20 Most Affordable College Towns in California 2020

For college students, the decision about where and how to spend one’s money often comes down to cost vs. value. The apartment near the beach comes at a high cost, but it’s near the beach! Living in California is much the same way. The Golden State is easily one of the most expensive states in the nation, yet between the beaches and mountains, vineyards and top-notch restaurants, Disneyland and ski resorts, it’s also high on quality of life. And since the West Coast will always be a popular destination for college students, we’ve helped out by finding the 20 most affordable college towns in California by taking into consideration both cost of living and quality of life.

Methodology for Most Affordable Towns in California

Our editors first compiled a list of every college town in California. We then used Sperling’s Best Places to rank each town on general affordability. To figure out which college towns are most affordable, we looked at costs for housing, food, healthcare, transportation, and utilities, and compared them to the national and state averages. We also considered features like amenities, crime rates, public transportation, and overall quality of life before narrowing our list down to the 20 most affordable college towns in California.

Rating the Most Affordable College Towns in California

1. Merced

University of California Merced
Cost of Living: 7.5% Higher than the National Average: 61.1% Lower than the State Average
With a cost of living that’s more than 60% lower the California state average, Merced is the most affordable college town in the Golden State. Costs for groceries, healthcare, and entertainment are all lower than the national norm. Average housing costs come out to about 24% higher than the rest of the country. Once an isolated farming community, Merced has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to the University of California, Merced. Today, Merced is a family-friendly college town with a full calendar of community events, beautiful natural scenery, diversity, and a growing number of businesses to boost the local economy.

Fresno is known as “The Best Little City in the U.S.A.”

2. Fresno

Fresno State University
Cost of Living: 7.8% Higher than the National Average; 60.8% Lower than the State Average

Though Fresno has a long history as a farming town, today it’s a rapidly growing metropolis of families, college students, affordable housing, big businesses, and, of course, plenty of farmland. Part of Fresno’s draw is its long list of events and attractions, including art festivals, car shows, dozens of locally owned restaurants, and even a Civil War reenactment. With so much to do, it’s a good thing Fresno is one of the most affordable college towns in California. Indeed, housing averages only about 22% higher than the national average (and 171% lower than the state average). Typical costs for groceries, healthcare, utilities, transportation, and entertainment are also lower than the norm.

3. Arcata

Humboldt State University
Cost of Living: 16.8% Higher than the National Average; 51.8% Lower than the State Average

Arcata, which is perhaps best known for its population of off-the-gridders and hippie types, is a unique college town with an affordable cost of living. Here, healthcare, utilities, and transportation costs all average less than the national average. Food and entertainment average only slightly above. Housing averages 71% higher than the national norm, but 122% lower than the state norm. Since the nearest large town is nearly three hours away, entertainment here usually means something put on by the college, a hike in the mountains, or a walk along the beach, all three of which are right in Arcata’s stunningly beautiful backyard.

4. Chico

California State University Chico
Cost of Living: 21.1% Higher than the National Average; 47.5% Lower than the State Average

California State University, Chico is known as a major party school, so it should come as no surprise that the town of Chico is often associated with a good time. Unlike some other parts of California, Chico doesn’t vary much when it comes to weather — good news for those who prefer a Mediterranean climate practically year round. And speaking of good weather, Chico natives love to spend time outdoors, whether catching a baseball game at the university’s impressive stadium, cycling to the century-old Honey Run Covered Bridge, or taking part in the arts-filled, month-long festival of Artoberfest.

5. Redlands

University of Redlands
Cost of Living: 36.4% Higher than the National Average; 32.2% Lower than the State Average

Though located in Southern California and the greater Los Angeles area, Redlands is far from the glitz and glamor of La La Land or even coastal California. Rather, it’s one of many smaller towns that make up Inland Empire, a patchwork of developed communities that stretch east into the desert. Still, Redlands has its charm and is quite affordable compared to the rest of the California. Healthcare and entertainment costs are the most affordable of the necessities in Redlands, while groceries, utilities, and transportation each average just slightly more the national norm.

6. Riverside

University of California Riverside
Cost of Living: 47.2% Higher than the National Average; 21.4% Lower than the State Average

Riverside is the place to be these days! At least, according to Forbes, which recently ranked Riverside the 8th “coolest” city in the United States — and well above nearby Los Angeles. The reasons are many, but include the town’s growing population of 20- to 30-year olds, an increasing ethnic diversity, and a large number of local, family-owned restaurants and businesses. And the cost of living is pretty good, too! Overall, living in Riverside costs 21% less than living most elsewhere in California, with the lowest costs being healthcare, utilities, entertainment, and groceries. But act fast. While Riverside is still “affordable” by California standards, its cost of living has nearly doubled in a short two-year time period.

