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The 49 Cheapest Colleges in California

Posted by Justin Berkman | Jan 28, 2016 8:30:00 PM

College Info



College is expensive, and it's prudent to consider how much you're going to have to pay before you decide to attend a particular school. While cost shouldn't be the sole determining factor in your college decision, it's an important one.

In this article, I'll give you a list of the cheapest colleges in California. Furthermore, I'll provide the prices of the top public and private colleges in California, explain college costs, and let you know 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, I'll explain average college costs so that you'll be able to compare the costs of California schools with national averages. In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that the average annual total cost for an in-state public college for the 2016-2017 academic year is $24,610. The average annual total cost of a private college is $49,320. Total cost combines the following items.


Tuition and Fees

Colleges often charge mandatory fees for services like the library, transportation, athletic facilities, and student activities. Many colleges report a combined tuition and fees figure. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2016–2017 school year was $33,480 at private colleges, $9,650 for state residents at public colleges, and $24,930 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. For California public colleges, the average cost of tuition and fees was $9,346 for state residents.


Housing and Meals

The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2016–2017 ranged from $10,440 at four-year public schools to $11,890 at private schools. However, the cost of "room and board" varies depending on the campus housing and food plan you choose. Colleges also provide room and board estimates for living off campus based on typical student costs.


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 the average cost of books and supplies for the 2016–2017 school year was $1,250 at public colleges and $1,230 at private colleges.


Personal and Transportation Expenses

Colleges may estimate some expenses they don't bill you for. These include local transportation, clothing, personal items, entertainment, etc. The College Board reports that expenses in this category for 2016–2017 ran from $2,720 at private colleges to $3,270 at public universities.



 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 governmentCalifornia public colleges are separated into California State University (CSU) schools and University of California (UC) schools. These schools cost substantially less for California residents. Also, 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 of the UCs are viewed as 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 schools by their cost of attendance for California residents who live on campus. These numbers come from College Navigator, a component of the National Center for Education Statistics. Also, I created separate tables for CSU schools, UC schools, and private schools. Private colleges are more expensive than CSUs and UCs, but some private colleges offer very generous financial aid.


California State University Schools

CSUs are the cheapest colleges in CaliforniaI listed their costs of attendance for California residents who live on campus and off campus with their families. If you live off campus with your family, you’ll save 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 attendanceNet price can give you a general idea of the cost of attendance after you receive financial aid. However, most government and institutional aid for these schools are 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 2015-2016 academic year, and the average net prices are from the 2014-2015 academic year. Generally, the cost of attendance goes up about 1%-2% annually.

The schools are listed in order of their in-state, on campus costs.


School In-State On Campus In-State Off Campus With Family Out-of-State On Campus Average Net Price, In State, (2014-2015)
1. CSU Fresno $19,493 $10,663 $30,653 $6,846
2. CSU San Bernardino $20,104 $10,867 $31,264 $6,984
3. CSU Monterey Bay $20,219 $10,307 $31,379 $10,913
4. CSU Stanislaus $20,364 $11,226 $31,524 $7,387
5. CSU Northridge $21,163 $11,305 $32,323 $7,075
6. Cal Maritime $22,198 $10,712 $33,358 $14,788
7. CSU Long Beach $22,964 $11,190 $34,124 $9,597
8. CSU Dominguez Hills $23,015 $10,847 $34,175 $3,764
9. CSU Sacramento $24,352 $11,162 $35,512 $8,956
10. Humboldt State $23,367 $11,253 $34,536 $13,216
11. CSU East Bay $23,487 $10,770 $34,647 $10,131
12. CSU Chico $23,496 $11,262 $34,656 $13,583
13. CSU Los Angeles $23,821 $11,092 $34,981 $3,160
14. CSU Bakersfield $24,004 $11,548 $35,164 $6,376
15. CSU San Marcos $24,527 $11,557 $35,687 $10,543
16. San Francisco State $24,648 $11,214 $35,808 $12,941
17. Sonoma State $24,680 $11,970 $35,840 $15,585
18. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo $25,414 $13,405 $36,574 $18,238
19. CSU Fullerton $25,643 $11,139 $36,803 $7,915
20. CSU Channel Islands $26,037 $11,283 $37,197 $13,364
21. Cal Poly Pomona $26,196 $11,358 $37,356 $13,603
22. San Jose State $26,227 $12,115 $37,387 $13,642
23. San Diego State $27,451 $11,671 $38,611 $14,048



