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This extensive list highlights some of the best small colleges in California. These colleges and universities have small student populations and low student-to-faculty ratios. This ensures that students get the time and attention they need to succeed in their studies. Most are four-year schools offering undergraduate, graduate, and degree completion programs. And several also have fully online degrees. All the schools on our list are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Best Small Colleges in California

Ranking the Best California Small Colleges

#1. California State University Maritime Academy


California State University Maritime Academy is located in Vallejo, California. Established in 1929, the Academy was initially called the California Nautical School. Currently, just over 900 students are enrolled at Cal Maritime.

Cal Maritime has a narrowly focused curriculum. The school offers seven undergraduate majors and one graduate program. However, students interested in maritime studies will be right at home. The majority of the programs are marine-related. A unique feature of the school is a training ship, the Golden Bear. The ship serves as a floating classroom and lab where students learn to master various skills.

#2. Humphreys University


Founded in 1896, Humphreys University is a private university with two campuses in California. One is located in Modesto, and the other is in Stockton. It’s one of the smaller colleges in California. Currently, the school has a student population of just under 500 students.

Humphreys University offers a very focused selection of academic programs. Classes are offered on-campus and online. Students can choose from undergraduate degrees in:

  • Accounting
  • Business Administration
  • Community Studies
  • Court Reporting
  • Criminal Justice
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Legal Studies

#3. Life Pacific University


Life Pacific University is a private university and Christian Bible college in San Dimas. Founded in 1923, it is endorsed by the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Life Pacific has a student population of around 500. Among small universities in California, it is considered one of the best.

LPU offers four associate degrees, eight B.A. programs, and three master’s programs. A few of the bachelor’s programs include: 

  • Biblical Studies
  • Human Development & Psychology
  • Mass Communication
  • Ministry & Leadership
  • Organizational Management
  • Worship Arts & Media 

#4. Pacific Union College


Pacific Union College is located in beautiful Napa Valley, California. Established in 1882, it is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian liberal arts college. A student population of around 800 attend the school’s 200-acre campus. 

Despite its size, PUV offers over 75 undergraduate and graduate programs. A few of the most popular ones include:

  • Aviation
  • Conservation Technology
  • International Business
  • Multimedia Communications
  • Emergency Management

Pacific Union College offers students a very competitive tuition rate. And this has helped the school earn a spot among the top small liberal arts colleges in California.

#5. La Sierra University


Located in Riverside, La Sierra University is a private four-year college. It is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. La Sierra has a student population of just over 1300 students a year. Students can choose from over 50 undergraduate degrees and over 25 graduate degrees. There are also 23 pre-professional programs. Some of the bachelor’s degrees at La Sierra University include:

  • Archeology
  • Biochemical Science
  • Cognitive & Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Computer Science: Bioinformatics
  • Digital Media & Marketing
  • Creative Writing
  • Global Contexts of Health

La Sierra University’s tuition is priced competitively compared to other regional colleges. Among small private colleges in California, La Sierra is considered a top-ranking school.

#6. Point Loma Nazarene University


Point Loma Nazarene University is a private Christian college in San Diego. This four year-college offers a wide range of academic experiences. And PLNU is known as one of the top small colleges in California.

PLNU focuses on ensuring students get a more personal academic experience. The school has a student population of just over 3,000 students with a student-to-faculty ratio of 14:1. Students at Point Loma Nazarene University can choose from over 60 undergraduate areas of study. Additionally, the school offers more than 30 master’s programs. Some of the most popular areas of study include:

  • Kinesiology
  • Special Education
  • Theater
  • Public Relations
  • Pre-Veterinary
  • Media Communication
  • Cyber Security

#7. Golden Gate University


Golden Gate University is a private university founded in 1923. Located in San Francisco, it was once the YMCA Evening College. But today, the school is a cornerstone of higher education. Currently, Golden Gate University has a student population of around 2,400 learners.

Students at GGU can choose from a wide range of academic programs. Programs include undergraduate, graduate, law, and online degrees. Some of the most fields of study include:

  • Financial Planning
  • Public Administration
  • Data Analytics
  • Leadership
  • Accounting
  • Information Technology
  • Project Management

#8. The Master’s University


The Master’s University is located in Santa Clarita.California. Established in 1927, the school was designed for evangelical students. Since then, however, it has expanded to include a more diverse student population of around 2,400. 

