The 10 Best Hidden Gem Universities in California

California is home to many of the most well-known universities worldwide, including schools like UCLA, Stanford, and California Institute of Technology.

However, California actually has hundreds of colleges and universities, many of which are among the finest “hidden gem” institutions throughout America.

Some of these schools deserve significantly more national recognition, having graduated Fortune 500 CEOs, state senators, groundbreaking tech entrepreneurs, and more.

What makes a school qualify as a “hidden gem” for inclusion on this list?

First, the school has to have demonstrated significant accomplishment over the last two decades in the form of campus/curricular expansion, student satisfaction, employment outlook, and other similar metrics.

Secondly, the school cannot yet be ranked in the top 180 in the US News National University rankings. 

Many of these schools are well-known in certain regions of California; that said, all 10 schools on this list are rising institutions gaining more and more notice throughout the country for their excellence as academic institutions.

Here are College Gazette’s picks for California’s 10 best hidden gem universities.

Fresno Pacific University (Fresno, CA)

photo by Jon Harder via Wikimedia Commons

One of California’s great hidden gem Christian Universities, Fresno Pacific University is perhaps best-known for its four-year graduation guarantee, an initiative implemented in 2009. This guarantee has resulted in a higher graduation rate than most colleges and universities throughout California.

Widely considered a premiere school for religious studies, Fresno Pacific’s Biblical Seminary is among the relatively few schools in the nation to offer a Master of Divinity, considered the best degree for leadership in a church.

However, Fresno Pacific is not just a school for religious studies; the program also has dedicated schools for Business, Education, Natural Sciences, and more.

US News has recently ranked Fresno Pacific among the top 5 regional universities in the west for social mobility, highlighting the school’s commitment to helping students of all economic backgrounds.

California State University San Marcos (San Marcos, CA)

CSU San Marcos
Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

In the last two decades, CSU San Marcos has grown significantly. In 2004, the school opened a 200,000 square foot library. Since then, the total enrollment at CSU San Marcos has doubled to nearly 15,000 total students.

Just two years later, two seminal buildings were created on campus – a $25m facility known as Markstein Hall, a component of the college of Business Administration, as well as the School of Nursing.

Growth is a constant at CSU San Marcos, with the university’s planning to expand total enrollment in the next several years to 25,000. This would make the school among the largest in all of Southern California.

CSU San Marcos’ upward trajectory has been noted by several high-profile publications, including Niche who, in their most recent edition, has ranked the school in the top 275 public universities nationwide.

University of Redlands (Redlands, CA)

Many know the University of Redlands as one of California’s most beautiful campuses; situated over 160 acres, the school’s exterior is brimming with orange groves, unique architecture, and over 3,000 trees.

However, what makes the University of Redlands special is not just how it looks, but rather two other things: the student body’s commitment to bettering local communities as well as unparalleled academic offerings.

Through the University’s Community Service Learning Program, over 120,000 hours of community service are performed by Redlands students every year. The result of this effort is significantly increased quality of life for local communities throughout California and beyond. Amazingly, 100% of all students participate in service learning.

Since current Redlands president Ralph Kuncl took his position in 2012, the school’s status has risen dramatically, having established a number of international partnerships as well as creating a “University Distinguished Fellows” residency program. Through this program, accomplished leaders in business & politics hold a campus residency to work with students.

Over 50,000 call themselves alumni of the University of Redlands, including a former Presidential Chief of Staff, previous principal tubist of the Chicago Symphony, and at least two California senators.

California State University East Bay (Hayward, CA)

CSU East Bay
Jennifer Williams, Csueb view, CC BY-SA 2.0

If CSU East Bay could be summarized in one word, it would be “growth.”

Over the last 15 years, the school’s total enrollment has doubled. Throughout this time, the school has added a number of facilities strengthening their curricular offerings, including a dedicated business and technology center over 60,000 square feet in space. 

Employment outcomes for students at CSU East Bay are excellent, thanks not only to the school’s education, but also its 20-minute proximity to the heart of Silicon Valley, America’s capital for high-growth startup businesses. 

CSU East Bay alumni have found employment at Netflix, IBM, Pandora, Oracle, and hundreds more tech companies both in the Bay Area as well as worldwide.

Sonoma State University (Rohnert Park, CA)

Sonoma State University
Stepheng3, SSU Schultz Library 4630, CC BY-SA 3.0

Predominantly an undergraduate institution with a small postgraduate population, Sonoma State University is located in Rohnert Park, a town near the Napa Valley region of California approximately 50 miles north of San Francisco.

Uniquely, Sonoma State is one of the nation’s few schools offering a substantial curriculum in viticulture, which is the harvest and cultivation of grapes for winemaking. Due to its proximity to Napa Valley, Sonoma State is home to a robust Wine Business program offering classes in marketing, production, management, and more.

At the heart of the Sonoma State University experience is enthusiastic participation in student life and the arts. For over 35 years, Sonoma State has hosted Art From the Heart, one of Northern California’s premiere arts events in which professional artists are invited to sell their works to help raise funds for the school. 

