The 10 Best West Coast Colleges in the US

Watch out, Ivy League. 

More students are applying to West Coast schools today than in any other region of the nation. 

Situated in picturesque, urban environments, the best West Coast colleges flaunt a warm climate and culturally diverse student body.

This list of the 10 best West Coast colleges in the United States could also serve as the 10 best colleges in California. 

It only makes sense that all of the schools on this list would hail from the state that comprises the vast majority of coastline in the western part of the country.

Why attend a West Coast school? 

There’s something for everyone – institutions in the list that follow have student populations ranging from under 1,000 to over 30,000. 

West Coast schools are also welcoming to international students; many of the colleges on this list rank as some of the best U.S. colleges for international students.

Though West Coast schools are generally younger than their more-established East Coast counterparts, one benefit of their youth is the recent design and innovation that define campus architecture and surrounding city infrastructure.

This list of the 10 best West Coast colleges in the U.S. was determined by where each school ranks on the list of best colleges

Read ahead to discover which California colleges stand out above all the rest.

10. University of California – Irvine (Irvine, CA)

University of California - Irvine
AllyUnion, UC Irvine Reines Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

Founded in 1965, UC Irvine is one of the youngest institutions to grace the best West Coast colleges list. 

Located only five miles from the Pacific Ocean, the school is also one of the least selective, with an acceptance rate of 30%

UC Irvine is also one of the largest schools on the list, enrolling an undergraduate population of nearly 40,000 students. Popular majors include public health, business, biology, and economics.

What UC Irvine is perhaps best known for, however, is its research specializing in cancer and neuroscience. 

In fact, one of the school’s eight Nobel Prize laureates –  Professor Frank Sherwood Rowland – discovered the harmful effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer. Ozone layer loss has been linked to an increase in skin cancer.

The Irvine campus has served as a launchpad for experts in a variety of fields. 

It was home to the nation’s first Earth System Science Department, and world-renowned philosophers and Pulitzer Prize winners Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard once graced the campus grounds.

Like many of the University of California system schools, Irvine consistently receives excellent rankings. Washington Monthly recently named them the #22 best school in the nation, and in 2021, the school was ranked #2 in Top Performers on Social Mobility by U.S. News & World Report.

9. University of California – Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)

UC Santa Barbara
Coolcaesar, UCSB University Center and Storke Tower, CC BY-SA 4.0

UCSB’s an excellent choice for students interested in studying communication or the visual and performing arts. 

Musician Jack Johnson and film actors like Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow all studied at UCSB before making their “big break.”

In addition to those popular names, 34 members of UCSB’s faculty serve as members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and two have won Academy and Emmy Awards. 

Add six Nobel Prize laureates to the roster, and students can expect the faculty at UCSB to bring the best learning experiences colleges along the West Coast have to offer.

Referred to as a “public Ivy,” UCSB has the reputation of an Ivy League school with a more promising acceptance rate of 37%. If the more than 23,000 undergraduates aren’t interested in film and music, they might consider natural resources and conservation – another popular major. Robert Ballard – the person who discovered the sunken R.M.S. 

Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean – is one such alumnus who has gone on to achieve remarkable feats.

Speaking of conservation, UCSB is also known for its extensive biking system – over 50% of students travel around the campus by bicycle, contributing to a significant reduction in students’ overall carbon footprint.

8. University of California – Berkeley (Berkeley, CA)

UC Berkeley
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Situated next to the San Francisco Bay, UC Berkeley is frequently ranked as one of the best universities in the world. Athletic rivals with Stanford – the #1 school on this list – both schools are known as hubs of student activism, though modern students are generally more focused on STEM innovation.

On a single campus, where else might one find people like Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, Olympic gold medalist Jonny Moseley, and atomic bomb developer Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer? 

When it comes to outstanding alumni, UC Berkeley boasts a wide range of successful athletes, politicians, scientists, and inventors. 

Alumni have established companies like Apple, Tesla, Gap, Inc., and Morgan Stanley. After Stanford, the school is a great place to develop a new idea, ranking second in producing entrepreneurs backed by venture capital.

