There's a lot that is great about higher education in California. Our universities are among the best in the nation. There are tons of ways to get a community college education for free. And if you go to a public school, you've got a pretty good shot at paying off the cost of your education within five years.
But also, there are literally hundreds of schools to choose from.
These public schools are open to almost anybody who wants to attend. It’s free to apply, and there are no GPA or standardized testing requirements. These schools offer associate degrees, certificates, job training programs, English as a Second Language classes, and preparation for high school equivalency exams. Some campuses also offer bachelor’s degrees under a pilot program.
All low-income students in California are eligible for free tuition at community colleges. There are several ways for other students to get free tuition, too. Otherwise, community college tuition is still the most affordable of all of California’s public colleges. Many students take classes at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges tend to have more diversity than other schools in terms of students’ age and life experience; the average student age is 28.
Admissions and applying: Be over the age of 18. If you want to complete a program, you must have a high school diploma or equivalent, but you can take non-credit classes like GED prep, English as a Second Language, and adult education classes without a diploma. If you’re younger than 18 and haven’t graduated high school, you usually need to be in a special program like dual enrollment in order to go to community college (read more about that in this section). You can enroll and register for classes anytime before they start.
Where they are: There are 115 physical, degree-granting campuses throughout California. Find one near you.
Tuition: You can qualify for free tuition at a community college through a few programs:
- The California College Promise Grant gives you free tuition at any community college in the state if you’re a California resident with household income below a certain level.
- L.A. College Promise gives you two years of free tuition at a community college in L.A. if you’re a California resident and a first-time, full-time college student.
- Many other community colleges in California have free tuition programs, too.
Otherwise, community college tuition is $46 a unit. (Most classes are made up of 3 to 4 units; two-year associate degree programs tend to be about 60 units total.) Many students also get financial aid to cover the cost of school. Read more about free tuition and paying for college in this section.
Housing: Most community colleges don’t provide on-campus housing. Students commute from wherever they live to attend in-person classes. Read more in this section if you need help with housing and other basic needs.
Health services: Community colleges charge a mandatory health services fee that, as of 2021, is around $20 per semester. This allows you to use the student health center on campus, which generally provides screenings, immunizations, and mental health services. But the fee does not give you health insurance.
California State University
California State University (CSU) schools are public four-year schools that focus more on practical skills and less on research than University of California (UC) schools. They have bachelor’s, master’s, and some doctoral programs. Two of the 23 campuses are polytechnic schools — Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona — which have a stronger emphasis on science and technology programs. Humboldt State is on its way to becoming a polytechnic school.
The CSU system also offers online-only classes and degree programs through Cal State Online, as well as extended education programs that offer short-term certificates, degree completion, and courses for personal interest. CSUs have lower GPA requirements than UCs, and tuition is less expensive.
Admissions and applying: CSUs have minimum admission requirements for first-year students:
- earn a C- or higher in a core set of high school courses (known as “A-G” classes)
- earn at least a 2.5 GPA based on those classes
CSU usually requires freshman applicants to take the SAT or ACT standardized tests, but suspended that requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension is in effect through Spring 2023.
You can submit one application for several CSU campuses through Cal State Apply, and you don’t need to include an essay. Applications are usually due about nine months before classes begin; if you’re starting in the fall semester (August), you have to apply by October or November the year before.
If you’re not a native English speaker, or you went to a high school where the main language of instruction was not English, you’ll also be required to have a minimum score of 500 on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, or an equivalent test.If you earned an associate degree at a community college, or took classes at another four-year college, you can apply to a CSU as a transfer student. Read more about transfer admissions requirements here.
Each CSU campus varies in its selectivity. For instance, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo accepted 30.83% of applicants for Fall 2021, while CSU San Bernardino accepted 78% of applicants for Fall 2020. But generally, it’s less competitive to get into a CSU than a UC.
Where they are: There are 23 campuses total, eight of which are in the greater L.A. area. Find one near you.
Tuition: Around $7,000 a year for full-time students. CSU tuition is about half the price of UCs. Many students get financial aid to cover the cost of school. Read more about paying for college in this section.
