2024 Best Colleges in California

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Updated: May 7, 2024

By: Colleges of Distinction Staff

Jump to: California Polytechnic State University | California State University, Fullerton | Claremont McKenna College | Loyola Marymount University | San Francisco State University | San José State University | Santa Clara University | University of California, Davis | University of California, Irvine | University of California, San Diego | University of California, Santa Barbara | University of California, Santa Cruz | University of Redlands | Frequently Asked Questions

Colleges of Distinction has hand-picked a selection of top schools in California that are well equipped to provide a personalized education catered to students’ interests. Through a rigorous vetting and interview process for the 2024 academic year, we have refreshed and reaffirmed that these institutions strive for excellence in line with the four overarching distinctions—Student Engagement, Teaching, Community, and Outcomes.

These schools vary in size, cost, location, academic offerings, and more, but they are all distinguished by their commitment to the undergraduate experience. The diversity of the college list is intentional, giving students and parents a variety of public and private universities to consider. No matter what, they all exhibit the foundational qualities of a fulfilling undergraduate education.

California Polytechnic State University logo

California Polytechnic State University

San Luis Obispo, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

Cal Poly’s Guiding Philosophy, “Learn by Doing,” pushes students to take responsibility over their individual academic journeys. Thanks to California Polytechnic State University’s rigorous, success-oriented academic environment, the University ensures that students are actively involved in unique educational experiences.

Students may choose to participate in alternative breaks, which leads them through service and care within an area in need. Alternative breaks are a great way for students to assess their own privileges against those who are less fortunate. This can be an eye-opening experience that introduces students to the true power they have in effecting change.

Acceptance rate 38%      •      Net price $20,491      •     SAT Range 1220-1410     •     Students submitting SAT scores 80%
Total Undergrad Population 22,440     •     Setting Suburb      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 83%      •     Retention rate 94%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 21:1

Click here for available majors

California State University, Fullerton logo, Titans, CSU

California State University, Fullerton

Fullerton, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

As part of the world-class California State University system, Cal State Fullerton prepares its diverse student body for success in a global society. Titans actively engage in hands-on learning, research, clubs and organizations, and volunteer work that enriches the local community.

Cal State Fullerton may be the largest CSU campus with more than 34,000 undergraduate students, but its mission to provide high-impact immersive learning ensures personal, fulfilling experiences for every student. Located in Orange County, CSUF is near Los Angeles, Disneyland, Universal Studios, and the beautiful California coastline. Students thrive with the support of one-on-one academic advising, college career specialists, and student success initiatives.

Acceptance rate 68%      •      Net price $8,322      •      SAT Range 1000-1180     •     Students submitting SAT scores 97%
Total Undergrad Population 42,051     •     Setting Suburb     •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 69%      •      Retention rate 89%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 27:1

Click here for available majors

Claremont McKenna College logo

Claremont McKenna College

Claremont, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Claremont McKenna College is a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California. Situated 30 miles east of Los Angeles, students can enjoy and explore a residential campus with easy access to a large city. CMC is one of seven members of The Claremont Colleges.

Renowned for expertise in economics and government, Claremont McKenna features accomplished scholars who are committed teachers in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.  The school is distinguished by eleven world-class research institutes. Exceptionally high numbers of undergraduate students conduct research with professors and get to know them as colleagues.

Acceptance rate 13%      •      Net price $22,004      •      SAT Range 1330-1500     •     Students submitting SAT scores 62%
Total Undergrad Population 1,264     •     Setting Suburb      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 92%      •      Retention rate 87%      •     Student-to-faculty ratio 8:1

Click here for available majors

Loyola Marymount University logo

Loyola Marymount University

Los Angeles, CA ‧ Catholic ‧ 4-year

Loyola Marymount University is rooted in its Roman Catholic tradition—a relationship that is directly connected to the school’s personal and academic goals and success. LMU promotes both the intellectual and personal growth of each student. The University’s commitment to Catholicism drives a socially conscious mindset and students are taught to become contributing members of the global community.

Every month, LMU takes on a new service initiative with a local non-profit agency. The service project is communicated to the entire LMU campus community. Details of the project, as well as volunteer needs are shared with the student body. Projects change every month, allowing LMU to touch several different parts of the community.

