California is the premier destination for international students. What’s not to love? A moderate to hot climate year-round. The ability to explore beaches, mountains, forests, and dessert. A multi-cultural environment ripe with ethnically diverse food, neighborhoods, and art. Access to epicenters of industry like Hollywood and Silicon Valley and some of the most widely respected universities in the world.
Out of the more than one million international students studying in the United States, 14.5% or 156,879 study in California. It is the most popular state to study in. For Canadians, California ranks number two, just under New York. This is mostly because California has multiple large metropolis areas, all with a host of strong universities and colleges. In the International Institute of Education’s (IIS) Open Doors report 2017, in the list of the “Top 50 metropolitan areas hosting international students,” California makes the list six times, with four metro areas in the top 12. (see table 1)
Come take a journey along Highway 1 down to the Mexican border, through the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and into the redwood forests, and learn about the diverse educational opportunities in California.
Understanding higher education options in California
Did you know that there are more than 1,000 higher education institutions in California?! With so many schools to choose from, it is important to understand how they are similar and different from one another. Namely, public vs. private, two-year vs. four-year, and University of California vs. California State University.
Private four-year universities
Like all private universities in the United States, these schools do not receive any funding from the local tax payers. Therefore tuition is the same for all students (typically higher than public institutions), and access to scholarships for international students tends to be greater. Private universities tend to have a much smaller student body and campus and may have a historical or current religious affiliation. There are 158 private universities in California, the most popular being Stanford University (Palo Alto) and University of Southern California (Los Angeles).
For students interested in small class sizes and a strong liberal arts education, the five Claremont colleges (Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Hudd College, Pitzer College, Pomona College, Scripps College) offer the opportunity to study on a small campus, but to also take classes on any of the other related campuses. Harvey Mudd College is known for its highly focused STEM programs, while Scripps offers a liberal arts curriculum in an all-women’s environment. Although these are all “colleges,” they offer four-year degree programs. College simply means that it is a smaller environment focused on undergraduate teaching as opposed to a larger research institution.
California also boasts some of the premier technical universities in the world. California Institute of Technology provides strong science and technology training and is also in charge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Students at CalTech enjoy a 3:1 faulty to student ratio and 95% of student participate in undergraduate research.
Additionally, California is widely known for being a hub of the arts. Schools like Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), Academy of Art University in San Francisco (top arts school international enrolment in the United States with 5,156 students), Otis College of Art and Design, and the Musicians Institute have both a strong art-based curriculum and access to world famous museums, galleries, studios, and film companies. Additionally, graphic designers can intern or use their Optional Practical Training time at Pixar or video game giant Electronic Arts (EA).
California’s public system and the beauty of 2+2
California has three major categories in its public school system: the California Community College system, the California State University (CSU) system, and the University of California (UC) system. Community colleges are all two-year institutions, while the CSU and UC schools are all four-year institutions. The public system is subsidized by the taxpayers and the residents of California have made it a priority to keep community college education low cost and accessible to everyone who has a high school diploma.
Community colleges also have a 2+2 program, called Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG), which guarantees admissions six of the UC campuses, one CSU campus, and many private and out-of-state campuses. Students are eligible for TAG if they complete a certain set of required classes while maintaining a high GPA (minimums different for each institution). Canadian students who are looking to save money before enrolling in a four-year school will find this route very attractive. Community colleges have small classes, experienced instructors, and guidance counsellors who support students through the transfer process.
The California Community College System
There are 114 community colleges spread across California offering both technical degrees and associate degrees for transfer to four-year universities. If your students are looking to take advantage of the TAG program, there are so many options to choose from! The top three California community college destinations for international students are Santa Monica College, De Anza College in Silicon Valley, and Diablo Valley College. These schools are popular because of their large campuses with many resources, large variety of majors and standing as the top transfer colleges in California.
For international students, one of the challenges of two-year colleges is that most do not have campus housing available. Only 11 California community colleges have on-campus housing available, none of which are in a major city center. With snow-capped mountains in the background the College of the Siskiyous in Weed (close to the Oregon border) has lodges for their student housing. Sierra College in Rocklin (outside of Sacramento) has dorms for their students and also boasts as one of the top transfer schools in the state.
The California State University (CSU) system vs. the University of California (UC) system
There are 23 CSU campuses and 10 UC campuses that offer four-year degrees across California. While there are some similarities among campuses like having a large diversity of majors available, competitive athletics, Greek life, large student bodies, and hundreds of clubs and activities, there are some main distinctions between the two systems. While research does occur on some of the CSU campuses, the UC system is the main research system in California, and therefore grant PhDs. The CSU institutions can only grant PhDs if they have a joint program with a UC campus. The CSUs do, however, have Bachelor’s level nursing programs (BSN) and grant teaching certificates for K-12 teaching, which the UCs do not. So, a student’s choice in CSU vs. UC will come down to if they are interested in education centered on research and theory versus education geared toward a specific career orientation.
