California’s Best Public Colleges & Universities of 2021

Public colleges and universities account for almost 75 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S. The best public colleges in California provide broad access to reputable degree programs, affordable tuition, and sprawling educational communities.

California’s Best Public Colleges & Universities of 2021

Colleges and Universities in California

California’s higher education institutes span across the entire state, allowing students to study by the beach, in the forest, in small towns, and in large cities. The largest university, the University of California, Los Angeles, serves nearly 44,000 students and offers a tuition rate around $13,000. This isn’t the only school with a large student body though. California is home to 23 colleges and universities with student populations of over 20,000 students.

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However, more than half of the state’s schools serve smaller student populations, offering plenty of options for students who crave a more intimate campus experience. Additionally, California boasts 50 religiously affiliated schools. Many of these schools have high graduation rates, though tuition costs can range greatly, from $8,000 at Bethesda University up to $54,000 at Pepperdine University.

Additionally, many of California’s colleges and universities boast influential faculty and alumni, including Neil Armstrong, Jerry Lewis, and Weird Al Yankovic. In addition to famous alumni and professors, California’s schools are also home to some of the country’s top degree programs, including nursing, business, religious studies, education, literature, and law.

Though Hollywood has given an inside look into California’s most popular landmarks and attractions, these one-of-a-kind places aren’t the only reason people flock to The Golden State. With hundreds of colleges and universities to choose from, students have countless opportunities to further their education in California.

To learn more about earning your degree in California, check out some of the state’s top programs and career paths.

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What are California’s Colleges & Universities?

California’s Best Overall

What is a public college? And what is the difference between a private and public college?

Public and private colleges and universities operate under different business models — one is a private company with private funding; the other is owned by the state and receives both state and federal funding to operate. If you’re weighing the pros and cons of private vs. public college, consider that many public colleges provide diverse course offerings, influential professors, and an excellent return on your investment.

Public colleges are schools that receive most of their funding from tax revenues. As a result, the cost of a four-year degree at a public university is often lower than the equivalent cost at a private college — especially for students attending a public school in their home state. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average annual cost (tuition, fees, room and board for full-time students) at a four-year public university was slightly over $20,000. In contrast, private universities cost, on average, nearly $43,000 annually.

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This list is composed entirely of public colleges and universities that offer four-year undergraduate degrees. We’ve identified 46 public universities in California. The list below of the 25 best public universities in the state satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. It must receive direct funding from the state.
  2. It must be fully accredited.
  3. It offers a broad range of bachelor’s degree programs.

How do we determine California's best public colleges and universities?

The people affiliated with a school are ultimately what make it great. This is why, at the undergraduate level, we rank the best colleges and universities based on what we “Concentrated Influence”. Concentrated Influence takes the combined influence score of a college or university’s top academic influencers (including faculty and alums) and divides it by the school’s total number of undergraduates.

Using concentrated influence gives small and mid-sized schools an opportunity to shine by taking away the size advantage of larger universities. A small school with proportionately more influential faculty than a large school, whose influence in absolute terms may be bigger, will nonetheless score higher in a concentrated influence ranking. Our approach highlights undergraduate schools that truly rank for excellence, regardless of size.

If you are serious about finding the best colleges and universities for a bachelor’s degree, you should be asking where the most influential professors are teaching and whether their graduates are themselves advancing the school’s reputation for academic excellence.

Most ranking sites rely on an opaque combination of reputation surveys and arbitrary performance metrics. Concentrated Influence provides a ranking that is free from bias, insulated from manipulation, and reflective of real-world educational outcomes.

Find out more about our ranking methodology here.

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Best Public Colleges & Universities in California

  1. #1

    University of California, Berkeley

    #6 institution's historical influence
    #29 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    17%

    Graduation

    92%

    Student body

    42K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1430/33

    Berkeley, CA

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    What is University of California, Berkeley known for?

    University of California, Berkeley’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Computer Science
    • Mathematics
    • Biology
    • Engineering
    • Physics
    • Literature
    • Philosophy
    • Economics
    • Chemistry
    • Business

    Most Influential Alumni

  2. #2

    University of California, Los Angeles

    #20 institution's historical influence
    #31 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $13K

    Acceptance

    14%

    Graduation

    91%

    Student body

    44K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1415/32

    Los Angeles, CA

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    What is University of California, Los Angeles known for?

    University of California, Los Angeles’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Philosophy
    • Mathematics
    • Biology
    • Literature
    • Computer Science
    • Medical
    • Business
    • Engineering
    • Psychology
    • Law

    Most Influential Alumni

  3. #3

    University of California, San Diego

    #51 institution's historical influence
    #71 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    37%

    Graduation

    87%

    Student body

    38K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1370/30

    La Jolla, CA

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    What is University of California, San Diego known for?

