in Santa Paula, you'll learn through discussions and seminars and find numerous opportunities for analytical and critical thinking in the classroom. Outside the classroom, you can find plenty of outdoor activities in the national forest that borders the school grounds as well as on-campus clubs like the de Tocqueville Society and intramural sports.

5. San Jose State University

The oldest higher education institution on the West Coast is also known for its prime position in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where it has established numerous partnerships with area businesses. This means you'll have plenty of opportunities to find internships and research projects with a wealth of businesses and firms in the San Jose area. The university is also proud of its many initiatives, including a diversity initiative and a sustainability initiative aimed at making the university more inclusive and leading the way in creating a sustainable campus. At this university, you'll find nearly 150 areas of study to meet your educational goals, along with a variety of programs to help make your college experience richer, such as a first year experience.

6. University of Southern California

This highly ranked research institution located in Los Angeles just recorded its most selective year for admissions, accepting only 13% of the record-breaking number of applications it received. You'll find a diverse student population at USC, including nearly a quarter of students from countries across the globe. If you choose to live on campus, you'll experience an active residential life at USC Village, which features shops and dining options, honors colleges for first and second year students, and extracurricular activities. USC has 23 schools and colleges offering graduate and undergraduate programs in a variety of areas, including medicine, public policy, engineering, law, and business.

7. Sonoma State University

Located north of San Francisco, in Rohnert Park, Sonoma State University proudly serves both its students and the region through courses, mentoring opportunities, partnerships with local businesses, and public workshops and seminars. You can choose from nearly 50 undergraduate majors and 15 master's programs at this university, which is also home to a wine business program. The university offers an active campus with student clubs and athletics, a theatre and music center, a ropes course, and special events like themed dinners and movie fests.

8. University of California - Santa Cruz

The University of California in Santa Cruz stands out for its focus on innovative research and groundbreaking educational programs. Each of the undergraduate colleges is based on a socio-cultural theme designed to build community and awareness in students. You'll also find a university dedicated to hands-on training, allowing you to work side-by-side with professionals at Cisco Systems, Long Marine Laboratory and more through internships, research projects, and mentoring opportunities. The university offers 65 bachelor's programs and around 40 graduate options, and it features courses led by award-winning faculty.

9. Dominican University of California

Dominican University of California, in San Rafael, offers small classes, a diverse student body, and a reputation for innovative research projects. You'll find undergraduate and graduate programs in 60 areas and a commitment to education through mentorships, service-learning projects, international experiences, and integrative coaches for all students. Your Dominican University education will culminate with a portfolio of your work and a signature project.

10. Saint Mary's College of California

Based in Moraga, Saint Mary's College is a Lasallian school that originated as a school for working class children and maintains a spirit of diversity in the present day. A critical component of this college's educational approach is the Collegiate Seminar, a core curriculum requirement that offers you the opportunity to discuss major works with your professor in a flexible and open environment with just a few other students. You'll find numerous opportunities to get involved on campus, no matter your interests, including the Catholic Institute for Lassalian Social Action, an Aim to Lead program, activist and diversity programs, and club sports.

11. Point Loma Nazarene University

Point Loma Nazarene University proudly offers a Christian-based liberal arts education with opportunities for experiential learning and giving back to communities through service-learning projects, as well as learning from faculty through mentorship programs. You can easily interact with your professors at this San Diego-based university, which features a 14:1 student-faculty ratio, or get global experience through study abroad opportunities and mission trips. You can choose from 60 undergraduate programs here or pick a master's or doctoral program in one of nine areas. In your free time, you'll find 11 Division I sports teams to root for, along with ministry and faith programs, student clubs, and wilderness adventures.

12. San Francisco State University

San Francisco State University was a front runner in offering college credit for community service projects and continues to promote the idea that giving back to the community is of paramount importance. You'll find both courses and student groups that encourage community service as well as projects in urban planning, free medical care, and consulting for area businesses and residents. Academically, San Francisco State University offers 75 undergraduate fields of study and more than 60 graduate-level study areas, along with classes led by award-winning and nationally recognized faculty. As a student here, you can participate in research projects, get published, produce a play, interact with business leaders, and explore many other hands-on learning opportunities.

