College is expensive, so it's prudent to consider how much you're going to have to pay before you decide to attend a particular school—especially if you live in California. While cost shouldn't be the sole determining factor in your college decision, it's definitely an important one.
In this article, I'll give you a list of the cheapest colleges in California. Furthermore, I'll provide you with the prices of the top public and private colleges in California, explain college costs, and go over how finances should influence your college decision.
Average College Costs in the US
Before I give you the list of the most affordable colleges in California, allow me to explain average college costs so that you can compare the costs of California schools with the national averages.
In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board (the creator of the SAT) reported that for the 2019-20 academic year the average annual total cost for an in-state public college is $26,590, and the average annual total cost for a private college is $53,980.
Total cost combines the following four items:
- Tuition and fees
- Housing and meals
- Books and school supplies
- Personal and transportation expenses
#1: Tuition and Fees
Colleges often charge mandatory fees for services such as the on-campus library, transportation, athletic facilities, and student activities. Many colleges report a combined tuition and fees figure.
According to the College Board, the average costs of tuition and fees for the 2019-20 school year are as follows:
- $10,440 for in-state students at public universities
- $26,820 for out-of-state students at public universities
- $36,880 for students at private nonprofit universities
For state residents at California public universities in 2019-20, the average cost of tuition and fees is $9,970.
#2: Housing and Meals
The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board ranges from $11,510 at four-year public schools to $12,990 at four-year private schools.
However, note that the cost of room and board can vary depending on the campus housing and meal plans you choose. Colleges also usually provide room and board estimates for those living off-campus based on typical student costs.
#3: Books and School Supplies
Most colleges estimate the average costs for required learning materials. Some colleges even include the cost of a computer and computer accessories.
The College Board reports that the average cost of books and supplies for the 2019-20 school year is $1,240 for both public and private universities.
#4: Personal and Transportation Expenses
Colleges sometimes estimate expenses they don't actually bill you for; these include transportation costs to and from school as well as expenses for personal things such as clothing, entertainment, etc.
According to the College Board, average transportation and personal expenses for 2019-20 ran from $2,870 at private universities to $3,400 at public universities. (Note that this is the only area for which the estimated cost is more expensive for those attending public schools than it is for those attending private schools.)
College isn't cheap. (Refracted Moments/Flickr)
Why Do Cheap Colleges in California Cost Less?
The cheapest colleges in California are public colleges that are subsidized by the Californian government. California public universities are separated into two categories:
These schools cost substantially less for California residents. CSU schools are cheaper than UC schools; however, as a whole, UC schools are more selective and prestigious.
Keep in mind that there isn't necessarily a direct relationship between the quality of a school and its cost. You can get an outstanding education at a relatively cheap school. In fact, many UC schools are considered some of the top research universities in the world.
The Cheapest Colleges in California
Below is the ranking list of the cheapest colleges in California.
I ranked the following schools by their cost of attendance for California residents who live on-campus. All of these numbers come from College Navigator, which is part of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
I also created separate tables for CSU schools, UC schools, and private schools. Private colleges are typically more expensive than CSU and UC schools, but some offer very generous financial aid.
California State University Schools
CSU schools are the cheapest colleges in California. I've listed the costs of attendance for state residents who live on-campus and for those who live off-campus with their families. If you live off-campus with your family, you’ll save substantially on room and board costs.
I also listed the costs of attendance for out-of-state students who live on-campus and the average net price of each school. Average net price is determined by subtracting the average amount of financial aid (for students who receive aid) from the total cost of attendance.
Net price can give you a general idea of the cost of attendance after you get financial aid. As most government and institutional aid is based on demonstrated financial need, students whose families have lower incomes and fewer assets will receive more aid.
The cost of attendance data is from the 2018-19 school year and the average net prices are from the 2017-18 school year. Generally, the cost of attendance goes up about 1-2% annually.
Schools are listed in order of their in-state, on-campus costs (from lowest to highest):
|School||In-State, On-Campus||In-State, Off-Campus w/ Family||Out-of-State, On-Campus||Avg Net Price (In-State)|
|1. CSU Fresno||$21,418||$11,093||$33,928||$6,587|
|2. CSU Stanislaus||$21,886||$11,302||$32,434||$6,930|
|3. CSU Northridge||$22,969||$11,961||$34,849||$8,549|
|4. CSU Monterey Bay||$23,564||$12,087||$35,444||$13,155|
|5. Cal Maritime||$27,350||$15,282||$39,230||$19,965|
|6. CSU Dominguez Hills||$23,722||$11,862||$35,602||$4,533|
|7. CSU Long Beach||$24,738||$11,866||$36,618||$9,477|
|8. CSU San Bernardino||$23,878||$11,428||$35,758||$8,586|
|9. CSU Chico||$24,624||$12,074||$36,504||$14,156|
|10. Humboldt State||$24,811||$11,941||$36,691||$14,506|
|11. CSU Los Angeles||$26,139||$11,743||$38,019||$4,403|
|12. CSU East Bay||$25,143||$11,313||$37,023||$11,422|
|13. CSU Sacramento||$26,454||$11,816||$38,334||$9,885|
|14. Sonoma State||$26,626||$12,780||$38,506||$16,119|
|15. San Francisco State||$27,480||$12,220||$39,360||$14,964|
|16. Cal Poly Pomona||$28,891||$11,935||$40,771||$12,744|
|17. CSU Bakersfield||$26,009||$12,377||$37,889||$6,025|
|18. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo||$28,302||$14,532||$40,182||$20,036|
|19. San Diego State||$29,318||$12,476||$41,170||$14,568|
|20. CSU San Marcos||$25,325||$12,761||$37,205||$12,614|
|21. CSU Fullerton||$27,739||$11,912||$39,618||$8,274|
|22. San Jose State||$29,193||$12,865||$41,073||$14,519|
|23. CSU Channel Islands||$25,517||$11,885||$37,387||$15,780|
Happy grads of CSU Monterey Bay (CSU Monterey Bay/Flickr)
University of California Schools
In this table, I ranked the UC schools by their costs of attendance for in-state students who live on-campus. I have provided all the same statistics offered for the CSU schools above.
