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Joshua Adamson

Joshua is a copywriter at Obrella who for more than 10 years has been creating content about insurance, health care, and more. He helps companies explain complex insurance subjects in simple ways so that customers can make smart buying decisions. He spends way too much time binge-watching Netflix, loves the outdoors and has a cat who tolerates him.

UPDATED: Mar 7, 2024

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Most Affordable Colleges in California

If you’re looking to go to college in the Golden State, you’d be forgiven if you feel overwhelmed by the huge number of choices. For many students, cost of going to college is a key—if not the most important—factor to consider. We scoured through public data on California schools to find those with the cheapest overall cost.

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Where The Data Comes From

We used data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) College Navigator. NCES is a government organization that is responsible to collect and analyze data about education in the U.S. and in other nations. Take note of these details:

  • The data is for off-campus living only. This is because NCES doesn’t provide cost data for on-campus living.
  • For in-state students, we included only colleges with 4,000 or more enrolled students.
  • For out-of state students, we included any college or university with 20,000 or more enrollees.
  • For some schools, we’ve highlighted NCES statistics on graduation rates and reported on-campus sexual assaults, burglary, and robbery.
  • Total cost calculation: Tuition (In- or out-of state) + Off-campus room and board + Off-campus other = Total Cost

Due to the enormous number of California higher education institutions, we broke down the list into the cheapest among four categories:

  • Top 9 Public Colleges and Universities
  • Top 9 State Colleges and Universities
  • Top 5 Private Colleges and Universities
  • Top 15 Community Colleges

Let’s get to the rankings! California students, these are your least expensive options for colleges and universities.


9 Cheapest California Public Universities 

The University of California (UC) system is one of the most well-regarded college systems in the world. Including 10 schools and serving more than 238,000 students, UC schools are an education institution powerhouse in the state. What’s more, UC schools earned a spot on all nine of the most affordable California public universities. 

Complete List of Colleges

Rank# College Name Total In-State Cost Graduation Rate
1 San Diego State University $21,226 66%
2 University of California, Merced $25,297 64%
3 University of California, Riverside $26,969 69%
4 University of California, Davis $27,237 83%
5 University of California, Irvine $27,524 86%
6 University of California, Berkeley $27,671 91%
7 University of California, Los Angeles $27,694 91%
8 University of California, San Diego $28,226 86%
9 University of California, Santa Cruz $28,619 77%

#1 – San Diego State University

Californians, your most affordable public college is San Diego State University, home of the Aztecs. With 33,483 students, sunny SDSU is one of the nation’s most highly regarded universities, especially in the research arena.

SDSU has been recognized for several distinctions, including being in the top 80 public universities (U.S. News & World Report), top 25 most entrepreneurial universities (Forbes and Fortune magazines), and top 9 for international business undergrads.

SDSU is known for its particularly diverse and inclusive campus. It was recognized as seventh most ethnically diverse (USNWR). ranked the university in the top 20 for LGBT-friendly schools in the U.S.

If you’re looking to study where the weather is mild, San Diego’s Mediterranean climate willperk you up. The rich and vibrant San Diego culture is another bright feature for SDSU. The campus is located near many popular beach destinations and landmarks, and the campus is just under 25 miles from the Mexican border.


#2 – University of California, Merced

Near the shore of Lake Yosemite in the San Joaquin Valley is the University of California, Merced. With just 6,268 Bobcats, UCM is the smallest college on our list, but it is also the newest, at just 11 years.

UCM offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in three major schools: engineering, natural sciences, and social sciences/humanities/arts. The UCM psychology undergraduate program has been ranked as one of the nation’s best.

UCM takes pride in its efforts toward sustainability and environmental friendliness. All of its buildings are LEED Certified, which is given for meeting sustainability standards in design and operations.

Students at UCM can enjoy plentiful outdoor sites and activities, from swimming and fishing in Lake Yosemite, to hiking and skiing in nearby Yosemite National Park.


#3 – University of California, Riverside

Rounding out our top three cheapest California public universities is the University of California, Riverside, with 21,498 students. UCR is known for its ethnic and economic diversity and has earned national recognition for research and other factors.

The UCR main campus in Riverside is 50 miles from downtown LA and not far from several coastal and inland Southern California destinations. The school also has a campus in Palm Desert.

