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12 Best Colleges in California

best colleges in california

California consistently ranks as one of the best states in which to get a college education.

Its state university system includes some of the best public universities in the country, and its private institutions rival schools of the Ivy League in terms of prestige.

Factor in year-round great weather, proximity to the beach, and an abundance of interesting tourist attractions, and it's no wonder California is a popular choice for native and out-of-state high school grads alike.

If you're wondering what the west coast fuss is all about, take a look at these fast facts regarding some of the best colleges in California:

1. University of California, Los Angeles

best colleges in california UCLA

In some ways, UCLA is the iconic California school. Located in Los Angeles' buzzy Westwood neighborhood, only about five miles from the beach.

UCLA's beautiful, sunny campus is a Hollywood star in its own right (several movies, TV shows, and commercials are filmed there every year). But the school boasts brains as well as beauty: its low admissions rate, high graduation rate, and favorable student-to-faculty ratios make it the second-best public university in the country academically.

It's also home to a nationally ranked teaching hospital and a men's basketball team that plays in NCAA's Division I. Strong undergraduate programs include the business economics and political science degrees, and 40 UCLA doctoral programs rank among the top 10 in their fields nationwide.

2. University of California, Berkeley

best California colleges UC Berkeley

UCLA's hippie big sister, Berkeley, is the University of California system's oldest and most distinguished campus and the nation's top-ranked public university. Berkeley's campus has a unique beauty, not obviously collegiate and almost overrun with gorgeous, lush trees. But college students with nature overload who crave an urban escape can easily get to San Francisco, less than thirteen miles away.

Berkeley is perhaps best known for its progressive politics; the coffeehouse at its undergraduate library is fittingly called the Free Speech Movement Cafe. Most importantly, Berkeley's many benefits apparently translate to a positive real-time experience for students, as the school's freshman retention rate is 97%.

3. Stanford University

best colleges in california Stanford University

Often called the "Ivy of the West," Stanford is a prestigious private school with a modest undergraduate student body (around 7000) and a reputation for excellence, particularly in engineering and the social sciences.

Palo Alto's proximity to Silicon Valley means the school is able to provide its students an extensive network of contacts and a campus culture that fosters entrepreneurship. This, and the fact that its graduate program in business is the nation's second-best, might be why companies like Tesla and Instagram were dreamed up by the minds of Stanford grads.

4. California Institute of Technology

best colleges in california CalTech

As its name suggests, Caltech is one of the best places in the world to study engineering, computer sciences, physics, and mathematics. The university also manages NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a center for research whose projects include the Mars Rover and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Caltech's list of accomplishments, including the top spot in the Times Higher Education's world university ranking system, is particularly impressive considering the private institution's small size: the freshman class of 2017 consisted of only 249 students. Don't be fooled by the studiousness of Caltech students, though: their famous penchant for pranks proves that they know how to have fun too.

5. University of Southern California

best california colleges USC

Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, USC is the California college most closely connected to the state's thriving film and media industries, with its renowned Annenberg School for Journalism and Communications and School for Cinematic Arts.

The university has particularly strong undergraduate programs in the visual and performing arts, creative writing, and art history, and unusually, has six distinct schools of art (cinematic arts, music, dramatic arts, architecture, fine arts, and dance). Unsurprisingly, it's the alma mater of some of the biggest actors, directors, and screenwriters in the entertainment industry.

USC is also distinguished by its multinational student body, as it enrolls more international college students than almost any other university in the country.

6. University of California, Davis

best colleges in california UC Davis

UC Davis is one of the newer and less well-known schools in the UC system (it opened in 1959, making it the fifth-newest of ten). It was originally established as a farm school, which explains the campus' rural feel.

With Sacramento as its nearest city fifteen miles away, UC Davis suffers from a lack of the location bump other California schools enjoy. However, the school makes great use of its environment by offering a unique and interesting agriculturally focused curriculum: undergraduates can major in Viviculture and Enology (in other words, wine) and participate in internships with central California's world-class wineries.

