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

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

December 12, 2023

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 essential to understand that no public university system holds an inherent advantage over the other; the key is identifying which system aligns best with your educational and career goals. A significant distinction between the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems lies in their educational philosophies. Individuals with aspirations towards a future in academia, research, or theoretical knowledge development may find the UC institutions particularly suited to their needs.  

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

UC Overview

Founded in 1868, the University of California has evolved into a comprehensive public research university system that includes 10 campuses: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Merced. Today, the UC system boasts a vibrant community of over 280,000 students and 227,000 faculty and staff members, with a global alumni network exceeding 2 million individuals. Embracing the motto "fiat lux," which translates to "Let there be light," the UC schools continue to illuminate knowledge and innovation across diverse fields.

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.    

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.”

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

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.  This isn't to discount the CSU's ability to contribute to research or high-end academic pursuits. However, due to them being state schools, they offer a wider variety of majors and programs that serve diverse city populations as a focus.

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, high quality 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. 


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. Just to reiterate, both offer excellent and high quality education. California has some of the best colleges in the nation at all levels.

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

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. 

1. UC Los Angeles

Top majors: Engineering, Psychology

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.

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

California State Universities (CSU) typically have more accessible admission processes compared to the more selective University of California (UC) institutions, leading to less variation in selectivity among them. Among the CSU campuses, San Diego State University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo stand out for their esteemed academic standing and more competitive admission rates. For those weighing the options between attending a UC or CSU institution and seeking a geographical perspective, here's an overview of Cal State universities arranged from the northern part of the state to the south.

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

While the California State University (CSU) system is known for its more inclusive selection criteria compared to the more competitive University of California (UC) schools, it's worth noting that each CSU campus has its unique strengths and offerings. Among them, San Diego State University and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, stand out for their distinguished academic programs and lower acceptance rates, highlighting their prestige within the CSU system. For those weighing the options between UC and CSU institutions, here is an organized list of CSU campuses, arranged geographically from the northern part of the state to the south:

This lineup offers a broad spectrum of locations and academic focuses, catering to a wide range of interests and professional paths.

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