UCR ranked as the 58th top U.S. public university and tied for 121st top national university. The school has been recognized particularly for its research in plant and animal sciences.

Widely noted as one of the most ethnically and economically diverse universities in the U.S., UCR touts its many outreach efforts and resources to minorities, including LGBT students.

UCR students cheer on their athletic Highlanders, and the school is notable for its uniquely Scottish influences. Many buildings are named after Scottish destinations, and students can even earn a degree in bagpipes!


#4 – University of California, Davis

The University of California, Davis—home of the blue and gold Aggies—is a vibrant and prestigious near California’s capital, Sacramento. UC Davis has been widely recognized for its research in science, medicine, and more.

The college has distinctions on several U.S. News & World Report rankings, including #11 top public schools, #19 in biological sciences, and #1 in veterinary medicine. UC Davis alumni and faculty have earned some of the world’s top awards, such as the Nobel Peace Prize and Pulitzer Prize.

Most of the 34,508 students at UC Davis attend the college-town campus just west of Sacramento, and areabout a two-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, Lake Tahoe, and Napa Valley.


#5 – University of California, Irvine

The only college in Orange County in this list, the University of California, Irvine, is our #5 most affordable public university. UCI is a widely recognized research university with one of the most unique mascots around: the Anteater. The school has 30,051 students.

Known for its research activity, UCI administers the teaching hospital UC Irvine Medical Center. It ranked as the #9 top public schools and has earned high honors for many of its undergraduate, graduate, and research programs. It was named as the number one U.S. university that does the most for low-income students.

The UCI campus sits in America’s “safest city,” Irvine, with easy access to some of Orange County’s most popular destinations like Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Disneyland.


#6 – University of California, Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley, is one of the most highly regarded colleges in America and the world. Its 37,565 students attend campus in Berkeley, just east of San Francisco and north of Oakland.

UC Berkeley tops many college rankings lists, including national universities (#20), best undergraduate business programs (#2), best graduate programs (#1 in chemistry, computer science, English, and more), and best global universities (#3).  

Students and UC Berkeley attend an expansive campus in the vibrant college town with easy access to San Francisco. UC Berkeley pride and spirit ride high, and the college boasts one of the highest graduation rates on our list, at 91%.


#7 – University of California, Los Angeles

In the Westwood district of California’s largest city is the University of California, Los Angeles. The college is huge and diverse, enrolling 41,845 students, and offers a wide range of programs in academics, research, medicine, and more.

UCLA ranks high in reputation and awards for U.S. colleges. It was named the #2 top public school, #11 best education school, #1 clinical psychology school, and #2 in fine arts. UCLA has earned worldwide recognition for academics, research, and community impact.

Students at UCLA graduate at a rate of 91%, and student life is diverse and energetic. The UCLA Bruins are award winning athletes and have won more NCAA championship titles than any other university.


#8 – University of California, San Diego

Not to be outdone by San Diego State, the University of California, San Diego, deserves a spot on our top 10 most affordable public colleges, too. UCSD may not boast being as cheap as its San Diego sister school, but it’s still a fantastic and highly regarded college.

UCSD has 30,709 students enrolled in its more than 20 undergraduate colleges, academic divisions, and graduate professional schools. The university ranksat #9 in top public schools, #19 best global universities, and earned the #1 position for behavioral neuroscience.

Enjoying the sunny climate and affluent amenities of their La Jolla campus, UCLA students are diverse and athletic. A campus just minutes from the beach means students can easily hit the surf between classes or on weekends.


#9 – University of California, Santa Cruz

The University of California, Santa Cruz, is 75 miles south of San Francisco along the coast of Monterey Bay. It is another well-regarded school in the University of California Public University System.

UCSC ranked in the top 50 for public schools (#34), best value schools (#29), earth sciences (#16), English (#39), and best global universities (#48).

The UCSC redwood forest hill campus overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Nearby trails, parks, and climbing locations make for a beautiful and active campus life.


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9 Cheapest California State Colleges 

Our top 9 cheapest California state colleges range across California, from Arcata to Long Beach, so your options are plentiful.

