California has two state university systems: California State Universities, and Universities of California. The University of California (UC) system includes nationally ranked schools in Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Davis. However, the state’s educational offerings go beyond brick-and-mortar institutions. Online learning is growing faster than ever in California, with the state’s community colleges leading the way. As the largest higher education system in the United States, California Community Colleges enrolls 2.1 million students in its 114 schools. The school system will soon add an entirely online community college, in an attempt to help the 2.5 million adults in California who are unable to attend college in-person. California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2018-19 budget plan devoted $120 million to the online community college, which will enroll its first students by late 2019.
This guide provides an introduction to online education in California, including the state’s best and most affordable online colleges. It also includes information on higher education tuition, scholarship and financial aid opportunities, and job outlooks for graduates.
A Brief Overview of Higher Education in California
California has more colleges and universities than any other state in the country. In the 2015-16 school year, the state’s 448 schools composed nearly 10% of all degree-granting, postsecondary institutions in the United States, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The NCES breaks down higher education institutions into three categories: public, nonprofit, and for-profit. California has an even distribution of the three, including 150 public schools, 148 nonprofits, and 150 for-profit universities. These institutions enrolled 2.7 million students in 2016 — the highest student enrollment of any state in the nation, according to the NCES.
Tuition and fees at California’s four-year public schools are comparable to most other state school systems. During the 2017-18 school year, California’s in-state students paid $9,680 in tuition and fees, while out-of-state students paid $32,590, according to data from the College Board. That same year, in-state students at the University of California’s flagship institution, UC Berkeley, paid $13,928 in tuition and fees, while out-of-state students paid $41,942.
Students attending online schools in California have several different grant and aid options. In the 2015-16 academic year, the state’s primary need-based grant program awarded students more than $1.85 billion, according to the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs (NASSGAP). Other need-based grants provided more than $44.2 million in aid that year. The state also awards grants to students not in need. According to the NASSGAP, the California National Guard Education Assistance Award Program gave about $2.45 million to nearly 400 recipients in the 2015-16 school year.
The State of Online Higher Education in California
Online higher education was slow to gain traction in California at first, but has picked up steam in recent years. The Babson Survey Research Group’s 2017 Distance Education State Almanac found that 9% of undergraduate and graduate students in California’s degree-granting higher education institutions were enrolled in fully online programs in 2015. At the same time, 23% of California’s students took at least one distance class in fall 2015, an 18% increase from the fall of 2012.
The California Community Colleges system aims to increase its student population taking online courses, and it plans to do so through California’s Online Education Initiative (OEI). The OEI improves student access to online education by providing community colleges with resources to develop online courses. California Community Colleges has worked in recent years to improve online learning programs, after a 2015 UC Davis study found that students enrolled in online classes between 2008 and 2012 had lower grades and course completion rates than their on-campus counterparts. Since introducing more resources, including online student counseling and tutoring, performance has improved. About two-thirds of online students finished their classes in the 2015-16 school year, when only about half that number did so a decade prio. Additionally, the number of community college students who enroll in online courses has doubled in the past decade: Now, around one in three students takes at least one online class.
Students evaluating online schools in California can expect an increase in online learning opportunities in the coming years. The OEI announced in June 2018 that it increased the number of colleges in its consortium from 23 to 56. This means nearly half of all California community colleges have expanded, or are in the process of expanding, their online program offerings, allowing more students to take advantage of distance learning.
Tuition Breaks for Out-of-State Students
High out-of-state costs for California universities may be off-putting to some students, but many students who are not California residents qualify for tuition breaks, thanks to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). The WICHE is a nonprofit organization that facilitates resource-sharing among higher education institutions in 16 western states, including California.
The WICHE coordinates the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) and the Western Regional Graduate Program (WRGP), which allow students from member states and U.S. territories to attend schools outside their home states without having to pay out-of-state tuition. The WUE allows undergraduates to attend any of the 150 participating two- and four-year public schools for 150% of resident tuition. The WRGP includes more than 400 graduate programs at 60 public institutions, and allows out-of-state students to pay resident tuition. The WICHE estimates that graduate students saved $24.1 million and undergraduate students saved more than $365.4 million in tuition from these programs in the 2017-18 school year.
