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    Top Affordable Colleges in California

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Learn about our editorial policies

    Updated: June 3rd, 2024
    Top Affordable Colleges in California

    If you’re looking for affordable colleges in the state of California, you’re in the right place. We’ve put together a list of the top 6 most affordable college options. The list includes cheap tuition options for in-state and out-of-state students, as well as students with varying economic or academic situations.

    One important thing to remember is that the affordability of a school will vary on a student-by-student basis. Your financial and academic background will help determine how much financial aid you are offered. Each school calculates this differently, so it’s a good idea to apply to a wide range of options, and to find options that typically favor your academic and financial background.

    Find the right school for you

    As you look for affordable college options, it’s important to note that each school’s affordability will vary widely on a student-to-student basis. For example, California residents will receive in-state tuition discounts at any public institution in the state. This makes options like UC-Berkeley or UCLA much more affordable to in-state students than out-of-staters. Meanwhile, schools like Pomona may have a high sticker price, but offer great financial aid for students with high demonstrated need or exceptional academic performance.

    As you browse our list, try to find the school that fits your situation best. And remember – it’s a good idea to cast a wide net. While we can predict which schools offer the best financial aid, it’s never a sure thing. You shouldn’t rule out a school just because of a high sticker price, and you shouldn’t apply to only one school, even if you have your heart set on it.

    Best commuter option

    Community colleges

    California has one of the strongest financial support programs in the country when it comes to community college. Through their California College Promise, students are able to enroll tuition-free at select community colleges. All residents who are first-time, full-time enrollees receive full tuition for two years. Low-income residents are able to receive full tuition for part-time enrollment over longer periods of time.

    Starting at a community college is a great way to save on tuition before transferring to a four-year school for your bachelor’s. This is true all over the country, but especially true in California because your community college will be entirely tuition-free. 

    Best for in-state students

    California State University System

    For most California residents, the California State University system is one of the most affordable options. With in-state tuition rates hovering around $6,000-$7,000 (And that’s before using your Pell Grant or other government grants) it is an inexpensive option that many students can integrate into the life they are already living.

    The system has campuses in most metropolitan areas of the state, including LA, Monterey Bay, Dominguez Hills, Fullerton, San Bernardino, and many more.

    UC – Davis

    UC schools are known as some of the strongest public schools in the country. They are slightly more expensive and selective than California State Universities. For in-state students, most UC schools will be affordable choices due to in-state tuition discounts and strong need-based aid. UC Davis made this list because of the affordable cost of living in the area. However, schools like Berkeley and UCLA can also be great, affordable options for students, albeit more selective than the other UC schools.

    Best need-based aid

    Stanford University

    Many students don’t expect to see a prestigious name like Stanford on a list of the most affordable colleges, but in reality, Stanford is one of the most affordable schools in the state. While they do not offer any merit scholarships, the need-based aid at Stanford is extremely generous. In 2023-2024, the average student whose family made less than $75,000 ended up receiving $86,045 in scholarships per year.

    Stanford is one of the most selective schools in the country; their acceptance rate is in the single digits. So, no matter how strong your record is, there are never any guarantees about this school. However, if you do manage to gain admission, there is a good chance they will make you a financial aid offer that you can afford.

    Claremont Colleges

    The Claremont Colleges – Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pomona, and Scripps, have all pledged to meet 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need. That means, if you have high financial need, these schools will work to offer you a feasible financial aid package. 

    Harvey Mudd also offers several merit scholarships, so students have the chance to benefit from both need and merit-based aid.

    These are all highly selective schools, but they are less selective than Stanford. If you do gain admission and have financial need, you will likely be paying far less than the sticker price.

    Best merit aid

    Whittier College

    Whittier College is a great option for students who have a strong academic record and hope to earn a merit scholarship. All applicants are automatically considered for a John Greenleaf Scholarship, which ranges from $20,000 to $36,000 per year. This is just one of many scholarships that they consider admitted students for.

    If your GPA and other achievements fall in the high range of average student scores at Whittier, consider applying for an option that gives you strong merit aid. This is especially beneficial for students who need money for college but whose FAFSA/CSS Profile does not show significant financial need. 

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Affordable California college options vary based on your academics, your financial situation, and your state of residence
    • In-state students will find affordable education at in-state public schools
    • Students with strong academic backgrounds can earn affordable tuition at private schools like Whittier
    • If you have high demonstrated need, competitive private colleges like Stanford and the Claremont Colleges will always be your best bet for strong need-based aid

    Frequently asked questions about affordable college in California

    How can I establish residency in California?

    This requirement may vary school-by-school, but the University of California defines residency as living in the state continuously for 366 days before the start of classes. You must also establish intent to stay in the state. For a thorough guide to the process and requirements, check out our article on how to get in-state tuition as an out-of-state student. 

    What if my FAFSA does not show financial need?

    If you need financial support to pay for college but your FAFSA does not reflect this financial need, you have a couple options. If you are an in-state California student, you can try applying to public schools. If you gain admission, you will automatically receive a steep tuition discount that could make the school affordable even without financial aid. 

    Additionally, if you have a strong academic background, you can try applying to private schools with strong merit-based aid. Oftentimes, you’ll get the best merit aid at schools that are not overly selective, but have strong merit scholarships.

    Another option is to apply to competitive schools and, after gaining admission, send them a financial aid appeal letter to explain why your financial situation is not captured by your FAFSA and/or CSS Profile. They may adjust your aid offer and grant you admission.

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