The Master’s University offers traditional undergraduate and graduate degrees. And many of these programs are offered to students entirely online. The Master’s University also provides a range of divinity and theology courses and degrees. The most popular of these include:

  • Biblical Studies 
  • Biblical Counseling 
  • Biblical Languages 
  • Theology 
  • Christian Education 
  • Global Studies & Missions Abroad 

#9. Westmont College


Westmont College is a small Christian college in Montecito, California. The school was founded as the Bible Missionary Institute in 1937. But today, it offers a range of academic experiences. Westmont college enrolls a student population of just over 1,200, making it one of the small colleges in California.

Students at Westmont can choose from an excellent selection of academic programs. They include undergraduate and pre-professional programs. Some of the most popular programs include:

  • Political Science
  • Biology
  • Communication Studies
  • Computer Science
  • Art
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Sociology

#10. Laguna College of Art and Design


Founded in 1961, Laguna College of Art and Design is a small liberal arts college in Laguna Beach. Over the years, it has developed a reputation as one of the best small colleges in California for pursuing the arts. Laguna College of Art and Design enrolls a student body of under 700 students. 

The curriculum at LCAD focuses primarily on the arts. Students can choose from a handful of B.A. and M.A. programs in several areas of study, including:

  • Animation
  • Drawing 
  • Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Entertainment Design
  • Experimental Animation
  • Game Art
  • Graphic Design 
  • Digital Media
  • Illustration

#11. Whittier College


Whittier College is a small, private college in California in the town of Whittier. This small college is currently home to just over 1,300 students. Established in 1887, it was originally a Quaker college. But over the years, it has transformed into a modern liberal arts school.

Whittier College offers students a unique academic experience. Each creates an individualized education by designing their own major. Then, they tailor it with classes aligned with their personal goals. Alternatively, they can also choose from over 30 pre-existing programs.

The school also offers Pre-Med, Pre-Health, and Pre-Physical Therapy programs.

#12. San Diego Christian College


Founded in 1979, San Diego Christian College is located in Santee, California. It is associated with the Evangelical church. Originally known as Christian Heritage College, it is currently home to a student body of just over 900 students. 

Students at San Diego Christian College can choose from several graduate and undergraduate degrees. SDCC is also one of the few small California colleges with a robust online program. Students can choose from online programs in:

  • Psychology
  • Communication
  • Liberal Studies
  • Christian Ministries
  • Leadership
  • Human Development
  • Business Management

Students at this top small California college get plenty of one-on-one instruction. The school boasts a student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1.

#13. Mount Saint Mary’s University


Mount Saint Mary’s University is located in Los Angeles, California. This small California college was founded in 1925 as a private Catholic university. Currently, just over 2,400 students are enrolled at Mount Saint Mary’s.

MSMU is an excellent option for students looking for a small college in California with many different academic offerings. Students can select from over 70 undergraduate and ten graduate degrees. Some of the most popular bachelor’s degree options at MSMU include:

  • Business
  • Conflict, Peace, and Social Justice
  • Data Science
  • Entrepreneurship
  • French
  • International Studies
  • Neuroscience
  • Theatre 

#14. Saint Mary’s College of California


Not to be confused with MSMU, our next school is Saint Mary’s College of California. Established in 1863, it is run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers as a Catholic university. The school has provided students in the area with higher education opportunities for over a century and a half.

Currently, SMC enrolls under 4,000 students. Class sizes are kept small with an impressive student-to-faculty ratio of 9:1. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are offered. And students can choose from dozens of majors. Some of the most popular areas of study include:

  • Women’s and Gender Studies
  • Technical Theatre & Design
  • Spanish and Latin American Studies
  • Latin
  • Philosophy
  • Kinesiology
  • Justice, Community, and Leadership

#15. Simpson University


Founded in 1921, Simpson University is one of the top small colleges in California. Located in Redding, it was founded as a Bible Insitute. Today, the school offers undergraduate, graduate, and degree completion programs. Students at Simpson University can enroll in several areas of study. Some of these include:

  • Biblical Studies
  • Biology
  • Communication
  • History
  • Kinesiology
  • Mathematics
  • Music
  • Nursing 
  • Outdoor Leadership

#16. California Institute of Arts


Located in Santa Clarita, the California Institute of Arts was first established in 1961. Despite its small student population (1,500), this small California school has a big reputation. And it has enjoyed a rich history in the state as a dedicated patron of the arts. 

