These Are The 10 Best Small Colleges In California

by Chris Kolmar
Rankings - 3 years ago

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You know there are a ton of great reasons to go to a small college — the opportunity to work with a smaller number of people, a chance to get a great education while remaining close to home, and of course, cost. After all, who wants to rack up huge student loans to get a degree that’s just about as valuable as one from a large institution?

But which small college in California is the best of all?

We at Zippia decided to take a look at the data on the 42 institutions of higher learning in the Golden State to determine which programs offer the best all around experience for students. After analyzing the numbers, we sorted the schools by enrollment, limiting our report to institutions with under 2,000 students.

After the dust settled, we’re left with this set of the top small colleges or universities in California:

  1. California Institute of Technology
  2. Claremont McKenna College
  3. Pomona College
  4. Scripps College
  5. William Jessup University
  6. Pitzer College
  7. La Sierra University
  8. California State University Maritime Academy
  9. Harvey Mudd College
  10. The Master’s College and Seminary

If you go to one of these schools, chances are, you’re not surprised. After all, you know how great you have it.

But for the rest of you — keep reading and we’ll get to just why these schools have some of the best experiences California has to offer.

For more CA reading, check out:

How We Determined The Best Small Colleges In California

At its core, economics is the study of choices made under constraints. When it came to identifying the best small schools we wanted to approach the ranking like an economics major would — that is, by looking at data on how individual schools performed and comparing them to one another.

What better way to optimize your choice?

So with that mind, we looked at the following data from the NCES (National Center For Education Statistics) and College Scorecard data from to understand what small schools offer the best career opportunities:

  • Career Results
    • Mean Earnings After 6 Years
    • Mean Earnings After 10 Years
    • Ratio of people working to not working after 10 years
  • School Performance
    • Admissions Rate (More selective the better)
    • Graduation Rate
    • Average Cost Of Attendance (Lower is better)
    • Average amount of debt

It’s hard to argue with a selective school that produces strong earning potential for your career.

After we had this data, we looked at the 42 institutions of higher learning in California which had populations under 2,000 students. We then ranked each of these schools from 1 to 42 for each of the criteria above with 1 being the best in any given criteria.

Next, we averaged the ranks for each school to create an “Quality Index”. The school with the best score on the “Quality Index”, California Institute of Technology, earned the distinction of being the ‘Best Small College’ in California.

Any ties went to the larger school.

1. California Institute Of Technology

California Institute Of Technology, California
Enrollment: 929

This small institution in Pasadena, CA is the best small college in the state, when you look at the unbiased data.

California Institute of Technology graduates earn the highest salaries in the state for all small colleges — even a decade after graduation. Its 8% admission rate means the college is exclusive (a good sign), and students come out with the 4th lowest amount of debt.

2. Claremont Mckenna College

Claremont Mckenna College, California
Enrollment: 1,003

Located in Claremont, Claremont McKenna College is one of many private colleges to make this list. What makes it so great here?

For starters, earning potential is the highest among the schools we studied. The admission rate is also very low, and its graduation rate is the 3rd highest in the state.

3. Pomona College

Pomona College, California
Enrollment: 1,574

Most people in the state know Pomona College as being a top-notch program. But this small, private college in Claremont isn’t just a great place for current students, but former students too.

Pomona College’s graduation rate of 92% is the highest in California, which is certainly something to brag about. So is an admission rate of 12%, also one of the best in the state.

4. Scripps College

Scripps College, California
Enrollment: 787

Scripps College in Claremont gets high marks for a low admission rate and a high graduation rate. Additionally, for those lucky enough to get in, they won’t have to worry about racking up too much debt, since Scripps is 5th best in that department.

5. William Jessup University

William Jessup University, California
Enrollment: 1,318

If you want up-close personal attention at a private institution, then it’d be hard to beat William Jessup University, located in Rocklin.

Besides high marks in several categories, what really stands out is the annual salaries that its graduates command.

6. Pitzer College

Pitzer College, California
Enrollment: 924

This private college in Claremont gets high marks for cost (it’s the 4th most expensive small college in CA), but strong post-graduation earnings and a small acceptance rate more than make up for it.

7. La Sierra University

La Sierra University, California
Enrollment: 1,217

Only 40% of the young minds who apply to La Sierra University are accepted, which is a sign of greatness. After all, when you turn so many students away, that means there’s high demand. In addition, graduates earn the 16th highest salaries.

La Sierra graduates also have the 8th lowest amount of debt of all small colleges in California.

This private school is located in Riverside.

8. California State University Maritime Academy

The California Maritime Academy, California
Enrollment: 1,107

Not only is Cal Maritime in one of the prettiest parts of California, its students get the benefit of several leading categories. For instance, if you’re lucky enough to be accepted here, you’ll have a great chance of graduating (2nd highest in the state).

And the whole reason you go to college is to earn the big bucks, right? Cal Maritime grads command the highest salaries in the state.

9. Harvey Mudd College

Harvey Mudd College, California
Enrollment: 717

It’s hard to do better than little Harvey Mudd College, located in Claremont. Students will appreciate the high graduation rate, lower-than-average costs and high salaries that graduates earn.

10. The Master’s College And Seminary

The Master
Enrollment: 1,118

The Master’s College and Seminary is one of the private schools to make this list. It is the 15th least expensive small college in the state, and can boast the promise job security after graduation (7th best employment rate in the state).

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