The state of California is thriving, and the population is expected to keep growing. There are plenty of college options in the Golden State, including dozens of four-year institutions.
To help you narrow the field, we’ve compiled a list of the 24 best options using key success factors, including retention and graduation rates. From private, nonprofit universities to well-known public schools, this list should help you decide which college is right for you.
Pitzer College, Claremont, California
This private liberal arts college encourages learning both in and out of the classroom. Pitzer focuses on environmental and interdisciplinary studies, humanities, the arts, and natural, behavioral, and social sciences. Students benefit from a liberal arts education experience, while also having access to the same resources a major university offers. As part of the Claremont Colleges consortium, Pitzer students can cross-enroll at other member schools, including Harvey Mudd, Claremont McKenna, and Pomona Scripps.
California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly),
San Luis Obispo, California
Cal Poly believes in a hands-on approach to learning. This top-ranked public university takes pride in its small classroom settings, allowing students to grasp concepts and skills with its Learn-by-Doing curriculum. Students are consistently challenged to apply their learning in real-world settings. Along with boasting over its sunny days and close proximity to beaches, students and graduates benefit from industry connections in both the Bay Area and Southern California.
Chapman University, Orange, California As a private, nonprofit university, Chapman promotes a supportive, creative, and fun community; offering students a safe place to be seen and heard both in and out of the classroom. Students are urged to take part in graphic, visual, and performing arts. Along with academic achievement, creativity is encouraged and celebrated at Chapman.
University of California-Irvine (UCI), Irvine, California If you’re open to attending a public research university, UCI is a fine choice. With dozens of areas of study and world-class professors, this college “nurtures fearless, independent thought” unlike any other. As one of the nation’s top universities, UCI is known for its research programs and focus on community, as well as its top-notch academics.
Loyola Marymount University (LMU), Los Angeles, CaliforniaCommitted to teaching ambitious students, LMU is a private institution in the famed City of Angels. The school emphasizes, on its website, the student experience, noting a variety of student organizations and several Inter/National Greek fraternities and sororities. As a top-ranked Catholic university that honors Jesuit and Marymount traditions, the school takes pride in diversity, both in its students and academic offerings.
Pepperdine University, Malibu, CaliforniaLocated on the Pacific Coast Highway, this private, not-for-profit research university has serious curb appeal. This option, however, has plenty to offer aside from the obvious selling points. Students work toward a goal of living their lives with purpose, service, and leadership. Impressively, Forbes has recognized Pepperdine as a top entrepreneurial university, and The Princeton Review names the school on its Green Colleges list.
Occidental College, Los Angeles, California
Affectionately dubbed “Oxy,” this private institution is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges on the West Coast. Students can learn both in and out of the classroom with student research and international study opportunities. The college emphasizes social activity and global awareness. Students are encouraged to be leaders, and invited to pursue new interests and activities.
Santa Clara University (SCU), Santa Clara, California As a private Jesuit university in the heart of Silicon Valley, SCU is proud to combine high-tech innovation with social consciousness. The university’s goal is to produce leaders and global thinkers, and it has done just that time and time again; Emmy award-winning actor Shemar Moore, NASA chief engineer Tina Panontin, and pro basketball player Steve Nash are on the list of alums, among many others.
Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, CaliforniaThis Christian liberal arts college focuses on students as a whole, guiding them to become the men and women they are meant to be. The university offers countless opportunities in academics, athletics, clubs, and various ministries. And because the college is situated on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, students can study, relax, or partake in activities seaside.
Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, California As a private college in a small suburban community, 20 miles east of San Francisco, Saint Mary’s urges students to ponder the “deep mystery of existence” through a student-centered community. The college offers diversity in its courses, and urges students to pursue interests in new and exciting ways. Notable alums include Oscar winner Mahershala Ali and NBA champ Patty Mills.
Scripps College, Claremont, California
This liberal arts women’s college is a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium. Many students live on campus, and the college offers an impressive variety of major programs. Scripps focuses on both mind and spirit and is committed to diversity and inclusion. Students graduate ready to contribute to society in a variety of ways, including leadership and service to others.
