Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
Between paying for rent, food, tuition, and books, going to college can quickly become expensive—and that’s not even factoring in nights out with friends, trips to see family members, or other back-to-school essentials. While loans and financial aid are great resources, having to think about paying them back after graduating is incredibly stressful (plus, they don’t always cover all of your expenses). So, if you’re searching for a great college experience without the super-high price tag, you might want to consider some college towns with a low cost of living.
Before you start envisioning the most affordable cities in California where there's nothing to do and all the other places you might not want to be, find comfort in knowing that these aren’t your typical middle-of-nowhere towns. These spots have tons of opportunities within their borders and in the miles beyond, allowing your college experience to be as action-packed or laid-back as you’d like to make it. Though there’s a lot of glitz and glamour to be found in the state’s large cities, these smaller towns have many of their own perks that go beyond savings.
When you first consider the cost of going off to college, you might assume that the cheapest college towns in California are run-down places you wouldn’t even want to visit. But the truth is that tons of towns across the state are affordable and offer coveted amenities. These inexpensive college towns have a lot to offer and come with a lower price tag, either because of the region’s affordability or the lower tuition costs.
Average one-bedroom rent: $732
Home to the University of California, Merced and Merced College, this San Joaquin Valley city is an excellent choice for saving some major moolah. While you might not expect it, the Central Valley is full of fun things to do, and Merced is conveniently located between Yosemite National Park and San Jose, so you’ll never run out of weekend adventures. When you’re not in class, go fruit picking with your friends and cruise along the city’s bike paths. Continue enjoying the outdoors with a trip to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge, local parks, the zoo, and the skate park to really take advantage of the city’s offerings.
Average one-bedroom rent: $882
Humboldt County is packed with redwood trees, hiking trails, and oceanic vistas, making it an ideal destination for nature-loving students. Located about six hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area and a few hours south of the Oregon border, Humboldt State University (HSU) is the northernmost college in the CSU system. HSU is renowned for its forestry department but has so much more to offer with its arts, gender studies, and environmental management classes.
After a long day at school, join the locals for slacklining, walk to the plaza to grab dinner, or walk over to the nearby park to lounge on the grass. On the weekends, drive to the neighboring city of Eureka to check out the historic downtown, or venture further to Fern Canyon for an unbelievable hike surrounded by walls of ferns. When it comes to remote small towns full of natural wonders, it doesn’t get much better than Arcata.
Average one-bedroom rent: $867
Nestled a couple of hours north of Sacramento, Chico is not only one of the cheapest college towns in the Golden State, but also one of the most charming. With plenty to do, see, and eat here, you’ll never run out of things to do in and around town when you’re not attending classes at California State University, Chico. While the quaint community was largely kept a secret in the past, the word is officially out on Chico, and it is one of the fastest-growing cities in California, so if you’re thinking of moving there, you might want to go sooner rather than later.
In your downtime, experience the Sacramento River by floating down it or fishing along the banks, and venture into the Mendocino and Tahoe National Forests for even more outdoor recreation. For a longer excursion, head down to the Bay Area or cruise over to Napa for the weekend. With everything so close, you can indulge in the amenities of city and country life without paying the high price. Since it’s a state school, Chico can also be considered to be one of the least expensive colleges around, with tuition costing under $8,000 per year.
Average one-bedroom rent: $788
Settled between the Los Padres and Sequoia National Forests, about 2.5-hours inland from Pismo Beach, Bakersfield is an unexpected yet awesome choice. The Kern River runs through town, many of California’s coveted destinations are located a short drive away, and the local parks and museums are great places to unwind after class.
Known for the California State University, Bakersfield, this region is also renowned for its almond production. On the weekends, stroll along the river, play a round of golf, and plan to watch the Bakersfield Condors play hockey when you can. If you’re looking to transfer to CSU Bakersfield after community college but still want to take advantage of the city’s low rent prices, consider attending Bakersfield College. This way, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the least expensive college tuition while simultaneously saving on living expenses.
Average one-bedroom rent: $1047
Tucked between Monterey and Kings Canyon National Park, Fresno is a town that’s often overlooked. Best known for California State University, Fresno, this city is located in the abundant Central Valley and is a hub for several of the Golden State’s top outdoor recreational attractions.
Spend your downtime exploring the national forests and national parks to the east, comparing the region’s produce at various U-pick farms to the north and south, and taking long drives out to the coast. If you’re staying in Fresno, make sure to visit the zoo, see the unique underground gardens, and wander around town to make the most of your time here.
If you’re still searching for your perfect campus and are less concerned about finding the lowest cost of living, check out the best college towns to live in and discover your ideal place to settle in.
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