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The 10 Cheapest Colleges in California

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California is known for many things, such as its great weather, breathtaking coastline, rich farmland, and striking parks—from the desolation of Death Valley to the lush forests of towering Redwoods to the sheer rock walls of Yosemite. And another thing California has a reputation for? Being expensive. While California colleges like Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and USC top the list of the most expensive schools in the country, it’s possible to find cheap(er) colleges in California. 


Tips for Saving Money on College


A school’s sticker price is just one way to determine the cost of college, and it’s not always a great metric for calculating the overall expense. Try these tips to find the most financially responsible college option for you in California.


Schools that Meet 100% of Demonstrated Financial Need


A school that meets 100% of the demonstrated need of students provides a financial aid package with the money a student requires to be able to attend. Demonstrated need is calculated using two data points: the cost of attendance (COA) and expected family contribution (EFC). A student’s demonstrated need is determined by subtracting their EFI from COA. 


  • COA is the price of attending a specific school and includes tuition, room and board, any necessary fees, and essential expenses like books and supplies. 


  • EFC is a calculation using a student’s FAFSA to determine how much their family is expected to pay toward their education. 


In-State Schools 


According to the College Board, the average published sticker price (tuition and fees) for full-time undergraduates in 2019-2020 at public four-year in-state schools was $10,560. For comparison, the price for full-time undergraduates at public, four-year out-of-state schools was $27,020. If you’re planning on attending a public university—like those of the nine of the UC System or the 23 California State Universities— in-state residency can dramatically reduce the cost.


Consider a Private College


Private colleges have a reputation for being expensive, but that is not always the case. In some instances, attending a private college is more cost-effective than going to a public college. Often, less-selective private colleges will try to entice overqualified students to their campus with generous financial aid packages that significantly lower college costs. 


Schools trying to foster a more diverse campus will make similar offers to minority students and first-generation college students. For example, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the average tuition discount rate for first-time, full-time, first-year undergraduates at private, nonprofit colleges rose from 39.1% in 2007-08 to 52.2% in 2018-19. This trend is increasing rapidly in more selective private colleges.


Most Affordable Colleges in California


Looking for high-quality education in California without the high cost of tuition? Below are the ten schools with the lowest Tuition of attendance—including tuition, fees, room, and board—in the Golden State. 


1. Shasta College 


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $11,824/$17,440

Location: Redding, CA

Acceptance Rate: 100%

Undergrad Enrollment: 9,100


Shasta College is one of 15 California Community colleges that offers bachelor’s degrees and provides a wide variety of transfer opportunities to students who wish to continue their studies elsewhere. As part of the California Community College system—the world’s largest higher education system—Shasta College has articulation agreements with both the University of California and California State University systems, as well as many private colleges. Learn more about Shasta College and what it takes to get accepted.


2. California State University, Fresno (CSU Fresno)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $13,795/$16,963

Location: Fresno, CA

Acceptance Rate: 58%

Undergrad Enrollment: 22,100


CSU Fresno—better known by its popular nickname, “Fresno State”—was founded in 1911 but didn’t join the state university system until 1961. A little over a decade later, the school was granted university status and today it offers more than 60 majors, 45 master’s degree programs, and doctoral programs in Educational Leadership, Physical Therapy, and Nursing. Numerous recreational opportunities are available for Fresno State students; the 388-acre main campus is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains and numerous lake resorts. Learn more about CSU Fresno and what it takes to get accepted.


3. California State University, Fullerton (CSU Fullerton)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $21,515/$25,079

Location: Fullerton, CA

Acceptance Rate: 53%

Undergrad Enrollment: 34,800


This Orange Country institution offers 55 undergraduate and 55 graduate degree programs— including doctorates in education and nursing practice. CSU Fullerton has a well-deserved reputation for the diversity of its student body and is home to large populations of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX students. A U.S. Department of Education-designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, CSU Fullerton ranks number four in the nation at awarding bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students. Learn more about CSU Fullerton and what it takes to get accepted.


4. Lincoln University 


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $21,680

Location: Oakland, CA

Acceptance Rate: 57%

Undergrad Enrollment: 200


This small, private, non-for-profit college provides a traditional and innovative undergraduate education, with a focus on just a few subjects—Lincoln University offers a BA in Business Administration and a BS in Diagnostic Imaging, along with limited graduate-level business programs. Located in Oakland, the university provides students with easy access to the Bay Area, giving them a first-hand look at the tech industry and access to employment in a rapidly expanding workforce. Learn more about Lincoln University and what it takes to get accepted.