Seaside, California

7. Seaside

California State University Monterey Bay
Cost of Living: 51.3% Higher than the National Average; 17.3% Lower than the State Average

With college students and wealthy retirees making up the overwhelming majority of the population, Seaside can be a tough place to survive for those on a strict budget. Housing costs are nearly triple that of the national average, while entertainment and transportation costs are all more than the national average as well. But luckily, food, healthcare, and utilities are all right on par with the national norm in this pretty coastal town. Easy access to some of the best beaches in California makes a day near the water a breeze, while much of Monterey’s extensive network of hiking, walking, and cycling paths passes through Seaside.

8. Rohnert Park

Sonoma State University
Cost of Living: 65% Higher than the National Average; 3.6% Lower than the State Average

Blink and you might miss the quaint town of Rohnert Park, nestled into Sonoma County and home to Sonoma State University. The town has a long history of being almost a commune-like atmosphere, and it prides itself on being a place where everyone seems to know everyone. While Rohnert Park’s cost of living is about 4% lower than the state average, most of that has to do with the cost of housing. Still, affordability is relative and Rohnert Park remains one of the few places in the greater San Francisco Bay Area where a home can be purchased for less than $550,000.

9. Anaheim

Bethesda Christian University
Cost of Living: 70.5% Higher than the National Average; 1.9% Higher than the State Average

Granted, when most people think of Anaheim they think of Angel Stadium, the Honda Center, the massive Anaheim Convention Center, and Disneyland. But with Bethesda Christian University, a slew of for-profit universities, and some of the most popular community colleges in the region, Anaheim has a large student population and a fun, youthful vibe to it. Despite housing costs that average 215% higher than the national average, food, healthcare, utilities, and entertainment (Disneyland, anyone?) costs are nearly on par with the national norm. This makes Anaheim one of the most budget-friendly addresses in Southern California.

10. San Marcos

California State University San Marcos, Palomar College, San Elijo College
Cost of Living: 72.8% Higher than the National Average; 4.2% Higher than the State Average

Like so many other towns in San Diego County, San Marcos is the perfect address for those who enjoy both the city and outdoors. Easy access to the large network of parks and trails, beaches and lakes, and myriad community recreation programs make getting outdoors both fun and easy. Though the cost of living is around 73% higher than the national average, San Marcos is still one of the more affordable places in and around desirable San Diego. A commuter rail line and excellent bus service are easy options to save on transportation. A variety of housing and a large student population means deals are to be found when it comes to finding a place to live.

11. Davis

University of California Davis
Cost of Living: 76.7% above the national average; 8.1% above the state average

Nestled within the greater Sacramento area, Davis is a welcoming community with a small, college-town feel. Traffic doesn’t exist here like it does in so many other places in California — perhaps because cycling seems to be the preferred way to get around. Indeed, 95% of Davis roads have bike paths. That fact has also kept Davis’s overall transportation costs far below that of surrounding areas. Besides the university, Davis is best known for its arts scene. The Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts hosts everything from international symphony orchestras, to festivals and concerts, to student performances. Though the cost of living in Davis is 77% higher than the national average, much of this is because housing costs are so high — an incredible 248% higher to be exact. However, housing here tends to be in larger converted homes, so roommates are always a welcome option for those living off campus. Costs for groceries, healthcare, utilities, transportation, and entertainment all range close to the national norm.

Downtown San Diego, California

12. San Diego

UC San Diego, University of San Diego, San Diego State University,
Cost of Living: 77.5% Higher than the National Average; 8.9% Higher than the State Average

Like so many other places in California, San Diego’s cost of living is above that of the national average. But the quality of life that comes with living in a place like San Diego is, as some would say, priceless. The city is well known for its beautiful beaches and parks, as well as its vibrant arts and culture scene. Plus, San Diego has a healthy economy with a number of large businesses perfect for establishing one’s career while still in college.

13. Whittier

Whittier College, Rio Hondo College
Cost of Living: 78.1% Higher than the National Average; 9.5% Higher than the State Average

Located 12 miles from Los Angeles, Whittier is family friendly town with a living cost that is one of the lowest in the greater L.A. area. Average costs for groceries, healthcare, and entertainment all come in under or on par with the national average, while transportation and utilities are slightly above average. Housing, meanwhile averages three times higher than the national norm — but only slightly above the state average. By spending less than what’s necessary in so many other California college towns, Whittier residents have more pocket money to enjoy all that the town has to offer, including :

  • 200 restaurants,
  • 249 specialty shops and boutiques
  • 870 retail stores
  • 374 professional services.