Best Online Colleges in California
Below, you will find our rankings of the best online four-year programs in California. Our profiles look at how schools approach online education and then list out their services for distance students and their popular, fully online degrees. After reviewing the best online schools in California, explore our state resources, like a database of every college and university in California or our index of popular in-state scholarships.
|Rank||School Name||School Logo||City||Cost||Address & Contact Info||School Links||Acclaim for Online Programs||School Description|
|1||University of California - San Diego||La Jolla||$$$$$||9500 Gilman Dr|
La Jolla, CA 92093
UCSD makes learning flexible by offering online options for busy students. One of the top online schools in California, UCSD offers a variety of online degrees, as well as online certification programs, such as gifted and talented education, biotechnology project management, and embedded computer engineering. Online students access lectures at their leisure and can pause, rewind, and rewatch them as needed, and online learning platforms are compatible with different schedules and technology. Application requirements for UCSD’s online programs are the same as for admittance to its La Jolla campus. Financial aid and scholarships are available based on need and merit.
|2||Brandman University||Irvine||$$$$$||16355 Laguna Canyon Road|
Irvine, CA 92618
U.S. News & World Report has ranked BU’s online degree program as a top school for the past five years. With online lectures and virtual classrooms available 24/7, BU is certainly one of the best online schools in California. Learning for both online and on-campus students follows BU’s “IDEAL” model: instructional design for engaged adult learning. Online students choose between fully online and hybrid formats; the latter involves a mix of online courses and traditional classroom settings. BU offers online bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and certifications in concentrations such as criminal justice, early childhood education, and marketing. Classes are offered in year-round sessions, and registration is available on a rolling basis.
|3||University of California - Santa Cruz||Santa Cruz||$$$$$||1156 High St|
Santa Cruz, CA 95064-1011
UC Santa Cruz offers accessible, fully online programs to fit any schedule. Students can also choose a hybrid education, with a mix of online and on-campus classes, which maintains the flexibility of an online program while allowing students to engage with teaching staff and course materials, as well as to network and collaborate with peers. UCSC boasts one of the top online colleges in California, offering five fully online degrees—internet programming, project management, technical writing, computer programming and legal studies—with many more available through its hybrid program. Teaching staff responds to online students’ inquiries with the same priority level as on-campus students, oftentimes within 24 hours.
|4||California Baptist University||Riverside||$$$$$||8432 Magnolia Ave|
Riverside, CA 92504-3297
CBU’s fully accredited online college is recognized by Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), meaning degrees are recognized and valued by schools, companies, and industries nationwide. California Baptist offers courses year round, with enrollment operating on a rolling basis, and its academic year spans three semesters, with classes beginning every eight weeks. As a WASC-recognized program and one of the best online schools in California, CSU simplifies the transfer process between WASC-institutions. CBU offers fully online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in an array of subjects, as well as accelerated degree programs. Hybrid formats are also available.
|5||California State University - Fullerton||Fullerton||$$$$$||800 N State College Blvd|
Fullerton, CA 92831-3599
CSUF offers two online bachelor’s degrees, in sociology and business administration, both of which may be completed fully online or in a hybrid format. Instructors lead the same courses online as they do on campus, guaranteeing that online students receive the same quality education as on-campus students. As one of the best online colleges in California, CSUF’s instructors provide the same level of priority to inquiries from online students as from on-campus learners. CSUF’s sociology program is based on a practical approach to communication and interaction, with a focus on interpersonal relationships. The business administration program is geared toward professionals who aspire to managerial roles.
|6||University of La Verne||La Verne||$$$$$||1950 Third St|
La Verne, CA 91750-4401
For more than 40 years, ULV has been one of the best online colleges in California, offering flexible courses and degree programs to make higher education accessible. ULV offers online bachelor’s and graduate degrees, with BA options including business administration, organizational management, and public administration. Three online graduate degrees are available: business administration, child development, and leadership and management. ULV’s accredited online school offers options for full-time and part-time students; full-time status requires eight unites, and part-time students should take four. As one of the top online schools in California, ULV offers both quality and flexibility in its online programs.