5. California State University, Northridge (CSUN)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $22,194/$31,698

Location: Northridge, CA

Acceptance Rate: 57%

Undergrad Enrollment: 35,000


California State University, Northridge, is the largest institution of the 23 schools that make up the California State University system. The university offers more than 130 majors and degree options in fields ranging from Accounting to Urban Studies Planning, although it’s best-known for its Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication. In fact, The Hollywood Reporter ranked the university among the top 25 American film schools and notable alumni include actresses Helen Hunt, Eva Longoria, and Alyson Hannigan. Learn more about CSUN and what it takes to get accepted.


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6. California State University, Stanislaus (Stanislaus State)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $22,802/$30,986

Location: Turlock, CA

Acceptance Rate: 89%

Undergrad Enrollment: 9,200


California State University, Stanislaus, offers undergraduates the opportunity to pursue 45 majors and 44 minors through its four colleges: 


  • College of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences
  • College of Education, Kinesiology & Social Work
  • College of Science
  • College of Business Administration


Stanislaus State ranks fifth on Money’s list of transformative colleges. Moreover, the university has the distinction of being the only school in the California State University system to offer a bachelor’s degree in cognitive studies and was the first institution to establish an accredited MBA program. Learn more about Stanislaus State and what it takes to get accepted.


7. California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $24,533/$36,413

Location: Carson, CA

Acceptance Rate: 79%

Undergrad Enrollment: 13,900


California State University at Dominguez Hills takes its name from the Dominguez family, who have possessed the land in the South Bay of Los Angeles where the university is located since 1784. CSUDH has earned a reputation for its diverse student body and the success of its minority students. The magazine Diverse ranked the school 48th in the nation for conferring bachelor’s degrees to minority students, and it was the only public university in California to rank for granting bachelor’s degrees to African Americans. Learn more about CSUDH and what it takes to get accepted.


8. California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $24,778/$36,658

Location: Seaside, CA

Acceptance Rate: 75%

Undergrad Enrollment: 6,700


California State University at Monterey Bay was founded in 1994 and is the second-youngest institution in the California State University system. Located on the site of an old army base, Fort Ord—which provided basic training to more than 1.5 million men and women from the 1950s to the 1970s—the university builds on its legacy as it finds new ways to empower its students. CSUMB offers 24 undergraduate degrees and more than 30 minors to a population that is 53% first-generation students and is committed to making education accessible to traditionally underserved and low-income students. Learn more about CSUMB and what it takes to get accepted.


9. California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB)


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $24,860/$36,739

Location: San Bernardino, CA

Acceptance Rate: 69%

Undergrad Enrollment: 17,900


California State University, San Bernardino, offers more than 70 degrees and programs ranging from Arabic Language, Literature, and Culture to Theatre Arts through its five colleges: 


  • College of Arts and Letters
  • Jack H. Brown College of Business and Public Administration
  • College of Education
  • College of Natural Sciences
  • College of Social and Behavioral Sciences


CSUSB is notable for its diverse student body. Of all the public universities in California, CSUSB has the second-highest number of African American and Hispanic students, and 70% of CSUSB graduates are the first in their families to earn a degree. Learn more about CSUSB, and what it takes to get accepted.


10. California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB) 


Tuition In-state/Out-of-state: $25,031/$36,911

Location: Bakersfield, CA

Acceptance Rate: 79%

Undergrad Enrollment: 9,300


Best known for its undergraduate programs, CSUB offers majors in everything from Agricultural Business to Spanish through its four academic schools:


  • Arts and Humanities
  • Business and Public Administration
  • Natural Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering
  • Social Sciences and Education 


The school has come a long way since its opening in 1970. Former CSUB Vice President for Administrative Services, Ken Sector, remembers the space before the campus’s construction as  “375 acres of sugar beets with one dying cottonwood tree.” Learn more about CSUB, and what it takes to get accepted. 


How Much Will You Pay for College?

The sticker price is a poor metric for determining the real cost of college and college costs can vary significantly between institutions after financial aid. Check out CollegeVine’s list of affordable colleges in California if you’re interested in learning about more cheap colleges in the state. Luckily, CollegeVine’s free Financial Aid Calculator makes learning the actual cost of college easy and in just minutes can estimate your real expense at hundreds of schools.


Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.