Complete List of Colleges

# College Name Total In-State Cost Graduation Rate
1 California State University, San Bernardino $20,122 48%
2 California State University, Fresno $20,256 52%
3 California State University, Chico $20,422 59%
4 California State University, Sacramento $20,786 44%
5 California State University, Stanislaus $21,151 53%
6 Humboldt State University $21,231 44%
7 California State University, Bakersfield $21,330 41%
8 California State University, Long Beach $21,414 65%
9 California State University, East Bay $21,483 38%

Read more: Discover The Most Affordable Auto Insurance In Fresno

#1 – California State University, San Bernardino

California State University, San Bernardino, topped our list as the most affordable state college in California. The Inland Empire school has 18,952 students in its bachelor’s, master’s, and one doctoral degrees, and it is known for its innovation in business and student diversity.

In 2014 CSUSB was recognized by CEO Magazine as one of the top MBA business schools in the world. The university also ranked highly as a top public school (#23) and western regional university (#69) by U.S. News & World Report.

CSUSB has a diverse student body and faculty. It enrolls the second highest number of African American and Hispanic students of all California public universities. The vibrant CSUSB campus is nestled in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains where coyotes—the school’s mascot—roam free.


#2 – California State University, Fresno

California State University, Fresno, also called Fresno State, is a school known for its unique academic programs in the agricultural field. The university has 23,179 enrolled students in its expansive Central California campus.

As an esteemed member of the California State University System, Fresno State rankedas the #12 top public school in the U.S. and the #52 Western Regional University. The university offers more than 60 areas of study.

Fresno State is notable for its robust agricultural endeavors and unique campus features. The campus includes the only college-run vineyard and winery in the U.S. It also features a 1,000-acre farm that houses many crops and livestock breeds. The campus also includes an enormous library and on-campus planetarium.


#3 – California State University, Chico

Located in central NorCal, California State University, Chico, is a school with 17,287 students. Chico State has 126 bachelor’s, master’s, and teaching credential programs. The athletic teams are called the Chico State Wildcats.

Chico State ranked at #9 for top public schools and at #42 for Western regional universities. Its largest majors are business administration, psychology, and pre-nursing.

The university’s campus features an on-campus farm and arboretum. The school also boasts its dedication to sustainability.


#4 – California State University, Sacramento

California State University, Sacramento, is located in the capital city. Sporting green and gold while cheering on their Hornets, Sac State is known for its tree-filled campus and commitment to sustainability.

Sac State offers a wealth of degree options, including a unique International master’s program (IMBA) in a Singaporean college extension. The university ranked as the #18 top public school in the U.S. It has a relatively low student-to-faculty ration of 26.

As “Tree Campus USA,” Sac State resides in a 300-acre urban forest. The Sacramento and surrounding area setting provides ample activities for students, including snowboarding, backpacking, bike trails, and festivals.


#5 – California State University, Stanislaus

In Turlock is California State University, Stanislaus. The university serves 9,045 students at its Central Valley campuses. Stanislaus State offers more than 100 majors, minors, and concentrations, plus 24 master’s degrees and one doctorate.

Stanislaus State ranked as the #15 top public school, and was named as the fifth best in upward mobility, ranking alongside Harvard and Stanford with this honor.

Students at the university are diverse, with nearly 50% of its enrollees being of Hispanic ethnicity and 10% of Asian descent.

Stanislaus (1)

#6 – Humboldt State University

Humboldt State University may be the smallest college on this list, with just 8,485 students, but it excels in many areas. The Humboldt State campus is also the northernmost California state college, located in Arcata.

Humboldt is known for its beautiful, redwood forest campus with ocean views and featured marine biology research center, wildlife care facility, and mountain-top astronomy observatory. It has been recognized as a top Western university, top college for sustainability, top vegan-friendly, and top LGBT-friendly school.


#7 – California State University, Bakersfield

Another smaller school, California State University, Bakersfield, has 8,720 students attending its San Joaquin Valley and satellite campuses.

CSUB is unique for offering a petroleum geology program. The university ranks as the #34 top public school in the U.S.


#8 – California State University, Long Beach

From the smallest to the largest, California State University, Long Beach, is the biggest university in the CSU system and one of the largest in the state with 36,809 students.

Located on the SoCal coast in the active and diverse city of Long Beach, this university has been recognized as a top state and national school, for its racially diversity, and for being a great value for its students.


#9 – California State University, East Bay

California State University, East Bay, rounds out our most affordable state college list. Cal State East Bay is located in the eastern Bay Area and has 14,823 students.