|7||California State University - Channel Islands||Camarillo||$$$$$||One University Dr|
Camarillo, CA 93012
CSU Channel Islands offers a wide array of online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. Additionally, CSUCI boasts a large number of certification opportunities, making it one of the most comprehensive online colleges in California. CSUCI’s online programs are endorsed by the greater Cal State school system and offer the same coursework as any on-campus programs. Online bachelor’s degree options include computer and information sciences, human development, and social sciences. Master’s programs include education, library sciences, and many more. Two online doctorates are available: education and health professions and health management. CSUCI is working with Cal State to expand offered online degrees in the coming years.
|8||National University||La Jolla||$$$$$||11255 North Torrey Pines Road|
La Jolla, CA 92037-1011
NU offers 118 online degree options, including certificates, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees. NU is unique from other online colleges in California in that it deviates from the traditional semester system; students enroll in one class per month. By taking one class at a time, students devote more focus to the subject, which enhances their learning experience. This method also increases enrollment flexibility; NU accepts new students at the beginning of each month, but applications are open year round. NU accepts transfer students from across the country, and online credits earned through NU are easy to transfer to other accredited universities.
|9||University of San Francisco||San Francisco||$$$$$||2130 Fulton St|
San Francisco, CA 94117-1080
Students can enroll in USF online programs at the beginning of spring, summer, or fall semesters. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. As one of the best online schools in California, USF offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees with the option to enroll in the honors program, which requires a 3.7 GPA or above. All undergraduate students are required to complete the general education classes outlined in the school’s core curriculum, including foundational courses in communication, math and sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Students also complete a service learning requirement, which involves community engagement and is considered a capstone learning project.
|10||Fresno Pacific University||Fresno||$$$$$||1717 S Chestnut Ave|
Fresno, CA 93702-4709
FPU is the Central Valley’s only accredited university founded in Christian teaching. FPU offers a number of bachelor’s degree completion programs. Although the online school does not offer start-to-finish bachelor’s degree programs, FPU accepts transfer credits from accredited institutions and allows students to complete degrees on campus and/or online. Alternatively, bachelor’s degree holders can earn master’s degrees entirely at FPU. One of the best online colleges in California, FPU offers online biblical seminary programs, such as Mennonite brethren studies and ministry, leadership, and culture. At Fresno Pacific University, online students are guaranteed the same quality education as on-campus students.
|11||California State University - Chico||Chico||$$$$$||First and Normal Sts|
Chico, CA 95929-0150
CSUC is one of the most flexible online colleges in California, offering fully online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Online students watch live video streaming of lectures, in addition to having 24/7 online access to full lectures and course materials. Requirements and processes are the same for admittance to CSUC’s online programs as for the on-campus college. Online students can opt for fully online programs or hybrid programs, which allow students to choose which courses they take on campus and which they take online. Courses are offered in the summer and winter or in “special” sessions. CSUC offers three bachelor’s programs—social science, liberal studies, and sociology—as well as a master’s degree in nursing and a certification in career and life planning.
|12||Vanguard University of Southern California||Costa Mesa||$$$$$||55 Fair Dr|
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
VU offers online associate and bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education. Bachelor’s degree holders can also earn an online master’s of science in nursing, which is only available in a hybrid format; some classes are not available online. Unlike other online schools in California, VU’s entirely online degrees are taught in an accelerated five-week format, and students can earn their master’s in nursing over the course of six semesters. The master’s degree also requires the completion of one faith-based thesis project addressing a need within the community. Online students have access to VU’s 60,000 ebooks and over 80 online databases.
|13||California State University - San Bernardino||San Bernardino||$$$$$||5500 University Pky|
San Bernardino, CA 92407-2397
Online students at CSUSB can earn bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice or master’s degrees in business administration, education, or social work. Online courses are part of CSUSB’s Extended Learning Program and were developed with working professionals in mind. This is one of the most accessible online colleges in California for those who are employed full time or have daily responsibilities; online course materials are available at all hours. Professors respond to inquiries within twenty-four hours and value online students as much as on-campus learners. CSUSB also offers a number of accredited online certification programs in business, education, and health services.