Housing: On-campus housing is available for an additional fee at all CSU campuses. Schools like CSU Northridge also have family housing units you can apply for. Read more in this section if you need help with housing and other basic needs.
Health services: A mandatory health services fee gives students access to on-campus health centers, but CSUs don’t offer insurance. The fee ranges from $75-$90.
University of California
University of California (UC) schools focus on research and academic publishing, and have programs for bachelor’s and advanced degrees. There are 10 campuses (although UC San Francisco is only for graduate programs) and they’re considered some of the best public universities in the country. It’s generally highly competitive to get into a UC. UCs also offer online courses and certificates through their extension and continuing education programs. They’re generally geared toward working professionals who’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree.
Admissions and applying: Minimum requirements to get into a UC as a first-year student include:
- completing A-G high school courses with a grade of C or higher
- earning at least a 3.0 GPA in these courses
Additionally, UCs will look at:
- standardized test scores for the SAT or ACT (although they have suspended this requirement until 2024)
- extracurricular activities and work experience
- essays that you submit
(Read more about those application materials in this section.)
You’re guaranteed admission to a UC if you’re in the top 9% of California high school students or your graduating high school class, and if you meet minimum UC requirements. (You won’t get to choose which campus, though — it’ll depend on available space.)
You can apply to as many campuses as you want through one application form.
UC admissions are generally highly competitive, though there’s a range of selectivity. The highest acceptance rate is at UC Merced, which accepted 85% of freshman applicants for Fall 2020. The lowest are at UC Berkeley and UCLA, which accepted 17% and 14% of applicants, respectively, for Fall 2020.
The UC system no longer considers standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) when making admission decisions or awarding scholarships. But you can submit them after you enroll for course placement.
Where they are: Here’s a list of all 10 UCs. Four of them — UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Riverside, and UC Santa Barbara — are in the greater L.A. area.
Tuition: Around $13,000-$14,000 a year on average. UCs have the highest tuition of California’s public colleges, though they’re generally less expensive than similar private schools. Many students get financial aid to cover tuition. Read more about paying for college in this section.
Health services: Students are automatically enrolled in a student health insurance plan, but can opt out if they have alternative coverage. It offers medical, dental, and vision coverage, and all campuses have onsite health centers students can use. The Irvine, Riverside, and Santa Barbara campuses have dental clinics as well. Costs vary by campus, but average around $1,700-$1,900 per year.
Unlike community colleges, CSUs, and UCs, private schools are not funded by the state. There’s a big range of them — including larger four-year universities like the University of Southern California, smaller liberal arts colleges like Occidental College and Pomona College, and religious schools like Azusa Pacific — all of which offer bachelor’s and advanced degree programs.
Students might pick a private school over a public one for smaller class sizes, a religious environment, or specialized programs, among other reasons.For-profit schools like DeVry University and American Career College are a subset of private schools. They tend to have more vocational programs and online-only classes, but the main difference is in their funding model. At a for-profit school, shareholders govern decisions, rather than a board of directors, and profits don’t have to be reinvested into the school.Many education experts warn against for-profit schools because:
- For-profit schools tend to be more expensive than public schools.
- Students who attend for-profits default on their loans at higher rates than students at other schools — in 2017, 14.7% of students at for-profit schools were not able to repay their loans, compared to 9.3% at public schools and 6.7% at non-profit private schools.
- There’s generally less return on investment — within five years, only 30% of students at California for-profit schools made enough money to pay back the cost of their education, compared to 80% at public schools and 50% at non-profit private schools. One analysis found that over 40% of for-profit schools in California offer no return on investment at all.
But not all for-profit schools engage in predatory behavior or have poor outcomes — and, in many cases, they might be the only options that fit your needs. This section has more on what warning signs to look out for in any school you’re considering.
Admissions and applying: Each school has different requirements and application processes. Generally, universities and liberal arts colleges will ask you to submit a combination of transcripts, essays, letters of recommendation, and a list of extracurriculars or work experience. Some schools will also ask for SAT or ACT scores, although many have stopped accepting test scores or made them optional during the pandemic — some indefinitely. More than 900 schools use the Common App, which allows you to apply to multiple schools through one platform.
Non-profit universities and liberal arts colleges generally have competitive admissions (though some schools are more selective than others). Most for-profit schools accept all students that meet minimum requirements.