Students at California Institute of Arts can enroll in a variety of educational experiences. And they can choose from nearly 40 programs across seven renowned schools. The schools include:

  • Art
  • Critical Studies
  • Dance
  • Film/Video
  • Music
  • Theater
  • Interdisciplinary

An average student-to-faculty ratio of 7:1 makes CalArts one of the best small schools in California.

#17. Vanguard University of Southern California


Founded in 1920, Vanguard University of Southern California is one of the top small colleges in the state. Located in Costa Mesa, VUSC originally opened as a Bible School. However, today there are over 30 areas of study and a student population of over 2,000. 

Students at Vanguard University can choose undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees in several popular fields. Some of these include:

  • Actuarial Science
  • Biotechnology
  • Chemistry
  • Data Science
  • Engineering Physics
  • Environmental Sciences
  • History/Political Science
  • Kinesiology

#18. Hope International University


Located in Fullerton, California, Hope International University is a small college founded in 1928. The school offers undergraduate, graduate, and online degree programs across a range of fields. Around 1300 students attend HIU. And a student-to-faculty ratio of 13:1 ensures that everyone gets individual attention. That makes it one of the best small colleges in California. 

For a small school, Hope International University has an impressive list of online programs. It includes an online Associate of Arts in General Education. Plus, there are five online bachelor’s degree programs:

  • Business Administration
  • Christian Ministry
  • Criminal Justice
  • Human Development
  • Liberal Studies: Teacher Preparation

#19. California Institute of Technology


Founded in 1891, the California Institute of Technology is located in Pasadena. One of the most impressive things about this renowned institution is the student-to-faculty ratio of 3:1. With just over 2,200 students, Caltech is one of the best small colleges in California. 

Caltech specializes primarily in its STEM offerings. Students can enroll in one of 28 undergraduate programs and 30 master’s programs. Some of the most popular majors include:

  • Astrophysics
  • Bioengineering
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Computation and Neural Systems
  • Environmental Science and Engineering
  • Geophysics
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Materials Science
  • Physics
  • Planetary Science

#20. William Jessup University


William Jessup University was founded in 1939 as a Bible College. Located in Rocklin, California, about 1,300 students are enrolled at “Jessup.” Class sizes are small, making WJU one of the top small colleges in California.

Students at William Jessup University can select from over two dozen undergraduate and nine master’s programs. Students can also enroll in six online bachelor’s programs. They include:

  • Business
  • Computer Science
  • Criminal Justice
  • Healthcare Administration
  • Leadership
  • Psychology

#21. Pitzer College


Founded in 1963, Pitzer College is part of the Claremont College Consortium. It’s a group of private colleges in Claremont, California. Pitzer is a private school with a highly specialized curriculum. It enrolls around 1,000 students. Pitzer College boasts a student-faculty ratio of 11:1.

Students enrolled at Pitzer College can pursue undergraduate and graduate programs. If a student’s desired major is not offered at Pitzer, they can choose one from another Claremont College. All students work closely with their advisers to design a degree program to meet their academic goals. Some of the popular majors at Pitzer include:

  • Africana Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cognitive Science
  • Organizational Studies
  • Critical Global Studies
  • Linguistics

Pitzer is widely regarded as one of the best small private colleges in Southern California

#22. Claremont McKenna College


Claremont McKenna College is one of the top small colleges in California. Founded in 1946, the school is also a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium. Originally established as a men’s college, it is now a coeducational facility. Currently, just over 1,400 students are enrolled at CMC.

Students at Claremont McKenna College can enroll in over 30 undergraduate programs. They can also complete a “sequence,” a series of courses centered around a particular subject area. Some of the most interesting sequences at Claremont include:

  • Ancient and Medieval Studies
  • Human Rights, Holocaust, and Genocide studies
  • Jewish Studies
  • Leadership Studies
  • Scientific Modeling
  • Gender and Sexuality Studies

#23. Occidental College


Located in Los Angeles, Occidental College (OXY) was founded in 1887. A private liberal arts college, it is also one of the oldest colleges in California. Occidental College was established in close affiliation with the Presbyterian Church. OXY is one of the top small liberal arts colleges in California.