|14||University College - Azusa Pacific University||San Dimas||$$$$$||300 North Lone Hill Avenue, #200|
San Dimas, CA 91773
Online students at APU choose from thirty-five fully online degree programs, including associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. APU is one of the top online schools in California and offers programs in fully online and hybrid formats, as well as a number of accredited certification programs. Online degree options include a bachelor’s of arts in applied psychology, a master’s of arts in educational leadership, and a certification in pre-nursing/health sciences. Online students have 24/7 access to course materials, including recorded lectures, notes, readings, and discussion forums. APU also encourages online learners to use webcams to speak with instructors in real time.
|15||Simpson University||Redding||$$$$$||2211 College View Drive|
Redding, CA 96003-8606
SU offers some of the most intensive courses of online colleges in California. Degrees are completed over five weeks, following a Monday-through-Sunday format—students take classes seven days a week. Class assignments given throughout the week are due at the beginning of the following week. Each course students take at SU are with the same group of students; this group-based approach to learning builds community and understanding and allows students to comfortably collaborate and trade ideas. Each student and professor is given an SU Skype account to facilitate face-to-face interaction between students and faculty. SU currently offers two fully online bachelor’s degree programs: psychology and organizational leadership.
|16||Touro University Worldwide||Los Alamitos||$$$$$||10601 Calle Lee #179|
Los Alamitos, CA 90720
TUW is a Jewish faith-based military university with an extensive list of online degree programs. One of the top online colleges in California, TUW offers degree programs in four key divisions of study: business and management, psychology, health and human services, and general studies. Bachelor’s degree programs are completed in eight weeks, except in the case of transfer students, who may submit up to 90 credit hours from accredited universities or institutions. Students are required to participate in a minimum of two thread discussions each week and complete an average of three graded assignments per course, such as reflective essays and case assignments.
|17||Mount Saint Mary's University||Los Angeles||$$$$$||12001 Chalon Rd|
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1599
MSMU is a not-for-profit university with one of the top online colleges in California, offering online bachelor’s degrees in fields such as accounting, business management, criminology, and health sciences. Programs can be completed entirely online or in a hybrid format, which involves taking some courses online and others on campus. MSMU takes a project-based approach to learning; students complete a series of comprehensive projects over eight weeks of instruction, applying classroom knowledge to real-world situations. This learning approach enhances students’ practical skills. New enrollment cycles begin every eight weeks, and MSMU offers financial aid and scholarships to eligible students.
|18||California State University - Sacramento||Sacramento||$$$$$||6000 J St|
Sacramento, CA 95819-2694
CSUS online students obtain bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in a variety of fields. Bachelor’s degrees include business and management, fine Arts, education, and human development, and students earn master’s degrees in such areas as agriculture and natural resources, engineering, and social sciences. Two degree programs, health sciences and education, are offered fully online, while other options are available in a hybrid format. At over 56%, more than twice the national average, CSUS is one of the top online schools in California for minority enrollment. Cal State is dedicated to online learning and continues to develop additional degree programs.
|19||California State University - East Bay||Hayward||$$$$$||25800 Carlos Bee Blvd|
Hayward, CA 94542
CSUEB offers a broad range of bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, including bachelor’s degrees in human development, business administration, and hospitality and tourism and master’s degrees in education, educational leadership, healthcare, and hospitality and tourism. CSUEB is one of the best online colleges in California when it comes to ensuring students’ access to online coursework, with backup servers on campus and at numerous off-campus locations. Students log on to the school’s online learning platforms three to four times per week to take part in student discussions and hand in assignments. Transfer students may enroll with a maximum of seventy semester units from accredited universities.
|20||Hope International University||Fullerton||$$$$$||2500 E Nutwood Ave|
Fullerton, CA 92831-3199
Online students at HIU complete associate degrees in the arts, as well as bachelor’s degrees in teacher preparation, business administration, Christian ministry, and human development. Flexible learning opportunities and off-campus resources, such as lectures, notes, and assignments are available to HIU online students at all times. Students conference with professors and students using video chat, drop boxes, and discussion forums and are required to contribute to discussion forums, which encourages collaboration among distance learners. HIU is one of the top online schools in California, and its student website allows all HIU students access to course materials, syllabi, and the school’s online library.
