The California College Guide : A primer on making choices--and making arrangements--for a college education. : California’s Three-Tier System

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Many people are confused by California’s three-tier system of state-financed universities and colleges. Here’s an explanation of what many experts consider the nation’s best public higher education network.


Background: UC combines the education of undergraduates with a strong emphasis on graduate programs and world-class research in the sciences and humanities.

Students: 165,000

Campuses: 9

Campus locations: UC has eight general education campuses (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Davis, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Irvine, Riverside and San Diego) and one in San Francisco that specializes only in health-sciences.


Costs: About $2,500 in required fees and an additional estimated $9,500 for room, board, books and transportation.

Entrance requirements: A prospective undergraduate must be in the top eighth academically of high school graduates statewide and have completed 15 prescribed high school courses. The necessary grades and test scores change over time, but this year an applicant generally needs at least a 3.3 GPA in those 15 courses; GPAs as low as 2.78 can be acceptable if scores are high on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. But beware! Being eligible for UC does not mean a student can get into UC Berkeley or UCLA. Tales abound of 4.0 valedictorians being rejected at those prestigious campuses and winding up at another UC. Also beware! UC offers no part-time programs.

Transfers: Priority is given to California residents from community colleges.

Other: UC offers doctoral programs in many areas, as well as professional degrees in law, dentistry and medicine.


Background: Cal State’s emphasis is on undergraduates. It has master’s programs in many fields and trains most of the state’s teachers. It cannot offer doctorates except in conjunction with UC and has no law or medical schools. Professors spend more time in the classroom and less time on research than their UC counterparts.

Students: 368,000 full- and part-time students.

Campuses: 20

Campus locations: Bakersfield, Chico, Dominguez Hills, Fresno, Fullerton, Hayward, Humboldt, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, San Marcos, Sonoma and Stanislaus while ones in Pomona and San Luis Obispo are known as Cal Polys for emphasis on engineering and agricultural studies.

Costs: About $1,100 in required fees and an additional estimated $10,000 for room, board, books and transportation


Entrance requirements: A high school senior must be in the top academic third statewide and have taken at least 13 required courses. A 3.0 GPA in those courses makes a student automatically eligible but a GPA as low as 2.0 may be acceptable if matched by very good scores on standardized tests.

Transfers: Priority is given to California community college students who have completed the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program and to students whose high school records made them eligible.

Other: Cal States offer teacher credentialing programs and master’s degrees in many areas, including education, business, sciences and humanities.


Background: The schools offer a wide range of academic and vocational programs, leading to either an occupational certificate or a two-year associate of arts degree that enables transfer to a UC or Cal State.

Students: Nearly 1.5 million

Campuses: 107

Campus locations: 55 in Southern California and 52 in central and northern parts of the state.

Costs: $120 a year.

Entrance requirements: The schools are open to all California residents, even those without high school diplomas. A California resident can attend a community college anywhere in the state, not just in his hometown.


Transfers: Increasing numbers of community colleges have formal transfer agreements with nearby four-year schools. For example, students at Sacramento City College may be guaranteed a move to UC Davis or Sacramento State if they complete two years of prescribed courses.

Other: Many offer remedial courses, English-as-a-Second-Language classes and enrichment courses for adults who want broader horizons but not formal college credit.