13. San Diego State University

San Diego State University is committed to providing students with a global perspective through courses and cultural events on campus as well as a variety of international and study abroad programs. Innovation and entrepreneurship are also encouraged at this university along with student-led research through the university's entrepreneurship center, engineering and science complex, symposiums, projects, and more. You'll also find a robust alumni network complete with a mentoring program that links students with alumni in relevant fields. You'll be met with a variety of services to enrich your college experience, including learning communities for campus residents, counseling services, and academic engagement programs.

14. California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly reigns as a top California school due to its motto of learn by doing, which encourages students to seek out hands-on experiences at local organizations, Bay Area industries and corporations, and non-profits. The curriculums for both undergraduate and graduate programs also encompass this motto, with plenty of opportunities for lab work, collaborative projects, research, and in-class interactions. Class sizes are small and led by professors who are experts in their fields. To further expand your knowledge and global savvy, you can choose from study abroad programs, internships, co-op experiences, and service-learning projects.

15. Lincoln University

Lincoln University is ranked highly thanks to its customized approach to education, which emphasizes purposeful and practical programs in a select number of areas (in contrast to universities that offer a broad range of programs). Located in Oakland, Lincoln University offers bachelor's programs in business administration and diagnostic imaging, master's options in finance and international business, and minors in humanities and computer science. The university is home to a multidisciplinary research center with opportunities for all students, and it offers a variety of scholarships to help students with their financial obligations.

16. Santa Clara University

A Jesuit university based in the Silicon Valley, Santa Clara University is committed to imparting in its students a sense of community, a call to serve people in need, and a commitment make the world more sustainable. More than 50 majors and minors are available, and you'll find hands-on learning activities built in to your courses or you can pursue a variety of community initiatives and internships. The university proudly introduced a sustainability plan to support goals of consuming resources responsibly, incorporating sustainability concepts into the curriculum, and reducing water usage across campus.

17. California State University - Sacramento

Sacramento State offers nearly 60 undergraduate and 40 graduate degree programs to students at its capital city campus. You'll have the opportunity to engage in research projects, make a difference in the local community, and participate in academic competitions while earning your degree. The university emphasizes a real-world approach to education, offering everything from on-campus lab simulations to community service projects to help you build your resume and prepare for your career. You'll also find a vibrant student life here, with opportunities to join a sorority or fraternity, play sports, or join one of the university's 300 student clubs.

18. Westmont College

Westmont College is committed to providing you with a global education to help you prepare for careers in a rapidly changing world. This college stands out for its faculty-led semester abroad programs, which are offered in 40 institutions across the globe. As a Christian college in Santa Barbara, Westmont features classes that combine theology with scholarly learning in a variety of liberal arts fields. You'll have opportunities to participate in internships, research symposiums, ministries, and intercultural programs.

19. California State University - Stanislaus

Located in Turlock, Stanislaus State is well known for its commitment to community service and diversity. You'll find numerous opportunities to help out the local community through food banks, mentoring programs, and STEM activities. The university also features a joint taskforce on diversity with the city as well as diversity programs and student clubs. Popular degree programs at Stanislaus State include business and nursing, and you'll find more than 40 undergraduate options and 16 master's programs, along with a doctorate in educational leadership.

20. California State University - Long Beach

The Long Beach campus of the California State University system was the first to introduce a net-zero energy classroom located in the university's continuing and professional education college. It's also home to several other energy efficient buildings as well as cutting-edge labs and lecture halls to enhance your campus experience. Located just minutes from the beach, the university offers around 150 degrees and offers a food pantry for students, a multicultural center, and a dream success center for undocumented students.

21. National University

Based in La Jolla, National University serves students throughout California and across the nation and globally through online programs and on-campus degree options. The learning format here is designed for adult learners, with courses offered in a 4-week format. National University is a military-friendly college, with programs and special features specifically for veterans and active-duty students. You can choose from associate's and bachelor's degrees as well as graduate programs in eight study areas.