Occidental College students benefit from a 9:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Currently, OXY has a student population of around 2,000. Students at Occidental College can choose from over forty undergraduate programs. Some of these include:

  • Art & Art History
  • Asian Studies
  • Black Studies
  • Cognitive Science
  • Geology
  • Group Language
  • Kinesiology
  • Media Arts & Culture
  • Music

#24. Scripps College


Founded in 1926, Scripps College is one of the top small colleges in California. It was founded as a women’s college. And Scripps still maintains its women’s college tradition to this day. A little over 1,000 students attend Scripps College. Many regard it as one of the top-ranked small colleges in California.

Students at Scripps College benefit from the school’s low student-to-faculty ratio of 10:1. They can choose from over 65 undergraduate programs. Some of these include:

  • Art Conservation
  • Dance
  • Engineering
  • Foreign Languages
  • Italian Studies
  • Organismal Biology
  • Religious Studies

#25. Harvey Mudd College


Harvey Mudd College is also located in Claremont. It is a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium. Established in 1955, it has grown to be one of the best colleges in science and engineering. Around 900 students attend Harvey Mudd College.

Students at HMC can choose from a wide range of programs. They are offered through the college’s seven departments:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Computer Science
  • Engineering
  • Humanities, Social Sciences, and the Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

A small student-to-faculty ratio of about 9:1 allows students access to the instruction they need to succeed. That makes Harvey Mudd College one of the best small colleges in California

#26. Mills College


Mills College is a liberal arts private school and one of the best small colleges in California. Located in Oakland, Mills College was initially founded in 1852 as the Young Ladies Seminary. It still operates as a women’s college today.

Mills College enrolls a student body of just over 700 students. And it maintains a student-to-faculty ratio of 8:1. But recently, Mills has partnered with Northeastern University. 

The merger means that Mill’s students can enjoy all of the benefits of a small college but have many more resources available. The partnership results in a more extensive selection of programs for students to draw from. Mills is regarded as one of the best small colleges in Northern California

#27. Azusa Pacific University College


Azusa Pacific University College is the biggest college listed, with around 10,000 students. This mid-sized college is the only school on our list with more than 7,000 students. Founded in 1899, it is a Christian college located in Whittier, California. Students at APU can choose from bachelor’s programs, master’s programs, and doctoral degrees. Plus, there are several degree completion and online programs available. With a low student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1, it’s one of the top small California colleges on our list. 

Azusa Pacific University College has a strong focus on the arts and academic excellence. Some of the most popular majors include:

  • Acting for the Stage and Screen 
  • Animation and Visual Effects
  • Cinematic Arts 
  • Commercial Music 
  • Composition 
  • Design Studies 
  • Games and Interactive Media 
  • Screenwriting

#28. Fresno Pacific University


Founded in 1944, Fresno Pacific University is located in Fresno, California. Initially, it was a Bible College. Today, it is a multi-faceted university with over 100 fields of study to choose from. Just over 2,000 students attend the University, making it one of the small colleges in California.

Degrees at Fresno Pacific University include programs for undergraduates and graduates. Several of the graduate degrees can be completed online. And there are many online degree completion programs as well. A few of the bachelor’s completion programs include:

  • Emergency Management
  • Organizational Leadership
  • Project Management
  • Criminology
  • Early Childhood Development
  • Healthcare Administration: Informatics and Technology

#29. Biola University


Located in La Mirada, Biola University is a private, non-denominational Christan college. Founded in 1908, it has a total enrollment of around 6,000. The college has been ranked highly in publications like U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review. In addition, a low student-to-faculty ratio of 13:1 makes it one of the best private colleges in California.

Students at Biola can choose from over 300 undergraduate and graduate degrees. Plus, Biola has a robust online program attended by students from all over the world. Some of the online degrees offered at B.U. include:

  • Cinema and Media Arts
  • Commercial Music
  • Entertainment Business
  • Intercultural Education
  • Journalism and Integrated Media
  • Marriage and Family Therapy
  • New Media Composition
  • Preaching and Pastoral Ministries

#30. California Lutheran University


One of the top small colleges in the state is California Lutheran University. It was first established in 1959 and is located in Thousand Oaks, California. The college is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is thought to be one of the top small colleges in California.

CLU has a student population of a little over 4,000. Students can choose from over 40 undergraduate majors, some of which include:

  • Biology 
  • Communication 
  • Computer Science 
  • Exercise Science 
  • Film and Television 
  • Geosciences 
  • Global Studies 
  • Psychology 
  • Religion 

NPCO Staff

This concludes our ranking of the best small colleges in California.

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