The Golden State of California is rich with culture, beautiful landscapes, and some of the most exciting educational possibilities in the world. An ever-growing number of students, of all field areas, travel to California for high value small college opportunities.
The following list is a ranking of the 20 best small colleges in California. In assembling this selection of twenty schools, we strategically researched the most desirable features in pursuing an investment-worthy degree.
In the process of ranking small colleges in California, points were awarded based on affordability, tuition return on investment, student-to-faculty ratio, faculty expertise, alumni engagement, recognition in education-related publications, career placement programs, and any additional features that added value to the college’s degree offerings.
Our initial pool contained 110 schools having a net price of under $34,000 USD and a total student enrollment of below 8,000. Primary sources for this data included College Navigator, Niche, and Payscale.
The schools profiled below are ranked in order of points earned. In the event of a tie in points, the schools with the lower net price are ranked higher.
Ranking the Best Smaller Colleges in California
#20 – La Sierra University
Total Enrollment: 2,476
Net Price: $23,819
Committed to combining Christian faith with a top-notch education, La Sierra University is a respected institution in Riverside, California. LSU has over 50 undergraduate programs that are divided into schools of business, arts and sciences, education, and divinity. Additionally, La Sierra has an evening adult degree program for students (over age 22) who require schedule flexibility in completing their bachelor’s. La Sierra is considered one of the best small colleges in California, in part due to its scholarship resources; LSU awards academic and faith-based tuition assistance to qualified applicants.
#19 – Pacific Union College
Total Enrollment: 1,555
Net Price: $23,853
On a campus spread out over 1,900 scenic Napa Valley acres, Pacific Union College is a fully-accredited Christian-based colleges. PUC offers more than 70 degree programs with an 11:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Pacific Union’s emphasis on hands-on learning at an affordable tuition makes it a great small college deal among California colleges. In addition to challenging internship opportunities, PUC students may take part in service-learning experiences that combine education with giving back to the community. This institution has a worthwhile return on investment, and student surveys have indicated high satisfaction in multiple key areas.
#18 – Fresno Pacific University
Total Enrollment: 3,342
Net Price: $16,167
Founded in 1944, Fresno Pacific University is among the best small college deals in California. FPU has the highest 4-year graduation rate in the region, and The Chronicle of Higher Education recently listed it as a top 10 Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). This college has specialized schools in business, education, humanities, religion, social sciences, and natural sciences. Additionally, there is a Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary for those who wish to pursue a future in the church. All incoming and current students are considered for merit and performance-based scholarships, work-study opportunities, and additional types of financial aid.
#17 – Biola University
La Mirada, California
Total Enrollment: 6,227
Net Price: $32,607
An esteemed college in La Mirada, Biola University provides an education steeped in academic and spiritual development. BU is tops among California colleges and was recently recognized by U.S. News and World Report as a top ten “up and coming” national university. Biola has over 150 academic programs that span undergraduate, graduate and doctorate-level degrees; in addition to curriculum of their study area of choice, all undergraduates are required to complete 30 credits of Bible and theology courses. Each academic year, Biola University distributes over $30 million of scholarships to its incoming student body.
#16 – Bethesda University
Total Enrollment: 2,735
Net Price: $14,400
One of the most affordable California colleges, Bethesda University is a small and spiritual institution that calls itself a “gateway to the world.” Founded in 1976 by a world-renowned minister, BU’s vision is to develop a generation of brave and faith-based leaders. Bethesda’s academic offerings include biblical studies, pastoral ministry, business administration, and child care education. Additionally, this college has an impressive master’s in music program that counts many successful musicians among its alumni. In recognition of its impressive e-learning programs, Bethesda University was recently included as a “Best Online Theology Degree” by Affordable Colleges Online.
#15 – Concordia University – Irvine
Total Enrollment: 1,457
Net Price: $26,643
Delivering great education at an affordable tuition, Concordia University is one of the best colleges in California for a great deal. Concordia University Irvine prepares students for their vocations—their various callings in life. CUI offers undergraduate, graduate, and online bachelor’s degrees in a beautiful Southern California location, with online and regional cohort options.