    University of California, San Diego’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Computer Science
    • Mathematics
    • Physics
    • Engineering
    • Medical
    • Psychology
    • Literature
    • Chemistry
    • Philosophy

    Most Influential Alumni

  4. #4

    University of California, Santa Barbara

    #103 institution's historical influence
    #100 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    37%

    Graduation

    84%

    Student body

    26K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1355/30

    Santa Barbara, CA

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    What is University of California, Santa Barbara known for?

    University of California, Santa Barbara’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Physics
    • Psychology
    • Biology
    • Mathematics
    • Engineering
    • Chemistry
    • Computer Science
    • Literature
    • Business
    • Philosophy

    Most Influential Alumni

  5. #5

    University of California, Santa Cruz

    #144 institution's historical influence
    #734 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    65%

    Graduation

    76%

    Student body

    20K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1290/29

    Santa Cruz, CA

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    What is University of California, Santa Cruz known for?

    University of California, Santa Cruz’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Literature
    • Philosophy
    • Physics
    • Psychology
    • Computer Science
    • Mathematics
    • Anthropology
    • Communications
    • Sociology

    Most Influential Alumni

  6. #6

    University of California, Davis

    #129 institution's historical influence
    #163 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    46%

    Graduation

    86%

    Student body

    36K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1290/28

    Davis, CA

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    What is University of California, Davis known for?

    University of California, Davis’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Medical
    • Engineering
    • Literature
    • Mathematics
    • Psychology
    • Computer Science
    • Chemistry
    • Law
    • Business

    Most Influential Alumni

  7. #7

    University of California, Irvine

    #114 institution's historical influence
    #87 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    30%

    Graduation

    85%

    Student body

    37K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1295/28

    Irvine, CA

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    What is University of California, Irvine known for?

    University of California, Irvine’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Philosophy
    • Computer Science
    • Literature
    • Medical
    • Mathematics
    • Engineering
    • Psychology
    • Business
    • Chemistry

    Most Influential Alumni

  8. #8

    University of California, Riverside

    #301 institution's historical influence
    #919 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    66%

    Graduation

    77%

    Student body

    24K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1230/26

    Riverside, CA

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    What is University of California, Riverside known for?

    University of California, Riverside’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Chemistry
    • Business
    • Literature
    • Engineering
    • Psychology
    • Mathematics
    • Economics
    • Physics
    • Computer Science

    Most Influential Alumni

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  9. #9

    University of California, Merced

    #1623 institution's historical influence
    #275 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $14K

    Acceptance

    85%

    Graduation

    69%

    Student body

    9K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1090/22

    Merced, CA

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    What is University of California, Merced known for?

    University of California, Merced’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Computer Science
    • Biology
    • Mathematics
    • Medical
    • Business
    • Political Science
    • Psychology
    • Chemistry
    • Physics

    Most Influential Alumni

  10. #10

    San Francisco State University

    #252 institution's historical influence
    #255 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    84%

    Graduation

    55%

    Student body

    26K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1045/20

    San Francisco, CA

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    What is San Francisco State University known for?

    San Francisco State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Business
    • Philosophy
    • Computer Science
    • Education
    • Engineering
    • Communications
    • Political Science
    • History
    • Sociology

    Most Influential Alumni

  11. #11

    San Diego State University

    #323 institution's historical influence
    #189 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    37%

    Graduation

    76%

    Student body

    33K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1215/25

    San Diego, CA

    View profile

    What is San Diego State University known for?

    San Diego State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Business
    • Biology
    • Engineering
    • Education
    • History
    • Communications
    • Medical
    • Psychology
    • Philosophy

    Most Influential Alumni

  12. #12

    San Jose State University

    #313 institution's historical influence
    #871 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    67%

    Graduation

    66%

    Student body

    29K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1140/22

    San Jose, CA

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    What is San Jose State University known for?

    San Jose State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Computer Science
    • Business
    • Engineering
    • Communications
    • Education
    • Philosophy
    • Biology
    • Political Science
    • Psychology

    Most Influential Alumni

  13. #13

    California State University, Los Angeles

    #561 institution's historical influence
    #865 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    76%

    Graduation

    52%

    Student body

    24K

    Median SAT/ACT

    985/17

    Los Angeles, CA

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    What is California State University, Los Angeles known for?

    California State University, Los Angeles’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Education
    • Political Science
    • Mathematics
    • Philosophy
    • Psychology
    • History
    • Medical
    • Engineering
    • Communications

    Most Influential Alumni

  14. #14

    California State University, Northridge

    #467 institution's historical influence
    #1253 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    66%

    Graduation

    55%

    Student body

    33K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1020/19

    Northridge, CA

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    What is California State University, Northridge known for?