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. Also, I provided all the same statistics that I offered for the CSU schools. As you’ll see, UC schools are substantially more expensive than CSU schools, but the UCs’ average net prices are comparable to those of some CSUs.


School In-State On Campus In-State Off Campus With Family Out-of-State On Campus Average Net Price (2014-2015)
1. UC San Diego $31,466 $25,330 $56,174 $14,933
2. UC Irvine $32,102 $24,889 $56,810 $14,662
3. UCLA $33,391 $24,703 $58,099 $13,816
4. UC Davis $34,377 $26,033 $59,085 $16,841
5. UC Riverside $33,485 $25,261 $58,193 $13,365
6. UC Santa Cruz $34,764 $25,934 $59,472 $17,550
7. UC Merced $34,774 $25,125 $59,482 $13,350
8. UC Santa Barbara $35,203 $26,534 $59,911 $16,211
9. UC Berkeley $35,255 $25,643 $59,963 $16,601



The Geisl Library at UCSD (O Palsson/Flickr)


Private Colleges

I provided the costs of 17 of the top private colleges in California. For each private college, I 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. Private colleges are substantially more expensive than both CSUs and UCs, but some private colleges offer very generous financial aid.


School Cost of Attendance (2015-2016) Net Price (2014-2015)
1. Soka University of America $46,504 $12,295
2. Loyola Marymount University $60,648 $40,226
3. Mills College $60,992 $27,181
4. University of San Diego $61,569 $35,950
5. University of San Francisco $61,684 $35,641
6. California Institute of Technology $63,471 $23,213
7. Santa Clara University $63,666 $37,198
8. Stanford University $64,477 $19,245
9. Chapman University $64,650 $36,602
10. Pomona College $64,870 $18,423
11. Pitzer College $65,880 $26,288
12. Scripps College $66,060 $35,211
13. Pepperdine University $66,152 $33,721
14. Claremont McKenna $66,325 $29,894
15. Occidental College $67,046 $31,645
16. University of Southern California $67,212 $31,384
17. Harvey Mudd $69,355 $34,529



Founders Hall at Soka University (Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons)


How to Use This List

From this list, you can get an idea of the costs of the different types of 4-year colleges in California, and you can use this list to compare the costs of 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 one factor in your college decision. Research colleges extensively to 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 college, and college would be affordable for everyone. Unfortunately, cost can be a significant factor. When applying, apply to at least one or two more “affordable” safety school options if cost is a concern for you and your family

Keep in mind that you won't know exactly how much a certain school will cost until you're accepted and receive a financial aid letter from them, so don’t let the sticker price prevent you from applying. Most financial aid is awarded after you’re accepted but before you commit to a college. Many of the most selective colleges claim to meet 100% of a student’s financial need through a combination of school, state, and federal aid.

Once you receive your financial aid package, you can determine out-of-pocket expenses and how much you would have to take out in loans. Once you have that information, it’s wise to consider finances in your decision. Weigh the financial burden of attending a particular school against its quality of education, how much you want to attend, and its expected financial return. Compare your options. It’s up to you to determine how much debt is “worth it.”


What's Next?

If you're worried about college costs and are interested in a school outside of California, check out the cheapest colleges in the United States. Regardless of the school you attend, learn how to pay for college.

After you familiarize yourself with the financial aid process, you may want to research these full ride scholarships.


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Justin Berkman
About the Author

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.

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