In 2008, Sonoma State further expanded its investment into the arts with the construction of the Green Music Center, a facility encapsulating a 1,400 seat theatre as well as multiple classrooms and even a restaurant featuring locally grown food.

Biola University (La Mirada, CA)

One of the nation’s top private Christian universities, Biola was recently ranked by The Princeton Review among the nations Best Western Colleges. Additionally, it is ranked among the top 10% of all universities nationwide according to US News.

Few schools are as committed to integrating religious study into their curriculum as Biola, who annually hold the second largest Missions conference worldwide, aptly titled the Missions Conference.

During the conference, students participate in cultural awareness field trips, speak with missionaries, and participate in team-building activities on campus designed to strengthen bonds among students.

However, the school’s devotion to faith is not it’s only landmark feature; many of the school’s programs are among the very best in California, including the school’s dedicated conservatory of music. Alumni of their conservatory have matriculated into the nation’s finest conservatories for graduate study, including Eastman School of Music as well as Manhattan School of Music.

Despite an enrollment of over 6,000 students, the student:teacher ratio at Biola is a comfortable 15:1, ensuring every pupil has ample 1-on-1 opportunity with the university’s professors.

California Baptist University (Riverside, CA)

Throughout the last decade, California Baptist has seen a significant surge in growth. 

Newly constructed facilities created in the last decade include a building for the CBU’s business school in 2012, an events center in 2017, and even a new engineering building in 2018. 

Additionally, the school’s curricular growth has been substantial, having added a Doctor of Nursing program as well as over a dozen other programs, including new MBA concentrations as well as a sought-after software engineering program.

Growth is a constant at California Baptist, however what makes the school special is not just its focus on growth, but rather the accomplishments of their students. 

Perhaps CBU’s most notable student-involved initiative is the ISP, an abbreviation for International Service Projects. For three weeks in a summer, CBU students can travel internationally to other countries to facilitate sports camps as well as create cross-cultural interactions.

The impact these students have is significant; over 5,000 students since the program’s inception have provided service internationally.

Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA)

One of America’s great hidden gem universities, southern California’s Azusa Pacific University is home to many of California’s best programs and most accomplished students.

Primarily known as a Christian university, APU has a number of leading programs in theology, including a unique Bachelor’s degree offering in Youth and Family Ministries.  APU is ranked in the top 20% of all Christian colleges throughout the nation according to Niche.

APU’s alumni have had an unusually large success rate in athletics; 14 have competed in the Olympics, including 2003 gold medal winner Brian Clay. Another several dozen have played for professional sports teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco Giants.

Recently, Azusa Pacific was designated as a “Doctoral University with High Research Activity” according to the Carnegie Classification. Only 5% of all higher education institutions in the US receive this prestigious ranking.

A recent, independently created report shows Azusa Pacific University contributes an amazing $1.25 billion to the economy of California every year, demonstrating its unusually large influence throughout the entirety of the west coast.

Fresno State University (Fresno, CA)

Fresno State University
Nightryder84, Science2 CSUF, CC BY-SA 3.0

Perhaps the most prestigious school in the California State University system, CSU Fresno, more commonly known as Fresno State, was recently designated an R3 university by the prestigious Carnegie Classification in 2016. 

To put this accolade in perspective, less than 10% of all higher education institutions in the entire country hold a Carnegie designation.

Fresno State was recently ranked the 24th best university in the country by Washington Monthly! Amazingly, Fresno State ranked higher than Ivy League schools Brown, Dartmouth, and Cornell University.

So why does this school get so much praise? Perhaps it is because of their unique facilities; Fresno State is home to an on-campus planetarium, wine grape vineyard, and even a 50,000 square foot recreation center.

Or perhaps it is their unusually excellent commitment to service; nearly 19,000 CSU Fresno students and staff contributed an incredible 1,400,000+ total community service hours in the 2018-2019 school year. That makes Fresno State among the top 10 ranking schools nationwide for their commitment to service according to Washington Monthly.

However, what makes this school special is not just the facilities and service, but rather the accomplishments of their students and faculty. In recent years, members of the CSU Fresno community have won multiple Fulbright awards, one of academia’s highest honors. Alumni include numerous professional athletes, an astronaut, and members of the House of Representatives.

San Jose State University (San Jose, CA)

If I asked you which school supplies the most graduates into full-time Silicon Valley jobs, known nationwide for their hefty starting salaries, you would probably guess Stanford, CalTech, UCLA, or perhaps some other major California university.

According to a recent study, however, the school with the best employment outcome for finding work in Silicon Valley is actually San Jose State University, one of the most diverse educational institutions in the country.

Although well-known throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, nationally San Jose State remains one of the nation’s best kept secrets, considering its excellence as a school as well as the employment outlook of their students. 

In recent years, SJSU has become a top-ranked school for a number of majors, including undergraduate engineering, which is ranked in the top 20 by US News for their 2020 rankings. Additionally, Washington Monthly listed SJSU among the top 10% of all Master’s universities in the nation.

Over 200,000 people call themselves alumni of SJSU, including a former Intel CEO, Super Bowl winning Coach, and entrepreneurs who started innovative companies including WhatsApp and Dolby Laboratories.

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