The university has been recognizedfor its affordable tuition, small class sizes, multicultural community, and as a “top-tier” university for master’s students.



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5 Cheapest California Private Colleges 

Do you prefer private colleges for their close-knit communities, consistent curricula, and (usually) smaller classes? Check out this list of the most affordable private universities in the state.

Complete list of colleges

# College Name Total In-State Cost Graduation Rate
1  California Baptist University $45,062 55%
2 Biola University $46,428 69%
3 Azusa Pacific University $48,740 67%
4 University of La Verne $52,386 59%
5 University of Southern California $61,664 91%

#1 – California Baptist University

California Baptist University is a Christian college in Riverside and San Bernardino. It has 7,957 students and offers 72 bachelor’s degrees, 25 master’s degrees, and 2 doctoral nursing degrees.

CBU was named as a top college for veterans and as a top Western U.S. regional university. The school is known for its unique mission style architecture and dedication to Christian principles among students and faculty.

California Baptist

#2 – Biola University

Another traditionally Christian college, California Baptist University is the smallest on this list with 6,358 students. Biola offers more than 150 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in its six schools.

Curricula at the La Mirada college has an evangelical Christian focus. It ranks as a first-tier national university and as a “Best Western College.”

The Biola campus is on the border of Orange and LA counties, which means students are near myriad Southern California destinations such as beaches, Disneyland, and outdoor mountain locations.


#3 – Azusa Pacific University

Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical Christian private university with a focus on biblical practice. Its main campus is in the San Gabriel Mountain city of Azusa, with six satellite campuses throughout Southern California.

Azusa Pacific’s 9,972 study in more than 100 associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. The university ranks as one of the top colleges in the U.S.


#4 – University of La Verne

Finishing strong in our top 5 most affordable California public colleges is the University of La Verne. The university is officially nonsectarian with a Christian history and tradition.

The university’s main campus is in the small town of La Verne, just 35 miles from Los Angeles. It is a not-for-profit institution with 8,517 students. The college ranks nationally, notably for its online bachelor’s program.

La Verne

#5 – University of Southern California

Coming in as the fifth most affordable, is the University of  Southern California.  USC is not affiliated with any religion and is known as a leader in research, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

USC has 42,453 students in its wide-ranging areas of study, 91% of which graduate within 6 years. The university is a great value for California students, and the college puts strong emphasis on keeping tuition affordable.

The college consistently ranks highly in national surveys. Notably, USC’s online graduate programs in Information Technology and Engineering rank as #1 and #2 nationwide. For business undergrads, USC ranks in the top 10.



15 Cheapest California Community Colleges 

Community colleges are an excellent, and comparatively cheap, way to get started with higher education. These 15 schools offer the cheapest overall experience for California residents.

Complete List of Colleges

# College Name Total In-State Cost Graduation Rate
1 Citrus College $12,732 33%
2 San Bernardino Valley College $12,778 21%
3 College of the Sequoias $13,162 25%
4 Cerro Coso Community College $13,660 19%
5 Bakersfield College $13,694 23%
6 College of the Redwoods $14,472 11%
7 Fresno City College $15,164 18%
8 Reedley College $15,174 25%
9 Santa Barbara City College $15,454 33%
10 Cuyamaca College $15,486 21%
11 Grossmont College $15,487 22%
12 Glendale Community College $15,541 18%
13 Mt. San Antonio College $15,712 31%
14 Cypress College $15,914 36%
15 Butte College $15,940 30%

#1 – Citrus College

If you’re looking for affordable California community colleges, Citrus College is your best bet. Located in the Glendora neighborhood of Los Angeles, Citrus College serves 12,708 students earning associate’s degrees in its 24 wide-ranging fields.

The Citrus College mascot is the Owls and its colors are blue and white. Admission is open and application is free.


#2 – San Bernardino Valley College

San Bernardino Valley College, home of the blue and gray Wolverines, serves 12,965 students. Nicknamed “Valley College,” the fully accredited school is 87 years old and located in central San Bernardino. It offers degrees and certificates in 24 different fields.

Valley College offers many online, weekend, evening, and distance learning classes, and has a campus at Big Bear High School. The school has an open admission policy and free application process.


