A Guide to Online Colleges in California

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There’s something for everyone in the most populous state in the Union: beaches, mountains, deserts, wine country, and giant Sequoias. California is home to two of the nation’s largest economies, the birthplace of modern computing, Hollywood, booming entertainment or solitude and quality of life. It’s also home to perhaps the largest number of in-state online learning opportunities of anywhere in the nation. And while one of the largest perks of online education is being able to complete your schooling from anywhere, there are a number of reasons why students prefer (and rightfully so) to obtain online degrees from colleges in their own state.

In-state tuition is often applied to public schools offering online programs. Many online programs require some face-to-face time, or more numerous support services at their brick and mortar locations. Intensive study experiences — often on the weekends or in several week long bouts — enable many online students to accelerate their time until graduation. And students looking at online education can drastically expand their educational options if they also look to hybrid degrees (degrees where degrees can be taken partially, or mostly online). Finally, one of the most common stipulations in scholarships is that students be from a certain state or region, often more funds are available to students seeking degrees in-state.

Many of the top public schools in California offer online programs of study at the associates through doctoral levels. UCLA, a top 25 ranked national university according to US News offers 27 programs of study fully online, while UC Berkeley and Stanford offer one each. Meanwhile the California State University system is perhaps the most varied and readily available group of online universities in the state, boarding 74 fully online programs at 9 campus locations. Available across the state, these locations include Channel Islands, Chico, Dominguez Hills, East Bay, Fullerton, Northridge, Sacramento, San Marcos, and Stanislaus locations of Cal State. Many CSU campuses are also great buys, offering tuition at between $280 and $500 per unit. The Naval Postgraduate School also offers 13 degrees for Naval officers furthering their training and career. For those looking to obtain an associates degree or certification, or to save funds and transfer into a four year program, a number of community colleges also offer online programs.

A wealth of online offerings are also available from the private universities in California. Offering degrees ranging from masters in law (L.L.M.) to degrees in divinity. Leading the pack in terms of private offerings are National University, Golden Gate University (San Francisco), and Brandman University, offering a total of over 200 fully online degrees. The University of Southern California’s USC Online is the most prestigious private online university in the state, offering over 80 fully online programs, 69 at the masters level, one doctoral level program, and the rest graduate certifications.

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Featured Online Schools

Compared with the rest of the nation, California is in the middle of the pack in terms of higher education tuition costs. In 2014-2015, the average annual tuition for a full time undergraduate student in California was $13,492 or within $300 of the national average. For the same year, Harvey Mudd College represented the most expensive of educational institutions. Yet at $48,315 was typically priced compared to other top ranked private colleges. For a state boasting quite a number of top — internationally — ranked universities, tuition costs are relatively low. And for students looking to pay in-state tuition at one of the many top ranked public schools in the state, tuition is quite reasonable. UCLA, a top 25 ranked national university, came in at under the state average for tuition and was largely representative of other in-state offerings.

Los Angeles has perhaps the widest array of online offerings of any city in the country, helping to serve the hundreds of thousands of higher education students located in Los Angeles and the near continuous urban zone surrounding the city and county. For students hoping to achieve diplomas, associates, or community college degrees, all LACCD colleges (the largest community college system in the nation) offer online offerings that can be complemented by the support services of nearby brick and mortar locations. Top ranking online programs in the LA area include UCLA’s #1 nationally ranked online graduate program in engineering (the University of Southern California ranked second in the category). As well as Pepperdine’s top ranked online MBA, Loyola Marymount University’s top ranked online graduate programs in education, and the University of Southern California’s top ranked online computer information technology program.

In terms of online education and employment opportunities, Los Angeles is one of the highest opportunity locations we’ve surveyed in our guide. Opportunity comes at a cost, with LA costing 144% of the national average. This is comparable, however, with many California metros. And while tech and tourism provide tons of opportunities in the Bay Area, LA is one of the very biggest economies in the nation. Whatever field you’re trying to enter, there are probably a number of options in the nation’s second largest metro.

Four San Diego-based traditional universities offer online degrees, as well as three locations of the San Diego Community College District (and their school of continuing education). Notable online offerings include five LLM (Legal Masters of Law) offerings from the Thomas Jefferson School of Law as well as varied graduate level offerings at Point Loma Nazarene University, the University of San Diego, and San Diego State University. Schools based in San Diego known for top ranked online programs include the University of San Diego (known for graduate-level non-MBA business offerings) And San Diego State University (known for graduate-level education offerings).

For online students trying to start (or build on) a life in their locale of study, San Diego is an impressively livable city boasting a mild climate, miles of beaches, nightlife and a bustling economy.