Tuition: Generally much higher than public schools. It’s common to see $50,000 in annual tuition for a liberal arts college. A private vocational or trade program might cost around $25,000 a year, although you’ll spend less time in school. But many private schools offer financial aid to cover the cost — read more about that in this section.
Housing: Many four-year private schools with physical campuses offer housing for students for an additional fee. Schools with primarily trade, vocational, and short-term programs generally don’t offer student housing. Read more in this section if you need help with housing and other basic needs.
Health services: Health insurance is included in student fees at many four-year private schools, but the kind of coverage and cost will vary. Schools that mainly have short-term or online-only programs usually don’t offer insurance.
Vocational, trade, and career technical schools
These schools focus on skills used directly in the workforce, including occupations like plumbing, electrical work, cosmetology, graphic design, culinary arts, and more. There are private and for-profit vocational schools, but many community colleges (like L.A. Trade Tech) also offer courses and certificates in these skills.
Admissions, tuition, housing, and health services will depend on whether the school is private or a community college — read more about those in the sections above.
These schools mainly help adults get their high school or English as a Second Language credentials. If you’re looking for help passing the U.S. citizenship test, adult education classes can provide that, too. They also offer vocational courses (called career technical education) for preparation to go into specific industries. These schools are run by local public school districts.
Admissions and applying: Anyone over the age of 18 can enroll, and there’s no application fee.
Where they are: Here’s a map and list of all the adult education schools in California.
Tuition: Free for most classes, including high school completion, equivalency exam prep, citizenship prep, English as a Second Language, and career technical education courses. You will have to pay for books and tests like the GED. Sometimes there may be a fee for certain career technical education classes, too.
Housing: Not offered by adult schools.
Health services: Not included with adult education.
How do I pick the best school for me?
There are a lot of websites that will take your preferences — location, type of school, areas of study, cost, and more — and generate a list of schools that fit that criteria. Here are three popular sites:
- College Navigator: This site by the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics lets you search for schools by the type of credential you want, location, cost, student body size, and more. You can also input the name of a school and see all its data at once.
- BigFuture: This site by the College Board lets you filter by many of the same criteria, but also includes elements like diversity, sports and activities, and recognition of transfer credits.
- College Scorecard: This website by the Department of Education highlights the graduation rate and average annual cost of schools across the country, along with median salaries of graduates in different majors. There's also a tool specifically for training programs.
How to narrow down your choices from here? Here’s more advice from college advisers:
Think (again) about your goals. Why do you want to go into higher education in the first place? Will the school help you achieve that goal? Are there alumni of that school or program who’ve reached those same goals? (You can ask a school to connect you with alumni so you can ask about their experiences.)
What kind of environment do you want? Do you learn best in a small class? Do you want lots of opportunities to socialize with other students? Are diversity and inclusion top priorities? Schools have their own unique cultures and environments. Think about what you value and what your choices have to offer.
How will you cover the cost? There are lots of ways to pay for school, from free-tuition programs and scholarships to grants and student loans. Investigate all your options and see what you can afford. Can you cover the cost of tuition, books, fees, and living expenses while you’re in school? Are you willing to put in the time and effort to apply for scholarships? If you’re taking out loans, what kind of salary do you think you will be making later that can help pay them off? Read more about covering the cost of school in this section.
Does it fit your life? Are you willing to relocate or commute? Do you have to work a job while attending school? Do you need a flexible schedule, child care, accommodations for a disability? If you have important personal circumstances to consider, see if a school has resources to help or the flexibility to accommodate your needs.
Prestige is not as important as fit. A stellar reputation or “brand name” doesn’t always mean a school will help you reach your goals, or that you’ll thrive there. How well a school fits your values and needs will ultimately make a bigger impact.
Don’t sell yourself short. Many people tend to underestimate what kind of schools they can get into, to the point where they don’t even bother to apply. Grades matter, but so do compelling essays and life experiences. If there’s a school you’d really like to go to but aren’t sure if you can get in, why not try?