|21||San Diego Christian College||Santee||$$$$$||200 Riverview Parkway|
Santee, CA 92071
SDC is one the leading Christian online schools in California, balancing academic learning with spiritual and ethical principles. Students can attend classes fully online, fully on campus, or in a hybrid format. SDCC currently has residency requirements for all students; therefore degree programs can only be completed with some level of on-campus participation. SDC has one of the widest ranges of degree options of online colleges in California, with available bachelor’s degrees including aviation management, business management, communications, liberal studies, and many others. SDCC maintains affordable tuition for low-income students and provides a plethora of financial aid options for qualifying students.
|22||California College San Diego||San Diego||$$$$$|
San Diego, CA
Online courses at CCSD are offered through the college’s affiliated school: Independence University. IU offers classes fully online or in a hybrid format, in which students take some classes at CCSD’s campus. Associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs are available in both formats. Bachelor’s degrees include computer science, accounting, nursing, and graphic arts. IU offers a range of master’s degrees, including information systems, business administration, and nurse education, among others. IU of the best online schools in California, and CCSD clearly marks online classes in the course catalog to make locating them easy. CCSD is a not-for-profit institution that uses tuition money to provide academic and extracurricular programs for both on-campus and online students.
|23||Golden Gate University - San Francisco||San Francisco||$$$$$||536 Mission Street|
San Francisco, CA 94105-2968
GGUSF offers a number of fully online bachelor’s degree programs, including business management, international business, and financial planning. Using GGUSF’s online learning platform, students access online classrooms, lecture notes, and discussion boards. The online classroom delivers class lectures, course materials, and discussion forums, where students take part in weekly discussions about course materials—GGUSF believes student collaboration is vital for distance learners. While courses are offered fully online, students may only take one supervised examination per term. These examinations may be on paper or web-based, making this one of the best online schools in California for state residents. Students have 24-hour access to the help desk and can contact instructors by phone or email.
|24||Pacific Oaks College||Pasadena||$$$$$||55 Eureka Street|
Pasadena, CA 91103
POC offers four fully online bachelor’s degree programs: early childhood education, early childhood education with preliminary multiple subject teaching credential, early childhood education with dual credential, and human development. These courses are designed for students with associate degrees or 60 hours of transfer credits; students cannot complete an entire bachelor’s degree at POC. This is one of the best online colleges in California for adult learners; the “credit for learning” program allows students to earn 30 hours of credit through work or volunteer experience. CFL students take a placement test and provide letters of recommendation or proof of employment. Online programs at PAO are offered only to California residents.
|25||San Francisco Art Institute||San Francisco||$$$$$||800 Chestnut St|
San Francisco, CA 94133-2299
SFAI is one of the top schools in California for artistic design and creativity. Since 2002, SFAI has offered online courses consisting of the same coursework as on-campus classes. Online bachelor’s degree programs include architectural design, communications and media technologies, and fashion journalism, with additional programs available in a hybrid format. SFAI also offers various associate and master’s degrees, as well as a number of certification options. Course content is divided among 15 segments spread throughout each semester and consists of instructional videos, lecture, slideshows, documentation, and interviews. All course materials are available to online students at the beginning of each semester.
Most Affordable Online Colleges in California
Below you’ll find a list of online colleges in California sorted by lowest tuition rates.