#14 – Woodbury University – Burbank
Total Enrollment: 1,457
Net Price: $27,580
Woodbury University of Burbank is a nationally renowned college whose economic value has been recognized by Money and Economist magazines. WU boasts a twenty-year return on investment of almost $200K, and student satisfaction surveys have indicated a high level of generosity with regard to scholarships. Woodbury is comprised of undergraduate schools in business, media and design, architecture, and liberal arts; with an average class size of 15, students easily benefit from mentor-based educational development. Woodbury’s location near the greater Los Angeles area creates many opportunities for internships with major media outlets.
#13 – Whittier College
Total Enrollment: 2,187
Net Price: $25,688
Since its founding in 1887, Whittier College has proven to be a leader in academic excellence. A highly diverse student body, scholarly faculty, and a 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio are just a few of the features that make Whittier one of the top private California colleges. WC offers over 30 possible degree options, some of which include art, language, physics, mathematics, psychology, and more. This college has an average first-to-second year retention rate of over 80%, and student satisfaction surveys consistently indicate positive experiences in career counseling and scholarship generosity.
#12 – Mills College
Total Enrollment: 1,397
Net Price: $25,181
Established in 1852 in the San Francisco Bay area, Mills College is the West’s oldest undergraduate school for women. MC’s tuition has proven to be one of the best college deals in California, and U.S. News and World Report included it in a recent “Great Schools, Great Prices” list. The liberal arts experience at Mills College is ideal for those seeking a small, diverse campus community committed to academic growth. The most popular majors at this college are English, philosophy, social sciences, psychology, and the arts. 70% of Mills’ professors are women, and 89% of the faculty hold the highest degree in their field.
#11 – Hope International University
Total Enrollment: 1,302
Net Price: $21,374
Hope International University, a Christian-based college in Orange County, has a well-organized blend of undergraduate and graduate degrees. HIU consists of five distinct colleges that cover academics in ministry and biblical studies, arts and sciences, psychology and counseling, business and management, and education. A top value among California colleges, Hope has been highlighted in multiple rankings as an affordable Christian education. HIU has a 91% freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, and student surveys have indicated high satisfaction rates in career services and faculty excellence in their field.
#10 – Golden Gate University
San Francisco, California
Total Enrollment: 2,735
Net Price: $14,400
Located in the financial district of San Francisco, Golden Gate University is a premier educational institution in taxation, accounting, law, and business. GGU gathers faculty that are experts in the field, and students benefit from learning current trends that will make them employable in the job market. This college has an expansive distance-learning program that allows students to earn an advanced degree at a personalized schedule. GGU’s e-Learning portal is nationally renowned and places the school among top small colleges in California. Golden Gate University is also known to have an active alumni association with multiple long-term networking opportunities.
#9 – California Lutheran University
Thousand Oaks, California
Total Enrollment: 4,126
Net Price: $30,266
A respected institution with a competitive admissions process, California Lutheran University is a diverse, comprehensive liberal arts college. This school has undergraduate, graduate and professional programs in arts and sciences, management, education, and psychology, as well as a theological seminary. California Lutheran also has educational opportunities through its multidisciplinary research institutes. CLU is a best college deal in California due to its small class sizes, strong leadership, and stellar career counseling services. California Lutheran University is endowed with over $40 million in scholarships, grants, and need-based tuition assistance.
#8 – Mount Saint Mary’s University
Los Angeles, California
Total Enrollment: 3,431
Net Price: $28,274
Recently ranked the number one U.S. college that “Adds the Most Value” by Money Magazine, Mount Saint Mary’s University is a world-renowned women’s college in Los Angeles. MSMU is known to be a nurturing educational environment that focuses on the full potential of its students; this top California college is one of the top master’s degree-granting institution in the nation. Mount Saint Mary’s has over 30 undergraduate and 11 graduate program, the most popular of which include biology, nursing, psychology, and social sciences. In a recent student satisfaction survey, 90% of MSMU’s seniors declared they would recommend the school to others.