    California State University, Northridge’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Business
    • Literature
    • Communications
    • Engineering
    • Education
    • Political Science
    • History
    • Mathematics
    • Medical
    • Psychology

    Most Influential Alumni

  15. #15

    California State University, Long Beach

    #599 institution's historical influence
    #183 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    42%

    Graduation

    73%

    Student body

    32K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1145/23

    Long Beach, CA

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    What is California State University, Long Beach known for?

    California State University, Long Beach’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Business
    • Education
    • History
    • Engineering
    • Political Science
    • Biology
    • Communications
    • Psychology
    • Medical

    Most Influential Alumni

  16. #16

    California State University, Monterey Bay

    #3541 institution's historical influence
    #578 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    86%

    Graduation

    60%

    Student body

    7K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1062/20

    Seaside, CA

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    What is California State University, Monterey Bay known for?

    California State University, Monterey Bay’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Education
    • Political Science
    • Biology
    • Computer Science
    • Medical
    • Communications
    • Mathematics
    • Psychology
    • Sociology
    • Social Work
  17. #17

    California State University, Fullerton

    #776 institution's historical influence
    #1441 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    68%

    Graduation

    69%

    Student body

    34K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1115/21

    Fullerton, CA

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    What is California State University, Fullerton known for?

    California State University, Fullerton’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Psychology
    • Literature
    • Education
    • Medical
    • History
    • Engineering
    • Political Science
    • Computer Science
    • Communications
    • Biology

    Most Influential Alumni

  18. #18

    California Polytechnic State University

    #731 institution's historical influence
    #47 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $10K

    Acceptance

    38%

    Graduation

    83%

    Student body

    21K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1340/29

    San Luis Obispo, CA

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    What is California Polytechnic State University known for?

    California Polytechnic State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Business
    • Computer Science
    • Education
    • Biology
    • Literature
    • History
    • Medical
    • Communications
    • Mathematics

    Most Influential Alumni

  19. #19

    Humboldt State University

    #1230 institution's historical influence
    #883 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    85%

    Graduation

    49%

    Student body

    7K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1085/21

    Arcata, CA

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    What is Humboldt State University known for?

    Humboldt State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Biology
    • Education
    • Literature
    • Engineering
    • History
    • Mathematics
    • Communications
    • Political Science
    • Earth Sciences
    • Medical

    Most Influential Alumni

  20. #20

    Sonoma State University

    #1236 institution's historical influence
    #723 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    89%

    Graduation

    60%

    Student body

    9K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1070/20

    Rohnert Park, CA

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    What is Sonoma State University known for?

    Sonoma State University’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Business
    • Education
    • Biology
    • Computer Science
    • Political Science
    • Literature
    • History
    • Psychology
    • Medical
    • Philosophy

    Most Influential Alumni

  21. #21

    California State University Maritime Academy

    #5800 institution's historical influence
    #1335 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    82%

    Graduation

    61%

    Student body

    1K

    Vallejo, CA

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    What is California State University Maritime Academy known for?

    California State University Maritime Academy’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Engineering
    • Political Science
    • Sociology
  22. #22

    California State University, East Bay

    #1286 institution's historical influence
    #748 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    73%

    Graduation

    47%

    Student body

    14K

    Hayward, CA

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    What is California State University, East Bay known for?

    California State University, East Bay’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Business
    • Education
    • Computer Science
    • Political Science
    • Literature
    • History
    • Communications
    • Engineering
    • Mathematics
    • Biology

    Most Influential Alumni

  23. #23

    California State University, Sacramento

    #983 institution's historical influence
    #657 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    83%

    Graduation

    54%

    Student body

    27K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1040/19

    Sacramento, CA

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    What is California State University, Sacramento known for?

    California State University, Sacramento’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Education
    • Business
    • Political Science
    • Communications
    • Economics
    • History
    • Medical
    • Biology
    • Literature
    • Engineering

    Most Influential Alumni

  24. #24

    California State University, Fresno

    #600 institution's historical influence
    #1148 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $7K

    Acceptance

    90%

    Graduation

    58%

    Student body

    22K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1035/19

    Fresno, CA

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    What is California State University, Fresno known for?

    California State University, Fresno’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • History
    • Psychology
    • Education
    • Communications
    • Engineering
    • Mathematics
    • Economics
    • Computer Science
    • Biology

    Most Influential Alumni

  25. #25

    California State University, Chico

    #915 institution's historical influence
    #454 overall school desirability

    Tuition + fees

    $8K

    Acceptance

    90%

    Graduation

    65%

    Student body

    16K

    Median SAT/ACT

    1090/21

    Chico, CA

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    What is California State University, Chico known for?

    California State University, Chico’s faculty and alumni have been influential in:

    • Literature
    • Education
    • Mathematics
    • Computer Science
    • Political Science
    • History
    • Communications
    • Biology
    • Philosophy
    • Anthropology

    Most Influential Alumni

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