|Rank||School Name||School Logo||City||School Link||Cost|
|1||California State University - Fullerton||Fullerton||School profile||$$$$$|
|2||California State University - Dominguez Hills||Carson||School profile||$$$$$|
|3||California State University - East Bay||Hayward||School profile||$$$$$|
|4||California State University - Sacramento||Sacramento||School profile||$$$$$|
|5||California State University - Chico||Chico||School profile||$$$$$|
|6||Touro University Worldwide||Los Alamitos||School profile||$$$$$|
|7||California State University - Channel Islands||Camarillo||School profile||$$$$$|
|8||Fresno Pacific University||Fresno||School profile||$$$$$|
|9||University College - Azusa Pacific University||San Dimas||School profile||$$$$$|
|10||National University||La Jolla||School profile||$$$$$|
|11||California College San Diego||San Diego||School profile||$$$$$|
|12||San Diego Christian College||Santee||School profile||$$$$$|
|13||Hope International University||Fullerton||School profile||$$$$$|
|14||California Baptist University||Riverside||School profile||$$$$$|
|15||Vanguard University of Southern California||Costa Mesa||School profile||$$$$$|
|16||Concordia University - Irvine||Irvine||School profile||$$$$$|
|17||University of La Verne||La Verne||School profile||$$$$$|
|18||Pepperdine University||Malibu||School profile||$$$$$|
Job Outlook for College Graduates in California
After earning their degree from online colleges in California, students may qualify for many different job opportunities there. California is a large and populous state, and a major job supplier: it employed nearly 16.7 million workers in May 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The state had a 4.2% unemployment rate in May 2018, which is slightly higher than the 3.8% national average. California jobs tend to pay well, too, with California’s mean annual salary reaching $57,190 in May of 2017.
Graduates starting a career in the personal care and service industry might have the best chances of finding a job in California. According to the BLS and the California Employment Development Department, this industry experienced a 47% employment growth from May 2011 to May 2016 — the highest employment growth in the state during that time. Personal care aides represented the fastest-growing occupation in the personal care and service industry. California’s construction and extraction industry grew the second-fastest in that time period (31%), with carpentry being the fastest-growing job in that industry.
Computer and mathematical occupations marked the third fastest-growing industry in California from 2011 to 2016. In 2017, software developers composed the largest portion of these workers, according to the BLS. Business and financial operations came in fourth place, with business operations specialists occupying most of the field. Food preparation and service-related occupations came in fifth place, with food preparation service workers populating most of the industry.
|May 2011 Employment||May 2016 Employment||Percent Change||Annual Mean Wage|
|Personal Care and Service Occupations||377,720||496,500||47.0%||$28,810|
|Construction and Extraction Occupations||458,240||601,680||31.3%||$58,010|
|Computer and Mathematical Occupations||447,600||580,040||29.6%||$105,380|
|Business and Financial Occupations||754,430||938,330||24.4%||$83,500|
|Food Preparation and Serving-Related Occupations||1,246,720||1,506,480||20.8%||$28,270|
Source: California Employment Development Department/BLS
Scholarships and Financial Aid in California
Pine Cone Foundation
Up to $5,500 over three years; open to high school seniors with financial need, who have learning disabilities and plan to attend a California community college.
P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education
$3,000; available to women whose education was interrupted for at least two years, who are now within two years of completing a certification or degree program.
California Association of Collectors Educational Scholarship Foundation
$1,500 to $2,500; open to high school juniors or seniors planning to attend an accredited college, university, or trade school. Applicants must write an essay on building and preserving good financial credit throughout college.
Friends of the California State Fair Scholarship Program
$1,000 to $2,500; open to high school and college students in California. Requirements vary by scholarship category.
Horatio Alger State Scholarship
$10,000; open to high school seniors with at least a 2.0 GPA, who have critical financial need and intend to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Golden Gate Restaurant Association Scholarship
Amount varies; applicants must be San Francisco Bay Area residents pursuing higher education in the culinary and hospitality field.
Coca-Cola Leaders of Promise Scholarship
$1,000; applicants must be Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society members with a GPA of at least 3.5.
Ralph Hale and Martha L. Ruppert Educational Scholarship
Up to $10,000; applicants must be graduating high school seniors or high school graduates, and have at least a 3.3 GPA. Applicants must be from San Mateo, San Francisco, or Santa Clara counties.
The Trustee Scholarship is available to incoming transfer students at Dominican University of California. The award is renewable for up to 3 years, or until recipient completes their undergraduate degree. A minimum GPA of 3.5 is required.
Ed Romeo SCTA Scholarship
$200; available to undergraduate students at four-year schools who are members of the Student California Teachers Association.
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