El Espejo: El Espejo is Spanish for mirror and serves as the motto for a service initiative. Here “mirror” is used to emphasize reflection—where volunteers work to find a common connection between them and those they are helping. El Espejo connects LMU students with at-risk middle school students in the community. The mission of this initiative is to educate and mentor students on the importance and potential of intellectual and personal growth.

Acceptance rate 50%      •      Net price $48,758     •     SAT Range 1210-1390     •     Students submitting SAT scores 65%
Total Undergrad Population 9,686      •      Setting City: Large      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 83%      •     Retention rate 83%     •     Student-to-faculty ratio 10:1

Click here for available majors

San Francisco State University logo

San Francisco State University

San Francisco, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

San Francisco State University, part of the California State University system is a public institution in northern California. Over 23,000 undergraduates explore opportunities inside and outside of the classroom.

SF State’s motto is Experientia Docet — Experience Teaches. Graduates consistently say that hands-on learning was what helped them most when beginning their careers. Students apply their talents and classroom learning to real-world challenges through community-service learning, credit-earning internships, and participation with community-focused centers and institutes that address issues relating to health, education, the environment, business, child care, and underserved communities.

Acceptance rate 84%      •      Net price $14,757      •     SAT Range 930-1130      •      Students submitting SAT scores 89%
Total Undergrad Population 27,349     •     Setting City: Large      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 55%      •      Retention rate 82%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 22:1

Click here for available majors

san jose state university logo

San José State University

San José, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

Succeed in your personal and professional life with an education from San José State University. SJSU is a Public University in San José, California.

As one of the most transformative universities in the nation, San José State is ready for big change. As part of Transformation 2030, SJSU’s strategic plan, the campus community is dedicated to realizing the university’s potential as a nationally prominent urban public university. San José State provides a comprehensive university education, granting bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in 250 areas of study. With approximately 36,000 students and nearly 4,300 employees, SJSU is an essential partner in the economic, cultural and social development of Silicon Valley and California. 

Acceptance rate 67%      •      Net price $15,995      •     SAT Range 1010-1240      •      Students submitting SAT scores 93%
Total Undergrad Population 36,208     •     Setting City: Large      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 66%      •      Retention rate 86%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 25:1

Click here for available majors

Santa Clara University logo

Santa Clara University

Santa Clara, CA ‧ Catholic ‧ 4-year

Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university, offers its students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering as well as engineering Ph.D.s and master’s and law degrees. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, SCU strives to educate citizens and leaders who will build a more just, humane, and sustainable world.

SCU, founded in 1851 by the Society of Jesus, was established on the site of Mission Santa Clara de Asis, the eighth of 21 California missions. Today, the University is committed to promoting academic excellence, enriching its educational experience through the Jesuit philosophy of educating the whole person, fostering an engaged community, and realizing opportunities available through its location in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

Acceptance rate 51%      •     Net price $48,284      •      SAT Range 1270-1450      •      Students submitting SAT scores 68%
Total Undergrad Population 8,616     •     Setting City: Midsize      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 92%      •      Retention rate 93%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 11:1

Click here for available majors

uc davis logo

University of California, Davis

Davis, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

University of California, Davis is a public university in northern California. UC Davis has over 30,000 students studying 107 academic majors. Over 50% of undergraduate Aggies participate in meaningful research.

Whether you’re interested in laboratories or libraries, at UC Davis you can get hands-on research experience. And you’ll be working with top-notch faculty mentors and some of the best graduate students in the world. Undergraduates are encouraged to dive into research at UC Davis. You can do it through internships on campus, at the UC Davis Medical Center, with local industry or under the guidance of a professor.

Acceptance rate 46%      •     Net price $17,026      •      SAT Range 1160-1400     •     Students submitting SAT scores 90%
Total Undergrad Population 39,074     •     Setting Suburb     •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 86%      •     Retention rate 93%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 20:1

Click here for available majors

University of California, Irvine

Irvine, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

University of California, Irvine is home to 29,000 undergraduate students. With over 85 bachelor’s degrees offered UCI students have many academic options. UC Irvine is a public university in Orange County, California. In 1965, the University of California, Irvine was founded with a mission to catalyze the community and enhance lives through rigorous academics, cutting-edge research, and dedicated public service. 

Acceptance rate 30%      •     Net price $13,106      •      SAT Range 1230-1430      •      Students submitting SAT scores 91%
Total Undergrad Population 36,303     •     Setting City: Large      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 85%      •     Retention rate 94%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 18:1

Click here for available majors

UC San Diego logo

University of California, San Diego

La Jolla, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

Transform your passions into driving innovation at the University of California, San Diego. UCSD is a diverse public research university in California.