As you’ll see, UC schools are substantially more expensive than CSU schools, but their average net prices are comparable to those of some CSU schools.
Again, all expenses are for the 2018-19 school year, while all average net prices are for the 2017-18 school year.
|School||In-State, On-Campus||In-State, Off-Campus w/ Family||Out-of-State, On-Campus||Avg Net Price (In-State)|
|1. UC San Diego||$32,838||$26,687||$61,830||$13,452|
|2. UC Irvine||$34,261||$26,266||$65,253||$15,014|
|4. UC Riverside||$35,242||$26,483||$64,234||$12,890|
|5. UC Davis||$35,177||$27,271||$61,649||$16,039|
|6. UC Santa Barbara||$35,172||$27,269||$64,169||$15,724|
|7. UC Santa Cruz||$36,217||$27,231||$65,209||$17,266|
|8. UC Merced||$35,663||$26,239||$64,655||$12,390|
|9. UC Berkeley||$38,066||$27,474||$67,058||$17,862|
The Geisl Library at UCSD (O Palsson/Flickr)
Private Colleges in California
In this section, I've provided the costs of 17 top private colleges in California. For each school, I've listed the total cost of attendance for students who live on-campus and the average net price. In-state and out-of-state students pay the same price.
While private colleges are far more expensive than both CSU and UC schools, some offer fairly generous financial aid packages.
The following schools are organized by cost of attendance (from lowest to highest).
|School||Cost of Attendance (2018-19)||Net Price (2017-18)|
|1. Soka University of America||$48,996||$14,739|
|2. Loyola Marymount University||$67,369||$43,779|
|3. Mills College||$47,784||$24,900|
|4. University of San Diego||$67,498||$35,931|
|5. University of San Francisco||$68,296||$34,475|
|6. Santa Clara University||$71,778||$41,545|
|7. Chapman University||$73,182||$41,463|
|8. Stanford University||$71,587||$17,271|
|9. California Institute of Technology||$72,084||$26,361|
|10. Pomona College||$71,996||$16,988|
|11. Pitzer College||$72,900||$30,013|
|12. Pepperdine University||$73,002||$40,941|
|14. Claremont McKenna College||$73,810||$26,512|
|15. Occidental College||$74,132||$37,173|
|16. University of Southern California||$74,825||$36,191|
|17. Harvey Mudd College||$76,947||$38,768|
Founders Hall at Soka University (Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons)
How to Use These Lists of California College Expenses
By looking at the three lists above, you can get an idea of the costs of different types of four-year universities in California and compare the costs of specific California schools.
Furthermore, you can add one of the cheaper colleges to your list of schools if cost is a concern for you. Remember that cost should only be a single factor—not the overall deciding factor—in your college decision. I advise you to extensively research colleges so you can find the college that’s best for you.
When Should Cost Be a Consideration in Your College Choice?
Ideally, you wouldn't have to consider cost when choosing a school, and college would be affordable for everyone.
Unfortunately, in reality, cost is often a significant factor. Therefore, it's a good idea to apply to at least one or two more affordable safety schools, especially if cost is a major concern for you and your family.
Keep in mind that you won't know exactly how much a certain school will cost until you've gotten accepted and received a financial aid letter, so don’t let the sticker price prevent you from applying.
Most financial aid is awarded after you’ve been accepted but before you commit to the school. Many of the most selective colleges claim to meet 100% of a student's financial need through a combination of school, state, and/or federal aid.
Once you get your financial aid package, it's time to determine out-of-pocket expenses and how much you would need to take out in loans. Be sure to also weigh the financial burden of attending a particular school against factors such as its quality of education, how badly you want to attend, and its expected financial return.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine how much debt is worth it.
If you're worried about college costs and are interested in a school outside California, check out the cheapest colleges in the United States.
Regardless of the school you attend, it's a good idea to learn how to pay for college so you can maximize your academic experience and save as much money as possible.
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Justin has extensive experience teaching SAT prep and guiding high school students through the college admissions and selection process. He is firmly committed to improving equity in education and helping students to reach their educational goals. Justin received an athletic scholarship for gymnastics at Stanford University and graduated with a BA in American Studies.