The 10 Best Nursing Schools in California

The United States is currently experiencing a shortage of qualified nurses, and schools are racing to prepare tomorrow’s nurses for a variety of complex issues. Professional nurses are concerned with an individual’s total health, from preventing illness to caring for patients with long-term health problems. As such, nursing is both a science and an art. So, although nursing students study the sciences, they must also understand a range of cultural and behavioral issues. In addition, nurses need good critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

In California, the top nursing programs include both private and public institutions, and each has its strengths. Most—but not all—offer programs at the undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and postgraduate levels and offer degrees like the BSN and MSN (Bachelor or Master of Science in Nursing) and the DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice). Today, students need at least a BSN to sit for the NCLEX (National Council Licensing Examination), which is required to become a Registered Nurse.

Therefore, potential nursing students have many factors to consider when choosing an academic program. Of course, the strength of courses in the natural and social sciences is one aspect to consider. However, class size, research agendas, the ability of technologically advanced facilities, community partnerships, and graduates’ NCLEX pass rates are important, too. 

The following list of the top 10 schools of nursing in California is based on the rankings of Best Nursing Schools from U.S. News and World Report. In the event of a tie between two schools, the editorial team at College Gazette judges the tiebreaker.

10. Azusa Pacific University School of Nursing (Azusa, CA)

The Azusa Pacific University is a private, faith-based institution that started in 1899. The university offers innovative programs and small classes. Moreover, classes are available online or at one of eight locations in Southern California.

Because of the school’s high-impact experiences (like internships with community partners, mission trips, and working with the homeless) and the overall quality of nursing education, APU is ranked in several prestigious lists. It made the list of the Best Nursing Schools from the U.S. News and World Reports. Plus, in 2017, USA Today ranked the school among the top 9 colleges to earn a nursing degree. And in 2020-2021, ASU’s School of Nursing was also named a Nursing College of Distinction, one of only seven schools in California to receive this honor.

What’s more, all of APU’s new students receive some sort of financial aid, whether through scholarships, grants, or loans. For example, scholarships for incoming freshmen or transfer students range from the Mary Hill Award at $10,000 per year to the Trustees’ Scholarship, which covers 100% of a student’s tuition. In fact, high students can start to earn “micro-scholarships” for their scholastic and personal achievements before they even apply to ASU.

9. CSULA Patricia A. Chin School of Nursing (Los Angeles, CA)

California State University Los Angeles
Justefrain, CSULA Student Union BLDG, CC BY 3.0

The School of Nursing at California State’s LA campus was rated as the #76 program in the country, according to the U.S. News and World Reports. 

The school is committed to diversity, and the University is a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution, Minority-Serving Institution, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution. In fact, the nursing program received a Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award in 2017. But the school’s diversity expands beyond demographics and into the classroom; with the diverse curriculum, students can study everything from entrepreneurship as it relates to the nursing field to how to work with under-reached populations or marginalized groups.

Students in the Chin School of Nursing have many opportunities for service learning, including community health rotations and providing immunizations at the local Children’s Hospital. However, because nurses must work with teams of other professionals, students may be paired with those from other departments during service learning. For example, master’s students from the School of Nursing partner with Social Work students to provide services to the area’s homeless population. 

8. San Diego State University School of Nursing (San Diego, CA)

San Diego State University
Geographer, Sdsumain, CC BY 1.0

Although the School of Nursing at San Diego State University does not offer doctoral programs, undergraduate and graduate students can pursue several nursing degree options. U.S. News ranks the master’s program as #74 in the country. 

SDSU’s School of Nursing focuses on hands-on education. As such, it has four state-of-the-art labs that are open to students, including a Media Lab, Nursing Fundamentals Skills Lab, Health Assessment Lab, Sharp Healthcare Human Patient Simulation Center. Each one provides multiple opportunities to practice skills in an educational setting.

Moreover, all undergraduates programs in SDSU’s College of Health and Human Services—including nursing–have an international component. The goal of these experiences is to broaden students’ understanding of cross-cultural issues. For example, students examine how cultural, economic, and political factors play into global health. 

7. CSU-Fullerton School of Nursing (Fullerton, CA)

Offering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, many of Cal State-Fullerton’s nursing programs are nationally ranked. For example, U.S. News and World Report declared it’s the #63 best nursing school in the nation for master’s students. Moreover, in 2016 and 2017, some of the school’s programs—specifically, the graduate programs in Nurse Anesthesia and Nurse-Midwifery—were also ranked by U.S. News. 

The school’s accomplishments have much to do with the curriculum, which follows the Student Success Model. Basically, this approach encourages students, faculty, and staff to work together to prepare nurses to serve diverse populations in complex healthcare environments. In addition, all students engage in hands-on learning in some manner. This experimental learning may occur through research, in three different on-campus simulation labs, 11 partner hospitals, or other out-of-classroom activities. For instance, at the annual Community Action Poverty Simulation, students are exposed to real-life situations and learn how to meet the needs of low-income patients. 

6. University of San Francisco School of Nursing and Health Professions (San Francisco, CA)

University of San Francisco
Jallen8307, USF School of Nursing and Health Professions, CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of San Francisco offers a private liberal arts education in the Jesuit tradition, stressing justice for all and an understanding of diverse global perspectives. U.S. News and World Report ranks the school #53 among the best master’s programs in nursing. 