Berekley is also home to many lifechanging discoveries, including the damaging effects of carcinogens on DNA, the hydrogen bomb, and neuroplasticity. 

The diversity of alumni achievements and popular majors spanning a range of disciplines indicates that students of all interests can find an excellent program at UC Berkeley.

7. Harvey Mudd College (Claremont, CA)

One of the youngest colleges on the list of best West Coast colleges, Harvey Mudd College is also one of the smallest – its undergraduate population is less than 900.

Curious applicants will be encouraged by how much earnings graduates earn throughout their careers. The median starting salary for a Harvey Mudd grad is around $83,000, while graduates go on to earn the highest mid-career salaries of any college or university in the nation.

Founded by Harvey Mudd, a successful mining engineer, the school is considered to be one of the nation’s top math, science, and engineering undergrad colleges. 

They were recently ranked 2nd among undergraduate engineering schools by the 2021 U.S. News & World Report.

One of the greatest benefits of attending Harvey Mudd is its average class size. 

With an 8:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and the fact that 63% of classes are made up of fewer than 20 students, Harvey Mudd undergrads can expect an easier pathway to building relationships with professors and more support in major-focused classes.

6. Claremont McKenna College (Claremont, CA)

Claremont McKenna College
Victoire Chalupy, Kravis Center, Claremont McKenna College, July 2015, CC BY-SA 3.0

Small in size, with an undergraduate population of under 1,500, Claremont McKenna has a lot to say. The institution was actually ranked #1 out of all U.S. colleges for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 2021.

Originally conceived as an all-male school in 1946, Claremont McKenna became co-educational 30 years later. 

Their successful alumni range from author Jamaica Kincaid to Governor of Montana Steve Bullock.

Claremont McKenna is ranked as the 6th best liberal arts college in the U.S. by 2021 U.S. News & World Report, and some of their popular majors include econometrics, political science, and experimental psychology.

Students interested in pursuing medical school also have promising odds if they choose to attend Claremont McKenna: 80% of graduates applying to medical school are accepted by their first or second choices.

Claremont McKenna knows how to hustle to actualize outcomes for its student and faculty stakeholders. 

The school achieved the largest fundraising campaign of any American liberal arts college, raising $635 million for student scholarships, faculty needs, facilities, and other operating costs.

5. University of California – Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA)

Beyond My Ken, UCLA Royce Hall, CC BY-SA 4.0

Established initially as a teacher’s college, UCLA is now known for everything from its School of Theater, Film, and Television to its School of Dentistry. 

With so many programs to offer, it’s no surprise that more students apply to UCLA than to any other college or university in the nation.

When it comes to rankings, UCLA is ranked #8 in the nation by Forbes and #1 US Public University for academics by Times Higher Education. This top American higher learning institution is home to 27 Nobel Prize laureates, but their acclaim doesn’t stop there.

In addition to academics, UCLA is also a center for athletic excellence. It is 1 of only 6 universities to have won national championships in all three major men’s sports: baseball, basketball, and football. 

Additionally, UCLA has been represented in every Olympic Games competition since the university’s founding (except for 1924), and has boasted a gold medalist in every Olympic competition the U.S. participated in since 1932. 

They have over 270 Olympic medals, most of which are gold.

With a 14% acceptance rate, those who attend UCLA can join the ranks of Academy Award-nominated actors like James Franco, politicians like U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and  Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play baseball in the MLB.

4. California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA)

CalTech Library, Robert A. Millikan Memorial Library at Caltech, CC BY-SA 3.0

Another school with a high median starting salary for graduates ($82,900), Caltech is the launching pad for innovators who founded lucrative companies like Intel, Hotmail, and Compaq.

That being said, applicants will need to have a competitive application to get into Caltech – the school has an acceptance rate of only 7%.

The 900 undergraduate students enrolled at Caltech generally commit to studying the sciences and engineering. 

The school has been ranked #2 in the globe, and best in Engineering & Technology as well as Physical Sciences, by the Times Higher Education Rankings.