22. California College San Diego

California College San Diego proudly offers flexible and fast degree programs for adult students, so you won't be taking a lot of electives at this college, instead you'll spend your time building skills for your career. You'll benefit from small classes taught by professionals in the field and have access to tutoring and advising services to help you map out your educational path. This college has three campuses to serve you (in San Diego, San Marcos, and National City) and offers programs in three areas: business, technology, and healthcare.

23. California State Polytechnic University - Pomona

Cal Poly Pomona, located about 30 miles from Los Angeles, emphasizes technology and hands-on training in its curriculum. You'll find faculty at this university who support real-life learning and work side-by-side with students on research and innovation projects. Undergraduate and graduate degrees span a variety of fields, from animal science to urban planning, business, and engineering. You'll get plenty of support during your time at this university, with services like a career center, veteran's support, disability resources, and a community engagement center.

24. University of Redlands

Based in Redlands, just outside of LA, the University of Redlands proudly offers an affordable education with small courses led by faculty who serve as mentors to all students. You'll discover a vibrant campus here, with more than 120 student clubs to choose from, a diverse student body, and opportunities to serve the local community. The university features 50 programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional bachelor's degrees. You can also create your own degree plan through a residential program that brings together faculty and students in an informal learning environment.

25. Soka University of America

This Southern California liberal arts college emphasizes a global educational experience by incorporating study abroad requirements into the curriculum. Buddhist principles of human rights and peace form the foundation for Soka's educational programs, which include a bachelor's in liberal arts with four concentration options and a master's degree in educational leadership and societal change. You'll find an abundance of student clubs here, along with opportunities to volunteer in the community, participate in diversity activities, and explore other cultures.

26. University of San Francisco

The University of San Francisco proudly offers career-ready education, collaborative research opportunities, and small class sizes to get you ready for your future. It stands out for its commitment to justice, service to others, and improving the world for everybody. You can live out that mission through hands-on service learning and community service projects, immersion programs, living-learning communities, ministries, and more. You'll also find study abroad programs and an honors college, along with research and innovation facilities, research days, and simulation labs.

27. Mills College

Mills College is committed to offering its students a diverse, environmentally sustainable campus where creative thinking and collaborations with faculty are the norm. At Mills College, you'll be encouraged to experiment with new ideas, work as part of a team, think critically, and support your fellow students. This Oakland based college has a variety of services that you can utilize, including counseling, spiritual services, LGBTQ+ programs, career services, and leadership resources. Undergraduate degree programs at Mills combine classroom learning with experiential projects in the community and offer options for study abroad and research.

28. California Lutheran University

Located in Thousand Oaks, California Lutheran University prepares you for life as a global citizen, with a focus on justice, diversity, and service to others. You can choose from an array of undergraduate and graduate programs in management and arts and sciences, along with graduate programs in psychology, education, and theology. You'll also be able to actively contribute to your education through research and creative projects and showcase those efforts in research conferences, project showcases, symposiums, and art shows.

29. University of the West

Rosemead's University of the West is founded on Buddhist principles and offers a liberal arts education on a diverse campus. You'll find students here representing more than 40 countries and a campus that offers student organizations, a meditation center, fitness and wellness facilities, and living-learning communities. The University of the West offers a different approach to admissions, foregoing standardized tests for personal essays, videos, and photos that showcase your talents and skills.

30. Mount Saint Mary's University

This Los Angeles university is a Catholic women's college, but it also offers co-ed graduate degrees and weekend bachelor's programs. Around 80% of the university's faculty are women, and the majority of board members and cabinet members are also women. You'll find bachelor's programs in 30 areas of study here along with associate's degrees and graduate programs. The university emphasizes leadership building activities, including a leadership boot camp, scholar program, and conference, along with numerous clubs and civic programs.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

The schools in the listing below are not free and may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.

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