2023 Best Public Colleges in California
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 | San Francisco State University | San José State University | University of California, Davis | University of California, Irvine | University of California, San Diego | University of California, Santa Barbara | University of California, Santa Cruz | Frequently Asked Questions
Public colleges and universities are usually perceived to have larger class sizes, less attention, and less prestige than private colleges. Don’t let these labels fool you! Each institution offers a unique college experience, ranging from small liberal arts colleges to research institutions.
Rather than looking at college rankings to choose where you will study for the next four years, take a more immersive approach to your college search. Explore college campuses, sift through your top college majors, and find the college experience that you want.
Colleges of Distinction has hand-picked a selection of the best colleges in the United States that cater to students’ interests to help you with your college search. Take a look below to see our list of 2022-2023 California Colleges of Distinction to help you find the right college for you.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
What it’s like to attend public schools in California and other FAQ:
The average undergraduate tuition & fees for public colleges in California is $8,200 for in-state students and $32,200 for out-of-state students.
California State University, Fullerton has an average net price of $8,322 making it the least expensive public school in California that made our list.
Cal Poly Humboldt has an acceptance rate of 85%, making it the least exclusive college on our list.
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.