California has it all: glorious sunshine, perfect beaches, bustling cities, rugged mountains and some of the most prestigious universities in the world. From the showbiz whirl of Hollywood to the cutting-edge innovation of Silicon Valley, California has been the birthplace of culture and technology that has spread around the globe.
Known as “the golden state”, California has attracted people from across the globe with its promise of freedom and riches ever since the gold rush in the mid-1800s. The state’s relaxed, welcoming reputation and powerhouse tech sector make it a prime destination for foreign students.
California has a beautiful and diverse range of landscapes, from the rugged peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in the east to the Pacific coastline in the west, and from the mighty northern redwood forests in the north to the majestic Mojave Desert in the south.
The internet, the personal computer and the film industry all have roots in California and the state has a reputation as a liberal, inventive place that welcomes new people and new ideas.
The California state university system is the largest in the country, with about 430,000 students. The state has numerous world-class public and private universities including Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles and University of California, Berkeley.
These are the best universities in California, based on the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings 2021.
Explore more top universities
Best universities in Los Angeles
Best universities in Texas
Best universities in New York
Best universities in Florida
Best universities in Washington DC
Best public universities in the United States
Best private universities in the US
Best liberal arts colleges in the United States
The 10 most beautiful universities in the US
Stanford University, or Leland Stanford Junior University (to give it its full name) is a private research university founded in 1891 by railroad tycoon and former senator Leland Stanford and his wife Jane.
The university sits at the heart of Silicon Valley and its graduates have founded some of the world’s leading technology companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Snapchat, PayPal and Yahoo. The founders of Google also met while studying there.
The university’s faculty and alumni have made a huge contribution to science, politics and business in the US and Stanford boasts 30 billionaires among its alumni, the second highest of any university.
Stanford is home to the National Accelerator Laboratory, which undertakes advanced research in particle physics. The university was also instrumental in creating some of the networks that became the basis of the early internet.
The university’s role in creating the US tech sector has led to its reputation as one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world and the rankings place Stanford among the top universities globally.
The main campus, one of the largest in the US and is home to most of the undergraduate student body, covers over 8,000 acres in Palo Alto between the cities of San Francisco and San Jose.
The California Institute of Technology or Caltech is one of the world’s leading science and engineering higher education institutions. The private research and teaching university was founded in 1891 in Pasadena, just northeast of Los Angeles.
Caltech has had a strong focus on science since the early 1900s and has turned out many great scientific minds. The alumni and faculty include 72 Nobel Laureates and six recipients of the Turing Award for computer science. As well as a reputation for world-leading research, Caltech is also renowned for the quality of its teaching and has one of the highest rates in the US for the number of graduates who go on to study a PhD.
The university also operates the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the research and development centre for the US space agency, which builds and operates robotic space craft. Many Caltech faculty are affiliated with NASA and several astronauts are counted among its alumni.
The Caltech campus covers 124 acres and is home to most of the undergraduate population. There is a reputation for practical jokes and pranks among Caltech students, including one occasion where the world-famous Hollywood sign was changed to read “Caltech”.
Student experience in California
California is home to some of the strangest US college mascots
Brain like Berkeley: university courses on your favourite pop stars
Caltech: ‘uniquely difficult but a wonderful place to study’
The real experience of an online-only university student
Which celebrity scholarship is available at a university in California?
Best universities on the West Coast of the United States
UC Berkeley: self-motivating, thought-provoking and interactive
The University of Southern California is a private research university in Los Angeles. It was founded in 1880 and is one of the oldest private universities in California.
The university's official mascot is Traveler, a white Andalusian horse. It first appeared at a football game in 1961 and was known as Traveler I. The current horse is Traveler VII.
Because of its proximity to Hollywood, the university's campus has featured in many films including Forrest Gump, Ghostbusters, The Social Network and Legally Blonde, as well as several TV shows.
The Daily Trojan, the student newspaper, was first established in 1912 and is published Monday to Friday during autumn and spring.
Top universities in California 2021
Click each institution to view its World University Rankings profile