Here Are the Best Optometry Schools in California

When people think of high-stress, life-or-death scenarios, medical professions like heart surgeon and brain surgeon leap to mind. But every branch of medicine deals with our bodies and our health, making them all incredibly important. A mistake can have dire consequences for a patient’s quality of life. 

For that reason, the best indication of a medical school’s quality might not be its faculty or its research endowment, but its ultimate pass rates. By ultimate pass rate, we mean the percentage of students who pass the exams required by a discipline’s major governing body. These exams make sure that students have the knowledge and skills necessary to enter the profession. 

With that in mind, College Gazette presents this list of the best optometry schools in the state of California, ranked according to “ultimate pass rates” reported by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. Each of the three optometry schools in California boasts excellent rates, either meeting or exceeding national averages. 

All of that said, most people choosing a school don’t care about mere numbers. They want their college experience to be rich and rewarding. In addition to learning from excellent faculty, students want to work with committed students and gain exposure to cutting-edge equipment. If that’s you, take a look at this list. We’ll not only show you how students at these schools pass the ASCO exam, but also the other benefits of attendance. 


3. Western University of Health Sciences College of Optometry (Pomona, CA)

Western University of Health Sciences
Ryan Hoff, Campus of Western University of Health Sciences, CC BY-SA 4.0

At the Western University of Health Sciences College of Optometry, everyone from the students to the faculty to the staff adheres to one theme: building bridges. This focus drives everything the school does, including an academic program that follows the humanistic tradition and a biomedical research agenda based on enhancing and extending the quality of life in their communities.

The doctor of optometry program at WesternU College of Optometry exposes students to a range of treatment methods, including neuro-optometry, vision therapy, low vision rehabilitation, and care for those with developmental disabilities. The program combines classroom instruction, laboratories, pre-clinical experiences, and service learning with hands-on work, giving students access to patient care, an experience that culminates in full-time clinical rotations in the fourth year.

The program emphasizes neuro-optometry, providing students with a fuller understanding of neurological processes and pathology. In addition to requiring that students enroll in the medical school’s Neuroscience System course, students must take additional classes dedicated to the specialized discipline of neuro-optometric rehabilitation.

The program culminates in a fourth-year externship, during which students practice medicine under the supervision of their mentors, gaining hands-on experience. To ensure that they receive the most possible exposure to the variety of clinical settings, students rotate through four different sites, including private optometry or ophthalmology practices, Veterans Administration clinics, Indian Health Service clinics, armed forces facilities, and specialty clinics within WesternU. 

Students even have the opportunity to serve in international sites. In addition to presenting future physicians with a diverse patient base, these rotations teach patient management in primary care, vision rehabilitation, pediatrics, ocular disease, and surgical co-management. 

For those who wish to advance the field of optometry, WesternU College of Optometry offers elective research courses in which students partner with a faculty member on an independent research project. Projects include experiments in measuring visual acuity in adult zebrafish and comparison of retinal disease models, investigating ocular imaging and its use in glaucoma management, and evaluating the effects of accommodation on the peripheral optics of the human eye. At the end of the semester, students present their work to their peers. 

Ultimately, all of these resources serve to prepare students for entering the profession. To that end, WesternU College of Optometry succeeds brilliantly. Among the 71 members of the 2019-2020 cohort group, 81.69% passed the NBEO Part One on their first try. 87.32% passed the second part on their first try, and 84.51% passed Part Three. Ultimately, 90.14% passed the exam, proving their worthiness to become optometrists. 


2. Marshall B Ketchum University Southern California College of Optometry (Fullerton, CA)

With a history that stretches back to 1904, the Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University is one of the oldest such schools in the United States. From those historic roots, SCCO seeks to reimagine the future of health care education. The program emphasizes interprofessional learning, which brings together the three primary care disciplines. This approach prepares graduates to be part of patients’ primary health care team, who must work together to provide collaborative and effective patient care. To that end, SCCO’s curriculum engineers patient-care experiences that expose students to perspectives and approaches beyond the profession. The school believes that patients receive better treatment when optometrists, physician assistants, and pharmacists work together. 