7. University of California, San Diego

best california colleges UC San Diego

Unlike Davis, UCSD is one of the mid-tier UC schools that has all the advantages of location on its side. Located in San Diego's charming La Jolla community, UCSD's modernist campus is bordered on one side by the Pacific coastline.

Its proximity to the water makes UCSD the perfect home for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (not to be confused with Scripps College), a center for ocean and earth science research that acts as a department of the university. Through Scripps, science-minded undergrads can pursue degrees in marine biology or earth sciences or even study the science of aquatic sports. Scripps' Birch Aquarium is also a popular stop for SD tourists.

8. University of California, Santa Barbara

best colleges in california UC Santa Barbara

UCSD's main rival in terms of beachfront real estate is UCSB. The Santa Barbara branch of the UC system is directly adjacent to Goleta Beach and also has its own lagoon.

UCSB has a reputation for being a party school, but it's still the ninth-best public university in the country, outranking all other UC schools besides Berkeley and UCLA. UCSB houses a unique facility called the AlloSphere, a spherical theater where researchers can work with multidimensional data visualizations; the facility is part of the California NanoSystems Institute, where world-class scientist work in the cutting-edge field of nanotech.

9. Harvey Mudd College

best california colleges Harvey Mudd college

Harvey Mudd is one of the seven schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium (the "7 C's").

As a liberal arts college with no graduate programs, Harvey Mudd is able to provide focused attention to its small student body of approximately 800 undergraduates.

Claremont Colleges - who are the 7 C's?

  • Pomona College
  • Claremont Graduate University
  • Scripps College
  • Claremont McKenna College
  • Harvey Mudd College
  • Pitzer College
  • Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences

The school offers only six majors, in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics, with the additional option of three joint majors in chemistry and biology, computer science and mathematics, and mathematical and computational biology.

Mudd's specialized approach pays off; it's one of the top 25 liberal arts colleges nationwide, has the second-best undergraduate engineering program among four-year schools, and ranks second in undergraduate programs that lead to doctoral degrees.

10. Occidental College

best california colleges Occidental College

Perhaps best known as the first alma mater of a certain political figure (Obama), Occidental College is a private liberal arts college in north Los Angeles.

Founded in 1887, Oxy is one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the west coast, and its rivalry with Pomona is southern California's oldest football rivalry. It's also one of the country's most racially diverse schools, with students of color making up 47% of the student body.

The college offers joint undergraduate degree programs in collaboration with Caltech, Columbia University in New York, and Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.

  • Notable alum: Barack Obama (sort of--he transferred to Columbia after two years)
  • Unique course offering: Critical Theory & Social Justice 180: Stupidity
  • Financial Aid:

11. University of California, Irvine

best colleges in california UC Irvine

Rounding out the mid-tier UC schools is UC Irvine in Orange County. While UCI doesn't quite compete with the more prestigious institutions in the system in terms of national recognition, the school finds other important ways to make its mark: it was the country's best university under the age of 50, and the seventh-best in the world, until 2015 when the school turned 51.

It's also the only two-time winner of the Sierra Club's Top 10 Greenest Universities list (for schools in the U.S.).

Among its contributions to the intersection of scholarship and sustainability is UCI's New Swan Theater, a sustainable, portable, Elizabethan-style theater that hosts an annual Shakespeare festival every summer. Famed philosopher Jacques Derrida was on UCI's faculty until his death in 2004.

  • Notable alum: Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff
  • Unique course offering: Gender & Sexuality 110B: Money, Sex, and Power
  • Financial Aid:

12. California Institute of the Arts

best colleges in california CalArts

While not nationally ranked, CalArts is one of California's most interesting colleges. A private university 20 miles north of Los Angeles, CalArts was the first degree-granting institution of higher learning in the U.S. that focused exclusively on the arts.

The school was founded by Walt Disney in 1961, and graduates of its animation program have contributed to an impressive roster of award-winning films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Unconventionally, CalArts admission committees disregard G.P.A.s and exam scores, basing admissions decisions entirely on applicants' artistic potential. Degrees are offered in six schools: Art, Critical Studies, Dance, Film/Video, Music, and Theater.