14. Long Beach

California State University Long Beach
Cost of Living: 79.1% Higher than the National Average; 10.5% Higher than the State Average

Home to a California State University campus, Long Beach is one of the more affordable beach towns on California’s Pacific coast. Though housing is more than triple the national average, plenty of housing options are available. Meanwhile, average costs for groceries, healthcare, and utilities, are all just slightly above the national average. This diverse community is well-known among Southern California residents for its full calendar of social events. Thanks to its large convention center and pretty waterfront development, Long Beach plays host to dozens of events, music concerts, and theater festivals each year.

15. San Luis Obispo

California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly)
Cost of Living: 79.2% Higher than the National Average; 10.6% Higher than the State Average

Located equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco is San Luis Obispo, a small town of 47,000 people that has been rightfully nicknamed the “happiest place on Earth” (sorry, Disneyland). Downtown SLO is chock full of fun restaurants and bars, boutiques, and entertainment venues. Located within easy proximity is hiking and cycling in the Santa Lucia Mountains, beaches on the coast, a growing number of wineries, and the always interesting San Andreas Fault. To live here, one should expect to shell out nearly 273% more than the national average for housing, though utilities, entertainment, transportation, and healthcare costs are all right on par with the national norm.

Anaheim, California

16. Orange

Chapman University
Cost of Living: 85% Higher than the National Average; 16.4% Higher than the State Average

Once filled with orchards of orange trees (plenty still exist, though mostly in private backyards), this sunny Southern California town is the home of Chapman University and an overall great place to live. Orange has plenty to offer those in need of entertainment, from Disneyland right down the street to a calendar chock-full of calendar events like the Orange International Street Fair. And for students who want an active nightlife, Orange has that to offer too.

17. Claremont

Pomona College, Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College
Cost of Living: 96.4% above the national average; 27.8% above the state average

This small and quiet community located within the Los Angeles metropolitan area is home to the five colleges in the Claremont consortium:

  • Pomona
  • Scripps
  • Claremont McKenna
  • Harvey Mudd
  • Pitzer

Nicknamed “The City of Trees,” Claremont has often been ranked the best place in California to live. We think that’s because of its commuting distance to L.A., easy proximity to both the mountains and the beach, and its large collection of galleries, restaurants, local businesses, and more. Of course, such quality of life does not come cheap. The cost of living in Claremont is a whopping 96% above the national average, with housing being the most expensive cost associated with living here.

18. Angwin

Pacific Union College
Cost of Living: 101% Higher than the National Average; 32.4% Higher than the State Average

The small town of Angwin is surprisingly affordable once one considers that it’s located in California’s Napa Valley region — one of the most expensive places in the world to live. Most of Angwin’s draw comes in the form of vineyards, though other benefits to living here include its close proximity to San Francisco. Its necessary living costs are just about on par with, and even below, the national average. (Like most places in California, housing costs are what is driving up Angwin’s cost of living). Still, for those determined to live in the state’s dream-worthy wine-growing region, Angwin is a great option.

19. Santa Cruz

University of California, Santa Cruz
Cost of Living: 121.1% Higher than the National Average; 52.5% Higher than the State Average
When out-of-staters think of California, it’s usually images of a place like Santa Cruz that pop into mind. Indeed, this place has it all:

  • beach
  • ocean views
  • top-notch restaurants
  • a top-ranked university
  • a redwood forest
  • even a healthy number of hippie communes

People living in Santa Cruz won’t be paying much more than the rest of the country for things like utilities, food, entertainment, and healthcare costs. Transportation costs a little more, 18% higher than the national average in fact. Santa Cruz’s highest expense is definitely the housing, which comes in about 390% higher than the national norm.

20. Berkeley

University of California Berkeley
Cost of Living: 187.5% Higher than the National Average; 118.9% Higher than the State Average

The most expensive California college town on our list is Berkeley. Though a college town in every sense of the word, this small city located a stone’s throw from San Francisco is not cheap. Indeed, housing is a whopping 594% higher than the national norm. Of all the necessary expenses, only the costs of healthcare and utilities come in lower than the national averages. Still, housing for students is plentiful, and for those who can hack it, the quality of living can’t be beat. Concerts, rallies, sporting events, and just about any other form of entertainment are common calendar entries. Just about every type of international food can be found somewhere within Berkeley city limits. And if Berkeley doesn’t happen to have it? Well, San Francisco is just over the bridge.

GCD Staff
September 2019


This concludes our coverage of the most affordable college towns in California.