The Bay Area boasts a number of online programs as well as the nation’s largest high tech job market. A masters in information and data science is a great way to land a job in Silicon Valley, and may be taken entirely online through UC Berkeley. A masters of science in statistics is also available through Stanford University fully online. Meanwhile, Golden Gate University in San Francisco boasts one of the largest arrays of online degrees available in California (47 in total), including nationally ranked online bachelors programs according to US News. Other online degree providers in the Bay Area include Foothill College (Los Altos Hills), the California Institute of Integral Studies (San Francisco), the University of California (San Francisco), Palo Alto University (Palo Alto), and Saybrook University (San Francisco).

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana


Population: 12,150,996
Cost of Living: 144%
Top Industries: Defense, tourism, technology
Local Online Degrees: 8

Riverside-San Bernardino


Population: 1,932,666
Cost of Living: 117%
Top Industries: Health care, agriculture
Local Online Degrees: 2

Sacramento


Population: 1,723,634
Cost of Living: 117%
Top Industries: Technology, health care, government
Local Online Degrees: 1

San Jose


Population: 1,664,496
Cost of Living: 157%
Top Industries: Technology, Education
Local Online Degrees: 1

Fresno


Population: 654,628
Cost of Living: 106%
Top Industries: Agriculture, health care
Local Online Degrees: 0

Concord


Population: 615,968
Cost of Living: 139%
Top Industries: retail, tourism, health care
Local Online Degrees: 0

Mission Viejo-Lake Forest-San Clemente


Population: 583,681
Cost of Living: 159%
Top Industries: Retail, tourism, health care
Local Online Degrees: 0

Bakersfield


Population: 523,994
Cost of Living: 106%
Top Industries: Agriculture, manufacturing, natural resources
Local Online Degrees: 0

The Best Online Colleges in California

  • 1. University of Southern California

    Online Programs: 70
    Type: Private
    Website

    The University of Southern California is California’s oldest private research university, and one of the best research universities in the world. USC has a strong history of innovation and has produced the fourth highest number of billionaire graduates of any university in the United States. While USC has a high sticker price, they’re one of the highest ranked universities to regularly offer half and full tuition merit scholarships, leading to the revered spot of being the 4th most economically diverse university in the nation. 70 programs are offered online, 69 at the masters level. A large portion of online offerings are in computer science, engineering, and green technology fields. And as a university it’s hard to do better for networking in these fields, with USC alumni founding a number of large tech companies: Myspace, Lucasfilm, Salesforce.com, Intuit, Riot Games, Tinder, and Qualcomm. According to US News, USC comes in second behind their cross-town rival UCLA for online graduate engineering degrees.

  • 2. University of California-Los Angeles

    Online Programs: 27
    Type: Public
    Website

    The University of California Los Angeles is routinely ranked as one of the twenty best universities in the world by a number of ranking institutions. While generally seen as at least as prestigious as their cross-town rival USC, their online offerings are more limited (though still expansive). UCLA offers 27 online degrees, split fairly evenly between undergraduate and masters level offerings. With over ten undergraduate offerings, UCLA is perhaps the most prestigious college in the nation to offer baccalaureate degrees online. And as a public institution their fees are generally lower than USC. Education and nursing graduate degrees are most heavily represented in UCLA’s online offerings, and are presented by two departments routinely ranked in the top 20 in the nation. With online education, it’s hard to attend a better school than UCLA, particularly if you’re living in California during your education.

  • 3. Azusa Pacific University

    Online Programs: 23
    Type: Private
    Website

    Azusu Pacific University is a private Wesleyan-Holiness, evangelical Christian university located close to Los Angeles. APU is the second largest Evangelical Christian student body in the United States, and the highest ranked religiously affiliated program in our ranking. 23 programs are offered fully online through Azusa Pacific University, and it’s our top ranked program to offer associates degrees fully online. Associates offerings include a general associates of the arts, and a healthcare administration route. 6 bachelors level offerings are available largely in business and health care. While a number of masters degrees-largely in education disciplines- are also available.

  • 4. Hope International University

    Online Programs: 29
    Type: Private
    Website

    Hope International University is a private religious university whose brick and mortar location is located in Fullerton, California. While the university is non-denominational, it has strong ties to the Restoration Movement as well as Church of Christ denomination. 29 degrees are offered fully online including one associates-level offering, nine bachelors level offerings, and nineteen masters level programs. Masters level online programs largely consist of various specializations in masters of management, as well as masters degrees in ministry. Bachelors level offerings are in liberal studies/teacher preperation, as well as human development.