In addition to classroom instruction, students participate in activities that expand their viewpoints and help them reach underserved groups. As just one example, the school collaborates with the Department of Veteran Affairs Northern California Health Care System to provide care to veterans at the school’s Sacramento campus. Additional clinical rotation locations include Mercy San Juan Hospital and the Shriners Hospital. 

USF students are also encouraged to be active inside and outside the classroom. As a result, the school has several student organizations that help cohorts create networks, build leadership skills, and become advocates in the ever-changing healthcare industry. These associations also work to make changes on campus and advocate for additional training that nurses need. For instance, the Nursing Student Association saw the NEED for more certification classes on campus. As a result, students at USF can receive certificates in areas like Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support, Basic Life Support, Pediatric Advanced Life Support, and more.

5. University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science (San Diego, CA)

Unlike most of the other schools on this list of the best nursing schools in California, the University of San Diego does not offer an undergraduate bachelor’s program. Instead, this private, Catholic-based school offers several advanced degrees, including the DNP and MSN. However, students at USD can also pursue a Master of Science in Health Care Informatics and even a Ph.D. in Nursing, making USD somewhat unique in its offerings. Often ranked among the best nursing schools in the country, U.S. News and World Reports ranked the University of San Diego as the #46 best nursing school in the country; the doctoral program is also nationally ranked

Most of the students who come to the University of San Diego are already working nurses looking to further their career opportunities. And since the school caters to advanced professionals, there is a strong emphasis on research. Specifically, faculty research initiatives span from working with returning veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome to the depression often experienced among low-income mothers.

4. UC Irvine School of Nursing (Irvine, CA)

UC Irvine
Coolcaesar, UC Irvine Medical Center, CC BY-SA 3.0

U.S. News ranks the School of Nursing at the University of California at Irvine as the #45 master’s program in nursing in the country. Through bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and post-graduate programs, students receive an interdisciplinary education that ranges from biology to the behavioral, social, and pharmaceutical sciences. As such, the school has received over $17 million in grant funding to study diverse health care needs in HIV/AIDS management, mental health, health policies, pediatrics, and even promoting self-care.

The school’s focus on leadership development and community health is woven throughout the curriculum. In fact, faculty and students devote a combined 10,000 hours annually to work with local vulnerable groups, like the homeless, older adults, community members with mental health illnesses, and children attending schools in low-income neighborhoods. 

3. UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing (Sacramento, CA)

UC Davis
Veritas117, Ucdilo, CC BY 3.0

Although the school has a shorter history than many of the other schools in this top 10 list, the Moore School of Nursing has quickly established itself as one of the best nursing schools in California. In fact, the school was not established until 2009 after receiving a $100 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which was the country’s biggest grant for nursing education at the time. The master’s program was ranked the #24 program in the country by U.S. News and World Report in 2022. 

UC Davis has five innovative nursing programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels. All programs are led by an interprofessional team of faculty members from diverse disciplines, including nursing and medicine as well as sociology, public health, and nutrition. More specifically, the school has eliminated lecture-style classes and instead uses so-called flipped classrooms. That is, students are expected to review material before coming to class, where they engage in discussions about the material with their fellow classmates and faculty. This style of learning encourages collaboration and student-driven education.

2. UCLA School of Nursing (Los Angeles, CA)

UCLA School of Nursing
Rgale417, UCLA School of Nursing Building, CC BY-SA 4.0

UCLA’s School of Nursing has a national and international reputation for high standards in nursing education, applied research, and hands-on clinical experiences. The rigorous curriculum includes both classroom and clinical education settings. U.S. News and World Reports has ranked the school as #20 among graduate nursing schools. UCLA has a particularly top-notch faculty, with half of the members being fellows in the American Academy of Nursing, a prestigious academic honor.

UCLA has a very diverse student population with about a quarter of students being White, a quarter being of Hispanic descent, just under a quarter being Black, and the remainder belonging to American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander groups. The research centers are diverse, too, including the Center for Vulnerable Populations Research, the Center for American Indian/Indigenous Research and Education, and the Center for the Advancement of Gerontological Nursing Science. This range of initiatives reflects the school’s commitment to advancing health for all populations. Moreover, the UCLA School of Nursing is ranked as the number 9 institution for nursing grant research funded by the National Institutes of Health. 

1. UCSF School of Nursing (San Francisco, CA)

Payton Chung, Mission Bay, UCSF, CC BY 2.0

The School of Nursing at the University of California – San Francisco is frequently ranked among the top nursing schools in the country. Specifically, U.S. News has declared it to be the #9 school among master’s programs in nursing and the top nursing program in California. It’s also the #1 recipient of NIH (National Institutes of Health) funding in the U.S.

The school has master’s, doctoral, and post-graduate programs for students who already have bachelor’s degrees in nursing, but options are available for students who are not registered nurses, too. And although most of the applicants are California residents, UCSF also accepts non-California residents and international students. Plus, about 40% of UCSF’s students are from underrepresented communities, and about 58% are the first students in their families to attend college.

UCLA aims to create leaders in the health profession, as demonstrated by the research and outreach activities of the diverse faculty body. For example, several UCSF School of Nursing faculty members are working to change California health care through evidence-based research. The school has also received over $18 million in grants that support public health initiatives like improving newborn health in California and ending tobacco use.

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