UC San Diego is transforming California and a diverse global society by educating, by generating and disseminating knowledge and creative works, and by engaging in public service.

Acceptance rate 37%      •     Net price $15,222      •      SAT Range 1270-1480      •      Students submitting SAT scores 89%
Total Undergrad Population 39,576     •     Setting City: Large      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 87%      •      Retention rate 94%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 19:1

Click here for available majors

University of California, Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

UC Santa Barbara is a noted institution located on the edge of the Pacific, a perfect natural environment for research. The serene atmosphere is conducive not only to academic success, but also many outdoor and recreational activities.

The UCDC program is a partnership between schools in California and Washington D.C. Though this program, students from UCSB and other California institutions are able to work, study, and intern in the nation’s capital. UCDC is open to junior and senior students looking to expand their educational and hands-on experience. Some elect to do an internship, which requires 32 hours of work a week, while others choose to complete a research seminar and take elective courses for credit.

The University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP) provides UC students a range of global education and internship opportunities. There are 393 programs available in 43 countries, providing students with plenty of options to choose from. Some of the most popular destinations include: Australia, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, Morocco, Russia, Singapore, and Spain.

Acceptance rate 37% • Net price $17,223 • SAT Range 1230-1460 • Students submitting SAT scores 82%
Total Undergrad Population 26,179 • Setting Suburb • Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 84% • Retention rate 91% • Student-to-faculty ratio 18:1

Click here for available majors

University of California Santa Cruz logo

University of California, Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

UC Santa Cruz has a steadfast commitment to the intellectual growth of its students, all while promoting environmental stewardship and active engagement with the community. Such impactful work is led by faculty who care for each student as capable, hard-working individuals.

Acceptance rate 65%      •      Net price $17,842      •     SAT Range 1160-1360      •      Students submitting SAT scores 89%
Total Undergrad Population 19,161     •     Setting City: Small      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 76%      •      Retention rate 85%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 25:1

Click here for available majors

university of redlands logo

University of Redlands

Redlands, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

A private liberal arts and sciences institution in the heart of Southern California, University of Redlands is committed to educating the hearts and minds of its students through an emphasis on personalized education, service, and experiential learning. In addition to more than 50 programs of study in the arts and sciences, University of Redlands also offers impressive pre-professional opportunities in pre-health, pre-law, and education as well as more than 100 study abroad opportunities. Home to the second-oldest School of Music in California and the alternative Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, the 112-year-old university prepares students for success and lifelong learning. 

University of Redlands’ main residential campus sits on 160 green acres centrally located near the beaches, mountains, and desert. Part of a diverse and active student body from California and around the world, Redlands students are engaged in the world around them, thriving as participants in community service, DIII varsity athletics, and a wide array of student organizations.

Acceptance rate 69%      •      Net price $30,240      •     SAT Range 1030-1250      •     Students submitting SAT scores 78%
Total Undergrad Population 4,566      •      Setting City: Small      •      Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 71%      •      Retention rate 75%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 12:1

Click here for available majors

What it’s like to attend schools in California and other FAQ:

What are average tuition costs in California?

The average undergraduate tuition & fees for colleges in California is $8,200 for in-state students at public institutions, $32,200 for out-of-state students at public institutions, and $37,000 for students at private institutions.

Cheapest degree program in California

California State University, Fullerton has an average net price of $8,322 making it the least expensive bachelor’s degree program in California that made our list.

Easiest degree program to get into in California

Cal Poly Humboldt has an acceptance rate of 85%, making it the least exclusive college on our list.

Degree program with lowest student debt in California

University of California, Davis has a median total debt after graduation of $13,199. This is the typical debt for a student who completed their undergraduate degree.

Best California Colleges by Award

Best Engineering Schools in California
Best Nursing Schools in California
Best Education Schools in California
Best Business Schools in California

Best Colleges by State

Texas | Florida | New York | Pennsylvania | Illinois | Georgia | Ohio | Alabama | Colorado | Connecticut | Massachusetts | Indiana | Iowa | Kansas | Kentucky | Louisiana | Maryland | Michigan | Minnesota | Missouri | New Jersey | North Carolina | Oklahoma |Oregon | Tennessee | Virginia | Washington | Wisconsin