  • 5. California Baptist University

    Online Programs: 40
    Type: Private
    Website

    California Baptist University is a private, Baptist liberal arts college located in Riverside California. The University is controlled by the California Southern Baptist Convention, and the third religiously affiliated program in our top 5 programs. 40 online programs are available through CBU, with about two thirds offered at the baccalaureate level. Available bachelors degrees include a wide range representative of the most popular offerings of most undergraduate colleges. Graduate degrees are largely comprised of masters of science in education. Graduate level education and business administration programs are routinely recognized for some of the best faculty credentials of online schools in the nation. While accelerated programming helps to lower time until degree as well as the total cost of programs. For an online religiously-affiliated education based in California, it’s hard to do better than California Baptist University.

  • 6. Biola University

    Online Programs: 11
    Type: Private
    Website

    Biola University is a private Christian University located less than 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. The university is one of the more religious presented in our ranking, with Biola standing for the original name of the university: Bible Institute of Los Angeles. Today the university is non-denominational but largely comprised of Baptist and Evangelical Free students. Over 40 courses of study are offered at the university from bachelors through doctoral level. Eleven offerings are available online, largely centered around MA in teaching degrees. Biola also offers online offerings for high schoolers as well as a database of open online learning opportunnities on Christian academic topics. For Christian educators trying to further their careers, Biola is one of the best online learning options for the state of California.

  • 7. National University

    Online Programs: 95
    Type: Private
    Website

    National University is the second largest institution of higher education in California, and the twelfth largest in the United States. Beginning in 1996 the university jumped into online education, one of the first universities in the world to do so. NU also has campuses throughout several states, and fourteen in California. This makes the University a great choice for students looking to take advantage of in-person support services during their online education.Degrees are offered from associates through doctoral levels, and include many options for teaching licensure. With 95 online programs, NU has the most expansive online offerings of any online-degree granting institution in California. Their education offerings are particularly mainstream, with NU holding teaching contracts with 643 California school districts. 70% of all teachers in San Diego recieved their licensure through NU. NU is also often noted for being one of the top schools for servicemembers or veterans.

  • 8. Brandman University

    Online Programs: 55
    Type: Private
    Website

    Brandman University is a private, not-for profit university with over 25 campuses throughout California and Washington. Centered around providing educational opportunities for working adults, Brandman structures their curriculum around the IDEAL model (Instructional Design for Engaged Adult Learning). The IDEAL model blends flexibility and learning strategies preffered by many adult learners. Currently 55 online degrees are offered at the associates through masters level. Degree offerings are particularly job-centered, with many programs in business, technology, criminal justice, and education. Teacher credentialing is also offered online. For servicemembers stationed in California (as well as veterans), Brandman is often reffered to as one of the most military friendly schools in the US.

  • 9. Golden Gate University

    Online Programs: 47
    Type: Private
    Website

    Golden Gate University is a private nonprofit university located in the financial district of San Francisco. One of the few online universities with a campuses in the Bay Area in our ranking, GGU specializes in continuing education for professionals through its schools for law, business, taxation, and accounting. Undergraduate offerings are practical and geared towards adult learners with generous transfer policies and prior learning experience credits. Degrees are primarily in business and management fields at the undergraduate level. At the graduate level offerings are slightly more diverse and include business, management, psychology, public administraiton, and law. The school is one of two in the state of California that offers an online law degree. GGU offers one of the widest spreads of online programs of any California schools ranked.

  • 10. Pepperdine University

    Online Programs: 7
    Type: Private
    Website

    Pepperdine University is a private research university associated with the Churches of Christ located in Los Angeles County (Malibu). Pepperdine is one of the most prestigious institutions offering online courses in California, and though offerings are more slim than other schools in our ranking they do cover a number of in-demand subjects. Masters in business administration degrees are available online with concentrations in finance, general management, leadership, and marketing. A MA in learning technologies is also available. Pepperdine is generally ranked in the top 60 research institutions in the nation.

  • 11. California State University-Fullerton

    Online Programs: 10
    Type: Public
    Website

    California State University at Fullerton is a public research university that is part of one of the 23 campuses of the California State University system. The University offers 240 degrees, half of which are at the bachelors level. Roughly the other half of degrees offered are masters level, with three doctoral degrees. Online offerings are largely centered around masters degrees in education as well as in environmental engineering, information technology, and software engineering. Bachelors degrees in business administration are sociology are also offered online. CSU Fullerton is designated as both a Hispanic-serving institution as well as an an Asian American Pacific Islander American and Native American serving institution.

  • 12. California State University-East Bay

    Online Programs: 20
    Type: Public
    Website

    California State University, East Bay is a public research university located in Hayward, California, and tasked with serving the eastern Bay Area. The university is known as a top masters granting institution in the west, with strong programs in business, education, as well as music. CSU East Bay is also noted for their sustinability efforts, with large solar arrays and as one of the first universities in the country to begin working on a fuel cell. The University began an aggresive building program in 2005, and has since opened state-of-the-art facilities for business, technology management, engineering, multimedia, science, and online degree programs. Online offerings include a wide array of bachelors level offerings as well as a handful of masters degrees.