Talking to someone — college admissions officers, counselors, mentors, friends, or current and/or former students — can help you figure out the answers to some of these questions. Read more in this section about finding a person to talk to. You can also try a school tour where you can visit physical campuses and ask questions directly. You can usually schedule those through campus outreach departments. If that’s not possible for you, many schools started doing virtual tours and Zoom information sessions during the COVID-19 pandemic — check their websites or call their admissions offices to see if those options are available.
What are some red flags?
Some schools have come under fire and even shut down for misleading students with predatory loans or promises of job prospects that they couldn’t deliver. See: ITT Tech, Corinthian Colleges, and more. Many of these schools are for-profit, which is essentially a private school that doesn’t have to reinvest its profits back into the school. Sites like College Navigator can tell you whether a school is for-profit or non-profit — read more details about for-profit schools in this section.
But regardless of the school you’re looking at, here are some questions to ask to get an early sign of whether it’s a risky choice:
Is the school accredited? Accreditation certifies that a school meets a set of standards for quality and performance. Attending an accredited school means you can transfer credits to and from other similarly accredited schools and receive state or federal financial aid. You can check the websites of the two main accreditation authorities, the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, to see if a given school is accredited.
Keep in mind that there are two main kinds of accreditation: regional and national. Regionally accredited schools tend to have more easily transferable credits. The regional accreditation body for California is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. National accreditation is generally given to vocational, for-profit, and career technical education programs, and it’s harder to get those credits to transfer to regionally accredited schools.
Does the school push expensive private loans? Some schools are aggressive about recruiting and might tell students they are eligible for financial aid primarily in the form of private student loans. These loans can have high interest rates that can accumulate lots of debt for students without much assurance that their salary upon graduation will be enough to pay it back.
How many students default on loans? A high student loan default rate means that students are borrowing money to pay for their education and not earning enough afterward to pay it back. If a school’s default rate gets too high, the Department of Education can also cut off its access to federal financial aid. A default rate that is higher than a school’s graduation rate is a big red flag, too.
You can look up a school on College Navigator and find its Cohort Default Rate near the bottom of the page — 9.7% was the average for fiscal year 2017, meaning that 9.7% of all students who began repaying their loan debt in 2017 defaulted on their loans sometime within the next few years (2018, 2019, or 2020).
How do I decide whether to go full-time or part-time?
You’re generally considered a full-time student if you’re taking 12 units (three to four courses in most schools) in a semester or quarter. Your finances and ability to juggle school with other responsibilities will probably be the biggest factors in choosing to enroll full-time or part-time, but here are other considerations:
- More options for four-year programs. Many four-year schools, including CSUs and UCs, gear most of their class schedules and student activities toward full-time students. At a UC, you have to specifically apply for part-time status after you’re accepted, and while tuition is lower, you’ll still be charged the same student fees as a full-time student.
- Finish your program faster — but you'll still need to plan ahead. The more classes you take per semester, the sooner you’ll likely be able to finish and potentially start earning more money or getting your career started. But if you're aiming to finish a degree in a certain timeframe, you still need to plan ahead. Twelve units a semester or quarter is the minimum you need to be considered a full-time student, but if you aren't taking summer classes, you'll need closer to 15 units a semester or quarter to finish an associate degree in two years, or a bachelor's in four.
- More access to certain scholarships and free-tuition programs. For example, L.A. College Promise, which offers free tuition at L.A. community colleges, only applies to first-time college students who are enrolled full time. However, other programs and grants apply to both part-time and full-time students, so it’s a good idea to research your options.
- Full-time enrollment doesn’t always mean classes during the day. Some virtual programs let you arrange your own schedule, and there are some programs for working adults, like the PACE program at Pierce College, that are accelerated so that you can still qualify as a full-time student while taking fewer classes at a time.
- More time for life obligations. If you have a job or caregiving responsibilities, going to school part-time is a great option to balance everything without piling on too much additional stress.
- Lower tuition per semester, but not necessarily lower overall costs. Fewer classes means lower tuition per semester, but the amount you save depends on a few factors. At community colleges, tuition is charged per unit. At UCs and CSUs, you get a set reduced tuition as a part-time student — so whether you’re taking one class or two, you’re charged the same price.If you’re paying out-of-pocket or taking out student loans, a part-time schedule gives you more room to potentially work and pay down the costs as you go. But some student fees may remain unchanged whether you’re part-time or full-time, and that may result in a higher overall bill than if you were to enroll full-time. Additionally, any income you earn will potentially reduce the amount of financial aid you qualify for — read more about paying for school here.
