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UC or CSU? Here's How to Pick What's Right for You
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UC or CSU? Here's How to Pick What's Right for You

For a better understanding of which public university system is the right fit for you, here’s a UC vs. Cal State guide to help you decide.


6 min read

February 02, 2021

Want to attend college in the Golden State but don’t know which public university system works best for you? You have nothing to worry about—we’ve got you covered. The University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) are both well-respected public university systems but have various differences. If you’re conflicted about applying to UC or CSU, there are several factors to keep in mind—affordability, admission process, location preferences, campus size, and academic ambitions. For a better understanding of which public university system is the right fit for you, here’s a UC vs. Cal State guide to help you decide. 

The Difference Between UC And CSU Colleges

It’s important to note that neither public university system is better than the other—as long as you know which one is best for you. One of the main differences between UC and CSU schools is their approaches to education. Those interested in advancing their career in academia, research, and theory skills should strongly consider attending a UC.  

Make no mistake—UC schools and Cal State Universities don't differ in their quality, but rather in their approaches to education.

UC Overview

Established in 1868, the University of California public research university system now consists of 10 campuses: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Merced. The UC schools have grown to have more than 280,000 students, 227,000 faculty and staff, and 2 million alumni living and working around the world. The UC system’s motto is fiat lux, meaning “Let there be light.”

Usually, the University of California schools have 20,000 or more undergraduates—the campuses are pretty large. The public university system offers 160 academic disciplines and 800 programs in total. The system’s newest school is UC Merced; it opened its doors in 2005. This campus has the smallest undergrad enrollment at only 8,000, whereas UC Los Angeles has the largest at 31,600. 

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The UCs are prestigious and top-ranked in the nation—getting into them is not that easy because of the extreme competition. Due to their world-class programs, the best UC schools are also among the most expensive universities. UC Merced has the highest acceptance rate at 72 percent; UC Los Angeles has the lowest at 12 percent. The average UC in-state tuition and fees are around $14,000, whereas out-of-state tuition can be as expensive as $44,000. Most students enrolled in UCs study law, medicine, dentistry, engineering, and pharmacy.

With an excellent reputation for research and theory-based education, the UC system awards students with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. When studying at a UC, you’ll usually have your classes in large seminar rooms packed with hundreds of students—some classes might even be taught by graduate students pursuing a PhD. Many professors teaching in the UC schools are actually doing research or publishing papers in their respective fields. The school system is designed in a way that allows students to engage and connect with professors doing research in the fields they’re interested in.    

While UC schools focus on research and academic publishing, CSU schools focus on helping students develop professional skills.

CSU Overview

The Cal State University system was established in 1857. It is the largest public four-year university system in the United States, with 23 campuses and eight off-campus centers. CSU schools are very popular thanks to their affordability. While the UC schools have campuses in major cities, Cal State universities are found in many smaller cities as well. The CSU system is the nation’s largest producer of bachelor’s degrees. The CSU system’s motto is vox, veritas, vita, which translates to “Voice, truth, life.”

Students enrolling in Cal State Universities are not looking to expand their education on research and theory, but rather to pursue practical and non-research-oriented careers. The CSUs offer hands-on education and help students prepare for getting licenses at higher levels. At these schools, the semester system also makes it easier for students to hold a job and get an education at the same time. Basically, the second you get your degree, you’re ready to work. 

Unlike the UC schools, Cal State Universities are not very competitive—CSUs offer over 1,800 programs in about 240 subject areas. The system consists of 480,000 students, 26,000 faculty, 25,000 staff, and around 3 million alumni with bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. CSU Bakersfield has the highest acceptance rate at 100 percent; Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo has the lowest acceptance rate at 28 percent.

Affordable education is one of the main reasons why students choose to go to Cal State schools. The average CSU out-of-state tuition and fees are around $16,000—slightly higher than the cost of UC in-state tuition. The in-state tuition at Cal State Universities is typically about $7,000. 

UC and Cal State schools have similar requirements for eligibility for admission, but the standards and competition can vary greatly across campuses.


When it comes to admission requirements, both UC and CSU universities demand students complete A–G courses, with a grade of C or better. The courses include History or Social Science, English, Mathematics, Laboratory Science, Foreign Language, Visual and Performing Arts, and College Preparatory Electives. Besides these basic admission requirements, each campus has its own standards. Since the UC schools are more competitive, they tend to be more selective.  

In sum: The UC vs. Cal State debate isn’t about which system is better, but rather which one you prefer based on your needs and interests. The UC schools are highly ranked and pretty expensive, whereas CSU schools are quite affordable and flexible. Remember that the quality of education isn’t a matter of question—the approach to education is. The UC schools focus on research and theory, while Cal State Universities prepare students with a career-oriented education. The UC schools are very competitive; CSU universities, not so much. 

The Best UC Schools

All nine UC undergraduate campuses are among the country's top 50 public universities—five of which are in the top 10. Unlike the rest of the UC schools, UC San Francisco specifically focuses on advanced research and graduate study in healthcare and life sciences. UC San Francisco is one of the best schools for biomedicine in the world; the top majors at the graduate-only university are AIDS, Internal Medicine, Drug and Alcohol Abuse, and Women’s Health. Here are the other best UC schools and the most popular majors. 

UC Los Angeles is the top-ranked public university in the country for undergraduate education. Four other UC schools also rank in the top 10.

1. UC Los Angeles

Top majors: Engineering, Psychology

2. UC Berkeley

Top majors: Statistics, Sociology, Media Studies

3. UC Santa Barbara

Top majors: Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Social Sciences

4. UC Irvine

Top majors: Chemistry, Earth System Science, Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy

5. UC San Diego

Top majors: Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering, Biology

6. UC Davis

Top majors: Agriculture, Veterinary Medicine, Biological Engineering, Agricultural Engineering

7. UC Santa Cruz

Top majors: Astrophysics, Marine Biology, Computer Science

8. UC Riverside

Top majors: Engineering, Business

9. UC Merced

Top major: Psychology

A List Of Cal State Universities

Since Cal State universities aren’t as selective and competitive as the UC schools, there isn’t much distinction between them. Out of all the CSU schools, San Diego State University and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo have the highest academic reputations and the lowest acceptance rates. If you’re still not sure whether you want to go to a UC or CSU school, here’s a list of Cal State universities from north to south. 

Aside from being one of the most beautiful campuses in California, San Diego State University also has a strong academic reputation.

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