University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California
Situated in the Westwood district of L.A., this public research university goes against the grain, opting to lead with optimism and pushing the boundaries of the impossible. UCLA is one of the top-ranked colleges in the nation, and has won numerous Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Fellows, and NCAA titles. Famous alums include baseball great Jackie Robinson, who was the very first African American to join the MLB organization.
Claremont McKenna College (CMC), Claremont, California
As an independent, private liberal arts college, CMC is a prestigious institution located just 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Students can choose from a range of majors including: economics, psychology, international relations, government, accounting, history, biology, literature, EEP (economics, environment and politics), and mathematics. Claremont McKenna is also a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium.
University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, California
USC is one of the top private research universities in the world. Students are offered countless academic opportunities, and the campus community is very active. The school is known for its athletics; several Olympians are USC alums. In fact, the school takes pride in having more Olympic gold medalists and overall medalists than nearly any other school in the country. The university employs thousands of distinguished faculty members, many of whom have received national awards.
University of California-Davis (UC Davis), Davis, California
Students apply at this public research university knowing they’d like to make a mark on the world. Within driving distance from famous destinations such as the San Francisco Bay, Lake Tahoe, and Napa Valley, the UC Davis student experience combines academics and Northern California culture.
University of California-San Diego (UC San Diego), San Diego, California
This public university is recognized as one of the top research universities worldwide. UC San Diego is determined to transform students into changemakers by enlightening them throughout their time at the university. There are hundreds of student organizations to choose from, including dozens of sororities and fraternities. The institution is proud of its diversity in academics, as well as enrollments. It was named one of the most LGBTQ-friendly universities in the nation.
University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB), Santa Barbara, California
UCSB is a public research university, offering its students an array of major programs and minors. From engineering to the fine arts, UCSB’s course listings are diverse. The university has made its mark in the field of science, known worldwide as one of the best. USCB is recognized for creating revolutionary, trendsetting technology. The California NanoSystems Institute, one of the first institutes in California for Science and Innovation, is located on campus.
Pomona College, Claremont, California
Located just 35 miles east of Los Angeles, Pomona offers various majors in the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Graduates become changemakers; many have gone on to become scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs. Major selling points for Pomona include: a low teacher-to-student ratio, plenty of nearby internship opportunities, and the college is just one hour from Los Angeles. Pomona College is part of the five college Claremont Colleges consortium.
University of California-Berkeley (Berkeley), Berkeley, California
As a public research university, Berkeley is dedicated to educating students who want to stand out in the world. With a massive number of major programs, there are hundreds of academic opportunities available for Berkeley students. The college is one of the top-ranked public universities in the nation and in the world. In addition, Berkeley is bicycle-friendly; more than half of the campus community travels via bike or foot.
University of Redlands, Redlands, California
Located in a popular southern California college town, Redlands students learn in a private, nonprofit university setting. The college offers students access to multiple on-campus schools, including the College of Arts and Sciences, Johnston Center for Integrative Studies, School of Music, School of Business, and School of Education.
University of San Diego, San Diego, California
This private Roman Catholic university takes a holistic approach to teaching, encouraging growth in intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, social, and cultural well-being. The institution offers several bachelor’s degree programs, along with nursing, law, and doctorate programs.
Stanford University, Stanford, California
Located between San Jose and San Francisco, this private research university is proud to call their undergraduate program the most selective in the U.S. From engineering and science, to humanities and the social sciences, course and major offerings are diverse, as is the student body. The school’s curb appeal is a bonus; the campus is more than 8,000 acres, and located in the beautiful Bay Area of California.
Harvey Mudd College (HMC), Claremont, California
This private liberal arts college offers programs in science, engineering, and mathematics. HMC chooses applicants with high potential for innovation and leadership. Most students opt to move into graduate courses after completing their undergraduate programs. HMC is top-ranked for its science lab facilities and accessible professors.
California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, California
Caltech is a private, doctorate-granting university known for its world-renowned science and engineering programs. Geared toward the understanding of future technology, Caltech offers programs in quantum science, engineering, bioinformatics, and beyond. The institute boasts one of the lowest student-to-faculty ratios in the nation. Students have access to the university’s state-of-the-art research tools, breakthrough analytical labs, and supercomputers to spawn unprecedented research programs.