#7 – University of Redlands
Total Enrollment: 5,215
Net Price: $31,686
Stretched over 160 scenic acres in southern California, the University of Redlands is a progressive-minded private institution. This school’s 40 undergraduate programs span degree areas in education, business, literature, marketing, biomedical sciences, music, and many more. One of the top California schools, Redlands has produced seventeen Fulbright scholars in the past six years alone. This university has also established a community services learning program; through this innovative opportunity, students have completed over 100,000 hours of public service around the globe. Based on recent graduate salary data, the University of Redlands has a $281K twenty-year return on investment.
#6 – Pomona College
Total Enrollment: 1,663
Net Price: $18,423
A member of the seven-institution “Claremont College” consortium, Pomona College has a diverse campus community with the highest academic standards. This top small college in California offers 48 majors and minors in field areas that include social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, and interdisciplinary study opportunities. Pomona has an expansive and engaged alumni network, now reaching upwards of 25,000 members. In order to keep tuition costs accessible to all, Pomona College has designed a unique range of financial aid packages; these need-based options include merit-based scholarships, fellowships, and work study arrangements, among others.
#5 – The University of California, Merced
Total Enrollment: 6,685
Net Price: $13,350
Found on a rural campus just outside of Yosemite National Park, The University of California, Merced is one of the most affordable small colleges in the state. This institution is a great choice for the environmentally-minded student; UC Merced has multiple research and outreach initiatives based in planet sustainability and climate change. Every building on this college’s campus is LEED certified and committed to energy efficiency. UC Merced generates high satisfaction ratings from student surveys, particularly with regard to faculty expertise, career counseling, and hands-on learning opportunities.
#4 – Claremont McKenna College
Total Enrollment: 1,349
Net Price: $29,894
Established in 1946, Claremont McKenna College is part of the seven-school consortium known as the “Claremont Colleges”; this esteemed partnership allows students to cross-register with six other institutions in Claremont. CMC is home to 33 liberal arts majors, the most popular being in government, international relations, math, biology, economics, science, and psychology. One of the top small colleges in California, Claremont McKenna has a financial aid initiative slated to raise $100 million in tuition assistance. CMC boasts a 95% first to second-year retention rate and 92% average overall graduation rate.
#3 – Pitzer College
Total Enrollment: 1,067
Net Price: $26,288
Celebrated for its progressive approach to education, Pitzer College is perfect for the socially and environmentally conscious. Pitzer is one of California’s top small colleges with highly selective admissions rate; a reported 13% of high school applicants are admitted to the school. PC students select from over 40 majors and 20 minors in study areas that include humanities, natural sciences, arts, media studies, economics, and self-designed degrees. 100% of Pitzer College faculty holds a PhD or equivalent in their field, and there is a 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio.
#2 – University of the Pacific
Total Enrollment: 6,281
Net Price: $33,816
One of the nation’s most beautiful campuses, University of the Pacific is a private liberal arts college with a rich academic history. UOP was both the first medical school and music conservatory on the West Coast. UOP is also made up of schools of education, business, engineering, music, liberal arts, international studies, and dentistry; law and dentistry students take their courses on UOP’s Sacramento and San Francisco campuses. This college offers some of the best deals among smaller colleges in California; there is a competitive $500K twenty-year return on investment based on median salaries of its graduates.
#1 – Occidental College
Los Angeles, California
Total Enrollment: 2,023
Net Price: $31,645
Based in the heart of Los Angeles, Occidental College strives to turn its students into well-rounded world citizens. In keeping with its Quaker roots, this institution integrates academics with community service. OC has an impressive list of notable alumni that includes Pulitzer prize winners, high-profile actors, and President Barack Obama. Occidental is the nation’s only college with an academic semester program at the United Nations; this program entails an educational immersion in courses and U.N.-related internships. OC ensures 100% of its students have their financial needs met, and the average 20-year return on tuition investment is close to $300K.
The preceding is a ranking of the top 20 deals on small colleges in California.
Other articles of interest:
- 20 Deals: Small Colleges for Environmentally-minded
- 50 Best Deals on Competitive Small Colleges
- Top 50 Great Deals on Bachelor’s Degrees Online