Best universities in California

Explore the best universities in California determined by data collected by the Wall Street Journal and Times Higher Education

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November 2 2020
Top universities in California


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.

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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

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1. Stanford University

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.

2. California Institute of Technology

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”.

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3. University of Southern California 

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 GumpGhostbustersThe 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

California Rank 2021 US College Rank 2021 University City
1 4 Stanford University Stanford
2 =7 California Institute of Technology Pasadena
3 19 University of Southern California Los Angeles
4 =24 Pomona College Claremont
5 26 University of California, Los Angeles Los Angeles
6 34 University of California, Berkeley Berkeley
7 35 Claremont McKenna College Claremont
8 38 University of California, Davis Davis
9 39 University of California, San Diego La Jolla
10 =66 Scripps College Claremont
11 =74 University of California, Santa Barbara Santa Barbara
=12 =80 University of California, Irvine Irvine
=12 =80 Pitzer College Claremont
14 =83 Santa Clara University Santa Clara
15 =89 Loyola Marymount University Los Angeles
16 96 University of the Pacific Stockton
17 =100 Occidental College Los Angeles
=18 =156 University of San Diego San Diego
=18 =156 University of San Francisco San Francisco
20 168 Pepperdine University Malibu
21 =171 Chapman University Orange
22 186 Westmont College Santa Barbara
23 192 University of California, Riverside Riverside
24 =201 California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo
25 =212 California Institute of the Arts Valencia
26 =217 Saint Mary's College of California Moraga
27 =243 Dominican University of California San Rafael
28 =252 Mount Saint Mary's University Los Angeles
29 =255 University of California, Santa Cruz Santa Cruz
30 275 San Diego State University San Diego
31 280 San Jose State University San Jose
32 =281 Azusa Pacific University Azusa
33 =291 Whittier College Whittier
34 =313 California State University, Long Beach Long Beach
=35 =336 California State University, Chico Chico
=35 =336 University of Redlands Redlands
37 =339 California State University, Fresno Fresno
38 =345 California State Polytechnic University, Pomona Pomona
39 =345 Point Loma Nazarene University San Diego
40 =351 California Lutheran University Thousand Oaks
41 =382 California State University, Sacramento Sacramento
42 =390 California State University, Northridge Northridge
=43 401-500 Biola University La Mirada
=43 401-500 California College of the Arts San Francisco
=43 401-500 California State University, Bakersfield Bakersfield
=43 401-500 California State University, East Bay Hayward
=43 401-500 California State University, Fullerton Fullerton
=43 401-500 California State University, Los Angeles Los Angeles
=43 401-500 California State University, Monterey Bay Seaside
=43 401-500 California State University, San Bernardino San Bernardino
=43 401-500 California State University, San Marcos San Marcos
=43 401-500 Notre Dame de Namur University Belmont
=43 401-500 San Francisco State University San Francisco
=54 501-600 California Baptist University Riverside
=54 501-600 California State University, Dominguez Hills Carson
=54 501-600 Humboldt State University Arcata
=54 501-600 La Sierra University Riverside
=54 501-600 University of La Verne La Verne
=54 501-600 Sonoma State University Rohnert Park
=60 > 600 Concordia University Irvine Irvine
=60 > 600 Vanguard University Costa Mesa

Read more: Graduate employability: top universities in the United States ranked by employers

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