  • 13. University of La Verne

    Online Programs: 5
    Type: Private
    Website

    The University of La Verne is a private not-for-profit religious university located in La Verne, with a number of smaller campuses spread throughout the greater Los Angeles region. On the religious front, the University of La Verne is associated with the denomination of the Church of the Brethren. Online offerings include bachelors of science degrees in business administration, organizational management, and public administration. Masters level offerings include a masters in child development and an MBA. The University is classified as a ranked national university, with a wide range of traditional undergraduate and graduate programs, and a newly ABA accredited law school.

  • 14. California State University-Northridge

    Online Programs: 12
    Type: Public
    Website

    California State University, Northridge is a public research university located in the San Fernando Valley portion of Los Angeles. The University is the largest in the California State University and is the second largest comprehensive university in California behind UCLA. University offerings are primarily offered at the bachelors and masters level, with 134 programs in total. Three doctoral programs are also offered. The University is one of the top 10 in the nation for awarding bachelors degrees to minorities, and is noted for hosting the Center for Deafness as well as the International Conference on Technology and People with Disabilities. Online offerings center around masters level programs largely in education and business. Several programs play to university and regional strenghts, including a masters in music industry administration, tourism, as well as a number of education programs centered around special education.

  • 15. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology at Irvine

    Online Programs: 21
    Type: Private
    Website

    The Chicago School of Professional Psychology is a private graduate university specializaing in psychology and related disciplines. Currently undergraduate offerings are limited to B.A. degree completion only. Campuses are located across the country, with one in Irvine, California, directly next to UC Irvine. The university is often lauded as being a leader in diversity and multicultural learning. 21 online programs are offered through their Irvine location, including their degree completion program for bachelors level students. A large number of masters degrees in psychology are offered online, many leading to licensure. Example offerings include masters in psychology with concentrations in international psychology, sport and exercise psychology, applied behavior analysis, industrial psychology, and so forth. Doctoral offerings in psychology are also available.

Monitoring the accreditation of a university you are interested in attending is incredibly important. Accreditation ensures your credits can transfer that you can receive Federal financial aid, and most importantly that certain standards of educational quality are during your schooling. The highest accreditation standard for most programs in the United States is provided by regional accreditation agencies. The regional accrediting agency for California is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of six regional accrediting agencies responsible for accrediting schools in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the northern Marianas Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, the Pacific Rim, East Asia, and Tokyo.

Making sure that a University you’re hoping to attend is regionally accredited — or accredited by a real and respected accrediting agency — is one of the most important choices you can make in ensuring the quality of your education.

Three Steps for Securing Financial Aid

  • Submit your FAFSA.
  • Check to see if additional forms are needed at your university of choice.
  • Search and apply for private scholarships.

Through the previous three steps most students find themselves offered some sort of federal grant, work study, private grant, scholarship, or stipend.

Great California Higher Education Resources

  • California-Specific Scholarships are available for a variety of demographics, skill sets, and even just for living in the right town. Here’s the largest database of California specific scholarships.
  • Scholarshare is California’s 529 college savings plan, enabling parents and grandparents to recieve tax benefits from beginning to plan for college early.
  • The California Student Aid Commission is in charge of overseeing a wide range of grants and initiatives for increasing accessibility to California schools. check out their list of financial aid programs here.
  • Eligibility in the Local Context is a program offering many local Californians access to the UC system. Check out their guidelines for determining if you qualify as a local here.
  • There are 113 community colleges in California. Check out the official site of all public community colleges in the state here.
  • Interested in attending a school in the California State University System? Check out the system’s site here.
  • Interested in attending a location of the California University System? Start by checking out their site here.
  • The California Career Center is a resource provided by the California Career Network that provides career planning, education planning, and money management advice for students from middle school through grad school.
  • The California Community Colleges Map allows students to explore the location of all community colleges in the state, finding those closest to where they are or want to be.
  • The California Community College Database is provided by the Chancellor’s Office of the CCC, and provides a way to search for community colleges in California by a number of criteria.
  • The California Virtual Campus Course Catalog provides a database of thousands of online courses provided through public schools in California.
  • A Degree With a Guarantee outlines the ways in which community college students in California can receive guaranteed admittance to the California State University system.
  • Career Cafe is a virtual career services forum for students of Californian Community Colleges.
  • Free and easy to understand data on entry requirements for every public school in California
  • Assist is a network of student submitted reports on what credits transfer from one institution of higher education to another.
  • Admissions requirements and regulations for Universities in California.

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