- You can still get government financial aid. Part-time students are still eligible for aid like government grants, although the amount will likely be lower than what full-time students receive. Many grants will also require you to be enrolled at least half-time. Additionally, many grants are only awarded for a certain number of years; if your part-time status means you’re taking six years or longer to finish your program, for example, you might run out of grant money. (Read more about financial aid here.)
I need a program with a flexible schedule. Where do I look?
Here are a few options to consider:
Virtual programs: Virtual learning became much more prevalent with the pandemic, so many schools have already built up the infrastructure to offer classes completely online. Some virtual programs are asynchronous, meaning you can watch class lectures on your own time and at your own pace. Be aware that the flexibility that these classes provide also means students have to be more proactive and organized with time management to stay on top of deadlines and keep up with material. Here’s where you can search for online programs at California public colleges (note that not all these classes are asynchronous):
- Community colleges: Browse fully online degree programs transferable to CSU .
- CSU: Search online degree and course options via Cal State Online.
- UC: Many online courses are offered through UC continuing education or extension programs — more about that (plus links) in the section below.
- Calbright College is another public college that is exclusively online, and tuition-free. It’s tailored for working adults who want the flexibility of distance learning, and it’s competency-based, meaning it measures students’ skills rather than time spent in class. As such, it doesn’t award traditional degrees, only certificates of competency. Also note that the state legislature has made attempts to shut down Calbright since it opened in 2019 over low enrollment and certificate completion numbers.
Extended education programs: Many schools, including CSUs and UCs, have a division of programs that are tailored for adults looking to advance or change their careers. They go by a few names: extended education, continuing education, or extension programs. Many classes are offered virtually, and in-person classes have robust evening and weekend options.
Some extended education divisions have degree programs, while others only offer certificates. Others have degree-completion programs, which are specifically geared toward adults who either never started an associate or bachelor’s degree program, or started one and never finished it. (Read more about those here.)
Extended education classes usually have a different price tag than what you’d find through the college’s main campus. That’s because these programs don’t receive any money from the state or federal government and are funded entirely by student fees. Here are links to extension programs for the CSU system and UC campuses:
- CSU Professional and Continuing Education
- UC Berkeley Extension
- UC Davis Continuing and Professional Education
- UC Irvine Division of Continuing Education
- UCLA Extension
- UC Merced Extension
- UC Riverside Extension
- UC San Diego Extension
- UC Santa Barbara Professional and Continuing Education
- UCSC Silicon Valley Extension
Accelerated programs: Some schools offer degree programs designed for working adults that let students complete classes in shorter sprints throughout the year. For example, the Program for Accelerated College Education (PACE) lets students take two classes at a time in eight-week sessions and earn an associate degree in two years. Classes are offered during the evenings, weekends, and online. You can find PACE programs at schools like Pierce College and Moorpark College. The University of La Verne also has an accelerated bachelor’s degree program.
Short-term classes or programs. Many community colleges and other schools have classes that run shorter than a full semester — eight weeks, or even fewer, rather than the typical 16. These classes may begin later or end earlier in the semester. Summer sessions also run for eight or ten weeks. These may be good options if you don’t have an entire semester’s worth of time to devote to a class.
You can also earn certificates and other short-term credentials in a matter of weeks or months, rather than years. (Read this section for more about short-term credentials, including ones that build up to a degree.)
Search for courses that fit your schedule. Many school websites will allow you to see upcoming course schedules so you can see if they work for you. Find those schedules (here’s the link for the L.A. Community College District, for instance), then filter by campus, subject area, and particular days and times that fit your needs. A good academic counselor can also help you look through options and strategize ways to create a personal schedule that works for you. Note that community colleges are more likely than the other school systems to offer evening classes.Here are some things you can think about as you’re putting your schedule together:
- Is the class in-person or online?
- If it’s online, is it synchronous (you have to attend the class at a specified day and time) or asynchronous (you can watch lectures on your own time)?
- Does the class have a short term?