The school holds to these values throughout each of the four years in the doctor of optometry program. In the first year, classroom instruction exposes students to the basic sciences and research techniques. In addition to courses such as geometrical and physical optics, biomedical sciences, visual sciences, students develop their basic ocular examination skills. 

During their second year, students take not only advanced visual science courses but also begin learning clinical techniques. In the second quarter of this year, students even begin treating their own patients at Ketchum Health. That practice continues through the third year, during which students take patient care assignments at Ketchum Health under the supervision of clinical faculty. Courses during this year cover topics such as contact lenses, vision therapy, diseases of the eye, ocular pharmacology, clinical optometry, and public health.

In their fourth year, students participate in SCCO’s Clinical Outreach Program, in which they work alongside other health care professionals in four 10–12-week rotations. One of these rotations occurs in the University Eye Center at Ketchum Health in Anaheim. The remaining three take place in clinically diverse student choice settings, including VA medical centers, HMOs, military bases, and sites overseas.

This focus on practical patient care works in tandem with the school’s commitment to research. Working in conjunction with those in the Physician Assistants and Pharmacy schools, SCCO students begin research projects as early as year one. 

Following the lead of Marshall B. Ketchum University faculty, students begin preparing to publish in journals and initiate ongoing research studies. With a choice of both research electives, which are pursued in collaboration with faculty advisors, and summer research internships with institutions such as UC Berkley and The Ohio State University, SCCO provides plenty of options for students. 

These features provide ample preparation for students moving into the field, as demonstrated by their NBEO pass rates. SCCO students consistently meet or exceed national ultimate pass rates, with 94% of the class of 2019 passing the exam. 


1. UC Berkeley School of Optometry (Berkeley, CA)

UC Berkeley
Zpwilliams, Bowles Residential Hall (UC Berkeley), CC BY-SA 4.0

With their most recent class passing the NBEO at a rate of 92.54%, well above the national average, the University of California-Berkeley School of Optometry takes the top spot on this list. 

Of course, such high numbers don’t happen by accident. Rather, it’s the result of a first-rate program, complete with a dedicated faculty and state-of-the-art resources. Those attributes have been in development since 1923 when the school was just the third university optometry program in the United States. In the years that followed, the school garnered an impressive list of faculty and alumni, including former presidents of the American Optometric Association and the American Academy of Optometry. 

Berkeley Optometry continues to develop its reputation on the foundation of a comprehensive curriculum. Although students take comprehensive classes in topics such as biology, optics, and pharmacology, coursework exists to supplement clinical training. From the very first day, students begin learning about clinical education, immediately performing preliminary examinations of the eye, and measuring refractive error. Students gain exposure to advanced clinical examination techniques by the end of their first year. 

Berkeley Optometry offers students a wide range of clinical options, ensuring exposure to a diverse body of patients. On campus, students can work in either the Meredith W. Morgan University Eye Center or the Tang Eye Center. Both options allow students to treat vision problems caused by diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, and diabetes. Around the Bay Area, the school operates ten satellite clinics, including locations in Rohnert Park, Novato, San Rafael, Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, Hayward, Fremont, and Santa Cruz. For those who wish to work with veterans, Berkeley Optometry operates VA-affiliated clinics in the area. Students can obtain year-long posts in these clinics to gain competency in clinical skills and scholarly development.

In their fourth year, students participate in three or more externships under the mentorship of adjunct clinical professors. These externships expose students to a greater diversity of patient populations and provide intensive training in the diagnosis, treatment, and management of visual disorders.

These programs result in a continuing history of excellence, as demonstrated by awards and accolades recently given to Berkeley Optometry students and faculty. The Alameda Contra Costa Counties Optometric Society recognized the school by selecting Dr. Katherine Lai as Young OD of the Year and Dean John Flanagan as OD of the Year. 

Earlier in the year, the American Academy of Optometry Foundation appointed faculty member Dr. Mika Moy to the board, citing her anterior segment disease, pediatrics, and neuro-optometry work.

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