2023 Best Colleges in California

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Published: September 1, 2022

By: Colleges of Distinction Staff

Jump to: Cal Poly Humboldt | California Polytechnic State University | California State University, Fullerton | California State University, Long Beach | Chapman University | Claremont McKenna College | Loyola Marymount University | Occidental College | San Francisco State University | San José State University | Santa Clara University | Scripps College | 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 | University of Saint Katherine | Woodbury University | 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 2022-2023 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.


cal poly humboldt logo

Cal Poly Humboldt

Arcata, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

Cal Poly Humboldt students enjoy an extraordinary college experience, taking small classes taught by professors who know them by name as they live and learn in one of the world’s most beautiful places—near ancient redwood forests, mountains, and beaches. Cal Poly Humboldt is located 275 miles north of San Francisco in the town of Arcata, which is recognized as one of the West’s best college towns.

Cal Poly Humboldt offers a wide array of academic choices, with 51 majors and 12 graduate programs in three Colleges. Faculty members are among the top teachers and researchers in their fields. Programs in natural resources and sciences are nationally known, while visual and performing arts are also popular areas of study. Throughout the curriculum, students find a long-standing commitment to social and environmental responsibility.

Acceptance rate 85%      •      Net price $15,015      •      SAT Range 970-1190     •     Students submitting SAT scores 91%
Total Undergrad Population 6,612      •     Setting Town      •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 49%      •      Retention rate 73%      •     Student-to-faculty ratio 17:1

Click here for available majors


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.

ALTERNATIVE BREAKS
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


California State University, Long Beach

Long Beach, CA ‧ Public ‧ 4-year

California State University, Long Beach is dedicated to providing a high-quality education founded on the principles of superior teaching, research, and service for the people of California and the world. Motivated by the values of diversity, integrity, and service, CSU Long Beach strives to make its world-class education accessible and inclusive. The university looks to change lives by expanding educational opportunities, fostering creativity, and preparing future leaders.

CSU Long Beach is proud of the tight-knit community it has cultivated over the years. With a population of 37,000—and even its own zip code!—the 323-acre campus beckons those who are ready to learn, explore, and succeed. CSU Long Beach boasts a beautiful campus with state-of-the-art research facilities, performing arts centers, and the Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden. Students and members of the surrounding community are encouraged to experience all of the beauty and inspiration the campus has to offer.

Acceptance rate 42%      •      Net price $10,568      •      SAT Range 1020-1240      •      Students submitting SAT scores 95%
Total Undergrad Population 40,069     •     Setting City: Large     •     Public 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 73%      •      Retention rate 89%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 24:1

Click here for available majors


Chapman University logo

Chapman University

Orange, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Chapman University offers the best of both worlds: a classic liberal arts foundation and pre-professional programs of distinction with strong ties to their industries. The university is known for providing a uniquely personalized education (with a student/faculty ratio of 14:1) and extraordinary learning experiences that begin right at the first day a student arrives on campus. The University’s variety of academic opportunities spans everything from performing arts, humanities, and business to economics, film, and the sciences.

STUDY ABROAD
Part of the mission at Chapman is to foster global citizenship. Chapman makes it easy, offering thousands of courses in hundreds of locations worldwide for students to partake in global experiences. Students can select from semester- and year-long programs; short term, faculty-led Travel Courses; and summer international internships. Approximately 42% of students participate in some form of global education before they graduate. The Center for Global Education at Chapman University is a proud member of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, the Forum on Education Abroad, the Institute for International Education, and International Student Exchange Programs.

Acceptance rate 58%      •     Net price $44,327      •      SAT Range 1170-1350      •     Students submitting SAT scores 68%
Total Undergrad Population 9,761     •     Setting City: Midsize      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 80%      •      Retention rate 85%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 12:1

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.

SERVICE AT LMU
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


Occidental College logo

Occidental College

Los Angeles, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Known as ‘the little giant’ for its academic prowess and size, Occidental is a four year, undergraduate-focused institution with a unique core program developed by faculty to unify and enhance the liberal arts education offered.

Occidental students develop their personal and academic potentials, all while supporting the endeavors of their peers. They can choose from 45 majors, minors and programs as well as supplementary learning opportunities like research and experiential learning. Occidental motivates its students to push past their boundaries to elevate their college experiences and extend their growth beyond the classroom.

Acceptance rate 41%      •     Net price $41,102      •      SAT Range 1270-1460      •      Students submitting SAT scores 70%
Total Undergrad Population 1,839     •     Setting City: Large      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 84%      •     Retention rate 82%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 8:1

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


Scripps College - The Women's College logo

Scripps College

Claremont, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Scripps College is a private women’s college in Claremont, California. Scripps is the women’s college in The Claremont Colleges Consortium.

“The mission of Scripps College is to educate women to develop their intellects and talents through active participation in a community of scholars, so that as graduates they may contribute to society through public and private lives of leadership, service, integrity, and creativity.”

Acceptance rate 35%      •      Net price $40,259      •      SAT Range 1320-1480     •     Students submitting SAT scores 61%
Total Undergrad Population 958     •     Setting Suburb     •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 88%      •      Retention rate 80%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 9:1

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.

UCDC
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.

UCEAP
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


University of Saint Katherine seal

University of Saint Katherine

San Marcos, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Saint Katherine is an independent, coeducational university of arts and sciences that emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to Composition, English Language and Literature, American Government, History, Economics, Business, and the Sciences. Students can complete BA/BS programs in eleven concentrations. Saint Katherine is proud to offer outstanding teaching and research opportunities—all with relevance to the practical world and Christian witness as guiding principles.

INTEGRATED CORE
The Integrated Core Program builds on the foundation of a Christian liberal arts education by exposing students to diverse fields of study. The program incorporates literature, philosophy, theology, history, anthropology, art, economics, sociology, music, and political science into a cohort-based structure. Students are encouraged to explore each discipline in relation to their coursework and experiential learning opportunities. The IC program is a challenging and rewarding component of Saint Katherines’ rigorous curriculum, which exemplifies the university’s commitment to educating the whole person. 

Acceptance rate 64% • Net price $24,661     •     SAT Range 1000-1110     •     Students submitting SAT scores 75%
Total Undergrad Population 249      •      Setting Suburb      •      Private 4-year
Retention rate 78%      •     Student-to-faculty ratio 14:1

Click here for available majors


Woodbury University

Burbank, CA ‧ Private ‧ 4-year

Established in 1884, Woodbury University is a small, private, fully-accredited, non-profit institution known for its School of Architecture; School of Business; School of Media, Culture, & Design; and College of Liberal Arts. Woodbury offers 25 practice-based professional and liberal arts undergraduate and graduate majors, many of which are nationally and regionally ranked.

Woodbury University’s undergraduate and graduate degree programs transform students into innovative professionals who also learn the value of social responsibility as both local and global citizens. Academic excellence is achieved by its purposeful student engagement, external partnerships, and enriched, active student experiences. Students who choose Woodbury reflect the cultural diversity of Southern California and, through the university’s transformative educational programs, are empowered to put their talents to work and do extraordinary things.

Acceptance rate 70%      •      Net price $32,591
Total Undergrad Population 1,132     •     Setting City: Large      •     Private 4-year
Graduation rate (6 year) 60%      •      Retention rate 72%      •      Student-to-faculty ratio 10:1

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.

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