#3 – College of the Sequoias

At third place, the College of the Sequoias has a funny name but an affordable experience. The school is located in Visalia, a town in San Joaquin Valley. It has 10,647 students at the Visalia campus and many satellite locations.

Sequoia students cheer on the Giants athletic teams and wear orange and blue as school colors. The college has an open admissions policy and offers credit for life experiences.


#4 – Cerro Coso Community College

Cerro Coso Community College is the smallest school on our list, with just 4,731 students. The main campus is in rural Ridgecrest with a 5 more sites in surrounding locations, including one near Edwards Air Force Base in Kern County.

CCCC serves a huge 18,000-mile region in eastern California, including two military bases: the Naval Air Weapons Center, Weapons Division, in China Lake, and Edwards Air Force Base. The college has a robust online program and offers many evening, weekend, and summer classes. CCCC athletic teams are nicknamed the Coyotes.


#5 – Bakersfield College

Bakersfield College is an open admissions community college in the Central Valley. It serves 18,698 students with 30 different associate’s degree fields. The school is one of the oldest continually operating community colleges in America.

Bakersfield College students are proud of their athletic Renegades (or ‘Gades), led by a gallant Knight mascot.


#6 – College of the Redwoods

College of the Redwoods is a public community college in southern Eureka. It serves 4,965 students.


#7 – Fresno City College

Fresno City College is a very large public community college in the Central Valley with 22,307 students. It was California’s very first community college.

#8 – Reedley College

Reedley College, in rural San Joaquin Valley, serves 14,633 students. The school has more than 80 AA, AS degrees and certificates.


#9 – Santa Barbara City College

Santa Barbara City College is a coastal community college with 17,927 students. The school has many associate’s degree programs and certificates, including unique programs in Cancer Information Management.


#10 – Cuyamaca College

Hard to pronounce for outsiders, Cuyamaca College is named in honor of the Native populations of the San Diego area. Together with Grossmont College, these sister schools in El Cajon serve over 26,000 students.


#11 – Grossmont College

Grossmont College is the second part of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. Grossmont is located in the El Cajon suburbs of San Diego.


#12 – Glendale Community College

Glendale Community College has 15,112 students at its LA County urban campus. The school is known for being a top transferer of community college students into four-year universities.


#13 – Mt. San Antonio College

Mt. San Antonio College is a community college with more than 90 different degree programs and 150 certificate programs. The large school has 29,045 enrollees, and it’s main campus is in Walnut, a Los Angeles suburb.


#14 – Cypress College

Cypress College is located in north Orange County and serves 15,816 students. It has 55 associate degrees in a variety of fields.


#15 – Butte College

Our final most-affordable California community college is Butte College. In rural Oroville, a town in central NorCal, this Butte College has 12,161 enrolled students.


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10 Cheapest California Colleges for Out-of-State Students

If you’re not a California resident, going to school in The Golden State will cost you more than your in-state classmates. Use this list to see which colleges are the least expensive as a non-resident. We included only schools with 20,000 or more enrolled students.

Complete List of Colleges

# College Name Total In-State Cost Graduation Rate
1 California State University, Fresno $31,416 52%
2 California State University, Fullerton $33,253 56%
3 California State University, Los Angeles $33,378 41%
4 California State University, Long Beach $32,574 65%
5 San Francisco State University $33,540 50%
6 California State University, Northridge $33,580 47%
7 California State University, Sacramento $31,946 44%
8 San Diego State University $32,386 66%
9 California State Polytechnic University, Pomona $32,817 56%
10 San Jose State University $34,353 52%

Need Money for College?

If you’re looking for ways to save on your college endeavors, you’ve got many options. From scholarships to student, you should be able to find help paying for your education. Here are just a few options:

    • California Student Aid Commission – This should be a first stop for any California student looking for tuition assistance. CSAC is a California state-funded institution that connects students to educational opportunities, including grants (like Cal Grant), the California Dream Act, and many more programs.
    • – This is a privately-run website that helps people get scholarships and grants for college. It pays special focus to scholarships for Native Americans, nursing scholarship programs, and loan opportunities. It also has several resources for college students, like advice for college savings and how to watch out for scams. (For more information, read our “Insurance Scholarships“).
    • – A campaign sponsored by the California Community Colleges. The program a government-run initiative that connects individuals to resources that will help them pay for community college.

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