Top 10 Best Colleges in California For 2023

Last Updated on September 26, 2022

Colleges in California

Famous for its warm weather, coastal beaches, and sprawling cities, California occupies a unique place in American culture. The state may be better known for Hollywood and Silicon Valley, but several colleges in California rank among the best in the country. Elite institutions like Stanford, University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, Los Angeles, attract students from across the world.

10 Best Colleges in California

Below is a list of the 10 best colleges in California. The list was compiled with a focus on school quality, outcomes, and return on investment (ROI), along with considering a host of other factors such as retention rate, selectivity, endowment per student, student-faculty ratio, median earnings, and cost of attendance.

1. Stanford University

  • Location: Stanford, CA 
  • Acceptance Rate: 7%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1420-1550
  • Middle 50 ACT: ACT: 31-35
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 6,366

Stanford University is often called the “Ivy of the West.” In addition to its exceptional academics Stanford is known for its ties to the Silicon Valley and incredible careers its graduates go on to have. Google, Yahoo, and Instagram count Stanford alumni among their founders, while Stanford ranks 18 (out of almost 2,000 colleges) on Payscale’s list of best value colleges.

2. California Institute of Technology (Caltech)

  • Location: Pasadena, CA 
  • Acceptance Rate: 7%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1510–1570
  • Middle 50% ACT: 35-36
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 901 

Caltech is renowned for its science, engineering, and technology curriculum, as well as the research opportunities available to its students. Caltech receives grants from institutions such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and is home to impressive facilities such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, and the International Observatory Network.

Caltech is also known for its honor code, which establishes trust across the campus community and provides students with vast access to labs, workshops, and other college facilities.

3. Pomona College

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 8%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1390-1530
  • Middle 50% ACT: 32-35
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 1,477

Pomona College provides its students a unique opportunity to attend one of the best colleges in California and best liberal arts colleges in the country, while also taking advantage of big-school benefits thanks to its inclusion in the Claremont Consortium. The Claremont Consortium is a collection of five undergraduate schools and two graduate institutions all located within one square mile that share resources and increase academic and co-curricular activities.

4. Claremont McKenna College

  • Location: Claremont, CA 
  • Acceptance Rate: 13%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1330-1460
  • Middle 50% ACT: 31-34
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 1,262

Claremont McKenna College is one of the best colleges in California—along with being one of the country’s best liberal arts colleges—and attracts thoughtful students interested in fulfilling the school’s philosophy of “learning for the sake of doing.” Claremont McKenna fosters an inclusive community of inquisitive students, 97% of which choose to live on campus all four years. However, don’t get fooled into thinking Claremont McKenna is insular—nearly half of its undergraduates also study abroad.   

5. University of Southern California (USC)

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA 
  • Acceptance Rate: 12%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1360-1510
  • Middle 50% ACT: 30-34
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 19,606

Admission into USC is becoming one of the most coveted prizes for high-achieving high schoolers, with the school receiving a historic 70,971 applicants for its Class of 2025. USC is also increasingly diverse: 32% of the Class of 2025 is from historically underrepresented groups. One thing all undergraduates can come together over is the university’s history of greatness—it has had a gold medal-winning athlete in every summer Olympiad since 1912 and alumni have been nominated for an Oscar every year since the inception of the award in 1929.

6. Harvey Mudd College

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 18%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1490-1560
  • Middle 50% ACT: 34-35 
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 854

The college was founded in the 1950s by Harvey Mudd, an accomplished mining engineer, to help future generations overcome the shortcomings of the traditional, narrow technical training available to him. The school has become one of the country’s premier STEM schools. Science, technology, engineering, and math classes are balanced with a core curriculum that includes courses in the humanities and social sciences to produce students with sharp technical skills, who are critical thinkers and proficient writers. 

7. University of California – Berkeley (UC Berkeley)

  • Location: Berkeley, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 17%
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1300-1520
  • Middle 50% ACT: 27-35 
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 30,980

UC Berkeley, often known simply as Cal, has a reputation for attracting students with an interest in community action and political activism—thanks, in part, to being the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s and home to activist/icon Abbie Hoffman. While activism is important to undergraduates, so are academics. The school is renowned for its excellence in majors varying from the social sciences to engineering to biological sciences to languages.

8. University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA)

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 14% 
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1290-1510
  • Middle 50% ACT: 29-34
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 31,636

UCLA’s prime Los Angeles location—providing easy access to the beach, mountains, and Hollywood sizzle—put it on the top of many college-bound students’ lists of dream schools (it receives more applications than any other university in the world). Driving additional appeal to UCLA is its proximity to industries ranging from entertainment to aerospace and famous alumni with achievements varying from Nobel Prize winners to NBA MVPs.  

9. Scripps College

  • Location: Claremont, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 35% 
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1320-1470
  • Middle 50% ACT: 29-33
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 936

Scripps College was founded in 1926 by newspaper entrepreneur and philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps and has gone on to become one of the country’s preeminent women’s liberal art colleges. Scripps College is known for its core curriculum, a collection of three courses centered on the humanities that challenge undergraduates to investigate and debate broad, critical topics by examining them from multiple perspectives. 

10. Santa Clara University

  • Location: Santa Clara, CA
  • Acceptance Rate: 69% 
  • Middle 50% SAT: 1280-1430
  • Middle 50% ACT: 28-32
  • Undergrad Enrollment: 5,608

In addition to its status as one of the best colleges in California, Santa Clara University (SCU) is also one of the most prestigious Jesuit colleges in the nation. SCU’s campus is built around the historic Mission Santa Clara de Asis and the college is grounded in the Jesuit tradition of educating the whole person—mind, body, and soul. The Jesuit tradition comes from the Catholic Church, but students of all faiths are welcome at Santa Clara University and many non-religious students are drawn by the Jesuit ideal to create a more just, humane, and sustainable world.

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