Students at Caltech will thrive with a 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio, and two-thirds of their classes will have fewer than 20 students. 

Many Caltech grades move on to pursue postgraduate degrees; in fact, the school is ranked #1 in the U.S. for the percentage of graduates who move on to earn a Ph.D.

76 Nobel Prize laureates are associated with the school, including chemist Linus Pauling – the only person in history to win two unshared prizes. 

Other acclaimed alumni are astronaut and U.S. Senator Harrison Schmitt (the only geologist to have walked on the moon), and the “Father of Silicon Valley,” William Shockley.

3. Pomona College (Claremont, CA)

Pomona College
Sdkb, Pomona College Walker Beach, CC BY-SA 4.0

Established in 1887, Pomona is the founding member of the seven Claremont colleges – it is also the largest undergraduate school of the consortium and the wealthiest regarding its endowment. 

Pomona students can take classes at the other six Claremont Colleges (two of which are included on this list: Harvey Mudd and Claremont McKenna).

Pomona is one of the least spoken-about competitive institutions – not just on the West Coast, but in the entire nation. 

Among the most recent entering class, 30% of those with an official high school class rank were their school valedictorians. 

If applicants are among the 9% of those fortunate enough to gain admittance to Pomona, it is highly likely that they will complete all four years of their intended major. After all, Pomona has one of the highest retention rates of any U.S. college or university at 97%.

Alumni go on to experience significant success in a variety of fields, most notably in the creative and performing arts. 

Pomona is associated with Oscar, Grammy, and Tony Award winners, U.S. Senators, Pulitzer Prize recipients, a Nobel Prize laureate, and several Olympic athletes. 

Actor Richard Chamberlain, activist Marianne Williamson, and novelist David Foster Wallace are a few high-profile names.

It should come as no surprise that Pomona’s rankings match the acclaim of its graduates. The school has been ranked #4 in National Liberal Arts Colleges and among the 10 best liberal arts colleges annually by U.S. News since the ranking system started in 1984.

2. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)

University of Southern California
EEJCC, Bovard Auditorium at dusk, University of Southern California, CC BY-SA 4.0

Founded in 1880, USC is a hub of achievement and innovation. DNA computing, antivirus software, and image compression were all invented on USC’s campus. 

The institution is the largest private employer in the Los Angeles area, with an economic impact of approximately $8 billion for California.

USC is perhaps best known for its School of Cinematic Arts, which is the oldest and largest film school in the country. 

The school has produced more Oscar Award winners than any other institution in the world by a wide margin. Readers will certainly recognize directors like George Lucas, screenwriters like Shonda Rhimes, and actors like Will Ferrell.

USC is consistently ranked as one of the best universities in the nation, and its athletes achieve just as much, if not more acclaim. USC Trojans have won 326 Olympic medals, most of which are gold, and more than any other university in the US. 

The school also has the second-highest number of football players drafted to the NFL in the U.S.

Students interested in video game innovation may also find a stimulating home at UCLA – the Princeton Review ranked their video game design programs best out of 150 schools in North America.

1. Stanford University (Stanford, CA)

Stanford University
Jawed, Stanford University Arches with Memorial Church in the background, CC BY-SA 4.0

Stanford – the best in the west. 

With a competitive acceptance rate of 5%, Stanford maintains a reputation as being one of the best schools in the entire world. 

The Academic Ranking of World Universities ranked Stanford second in the world (after Harvard) for most years from 2003 to 2020.

Stanford regularly sits within the top five national and global schools on worldwide rankings lists, and the New York Times recently shared that it has become America’s new ‘it’ school (a space Harvard once occupied).

Feeling like innovating? Companies like Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn all started at Stanford. 

In conjunction with UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, Stanford is part of the Biohub, which Mark Zuckerberg founded with a $600m endowment.
Companies founded by Stanford alumni have produced over $2.7 trillion in annual revenue and created millions of jobs, which is equivalent to the 7th largest economy in the world! They are also one of the top producers of members of the U.S. Congress.

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