Although these are both public systems in California, it is difficult to transfer between systems. Those that do choose to transfer, often risk losing many units. For example, if you start your education on a UC campus with the goal of becoming a doctor and then throughout your first years of study realize that you would like to become a nurse, you can attempt to transfer to a CSU, but will likely also need to take an additional year or more of classes, delaying your graduation timeline. Vice versa, it is not advisable to begin studies on a CSU campus with a higher acceptance rate with the goal of transferring to a more selective UC. If the goal is to transfer, start at a community college.
The endless opportunities in California
As of May 2018, California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, surpassing the United Kingdom. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of California is more than $2.7 trillion. Most of this is generated in the large coastal metropolises: San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego. California’s most famous economic exports are technology, entertainment, and agriculture. However, the latest growth spurt was due to large increases in finance, real estate, technology, and manufacturing.
Because of California’s overall economic strength and diverse opportunities, and the large number of higher education institutions, there is university that will fit any student’s interest. So, let’s dive a little deeper into fields where the opportunities students will be able to pursue are uniquely Californian.
The Entertainment Industry
In a top 10 list of Global Talent in Global Cities (EY, 2015), both San Francisco and Los Angeles make the cut. The only other American city to make the list is New York (#1). For aspiring actors, directors, songwriters, composers, designers, and artists of any stripe, California is truly the place to be. Hollywood is the oldest filmmaking center in the world, and still generates the highest box office dollars. With its numerous television and film studio lots, the greater Los Angeles area is the place for students aspiring to work in the tv/film industry. Many of the universities in this region have become the top destinations for these students. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Theater, Film, and Television, and the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematics Arts consistently top lists as premier schools for actors and directors to gets their starts. If you are looking for a more hands-on experience in production, Chapman University’s Dodge College is designed for industry exposure.
There are so many careers that work adjacent to the film industry as well, whether that is engineering for set design, law for the entertainment industry, or small businesses like catering or events management. According to Pret-a-Reporter, if you want to get into costume design, CalArts in Valencia is a great choice. CalArts is where legendary Bob Mackie started and it offers both a BFA and MFA in Costume Design. If you are interested in sound production, you can consider enrolling in a community college. Many community colleges, like Ohlone College in Fremont, offer the opportunity to get started on your career path in just two years. Ohlone offers six concentrations in Entertainment and Design Technology and is located just outside of San Francisco
The Tech Hub
Every aspiring Computer Science major knows that Silicon Valley is the hub of tech innovation, and offers limitless opportunities as a future programmer. Facebook’s headquarters is just down the street from Stanford University, making their already selective admissions process, very exclusive for interested tech entrepreneurs. Beyond Stanford, international students look to San Jose State University (SJSU), the local CSU, for great computer science programs and connections to the local tech companies. This is a main reason that SJSU has the highest number of international students (5,235) of any university that grants Master’s degrees.
It is no surprise that students want to get to California to get their foot in the door for tech companies, whether they are Computer Science major or in any other field that is needed to run a company, like Business Administration, Human Resources, and Facilities Operations, to name a few. Business Insider published a list of the top 20 universities with the most alumni at Google, with seven California schools making the list: (1) Stanford University; (2) University of California, Berkeley; (5) University of California, Los Angeles; (11) San Jose State University; (14) University of California, San Diego; (15) University of Southern California; (18) University of California, Davis.
It is easy to think of California as the land of cities and surf, but it is important to remember that the middle of state is filled with approximately 43 millions of acres of farmland. Because of this, many Californian universities are on the forefront of agricultural studies and technology. When University of California, Davis was founded in 1905, it was the agricultural branch of the Berkeley campus. More than 100 years later, UCD maintains its strong agricultural roots. The campus 5,500 acres due to the experimental farms and animal barns on campus. The College of Agricultural and Environment Sciences has 31 majors to choose from including Viticulture and Enology (winemaking), International Agricultural Development, and Hydrology.
In the central valley, nestled in California’s farmland, students can also consider University of California, Merced. Almost one quarter of UC Merced’s students major in Biological Sciences, preparing them for a career working with agriculture or human health services. California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock has an interdisciplinary Agriculture program within their College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The goal of this unique major is to better inform students about the workings of the agricultural industry from a Humanities perspective. Lastly, students can gain direct career experience at a community college while taking advantage of college’s neighboring industry. For example, Napa Community College has degrees in Viticulture and Winery Technology, while Shasta College in Redding has degrees in Watershed Restoration and Livestock Quality Assurance.
Understanding the Pacific Ocean
California has access to one of nature’s most beautiful playgrounds: the Pacific Ocean. If you enroll at Pepperdine University; University of California, Santa Barbara; or California State University, Monterrey Bay, the ocean will literally be in your backyard. Because these schools are nestled tightly on the Pacific shore, they also have phenomenal opportunities for students interested in pursuing careers related to the ocean.
California State University, Monterrey Bay, located down the street from the famous Monterrey Bay aquarium, has a reputable array of Natural Science majors, including Marine Science and many Environmental Science options. Students have the opportunity to work within labs such as the Marine Landscape Ecology Lab or the Seafloor Mapping Lab. If you want to get credit for wearing scuba gear, you can also join the Research Diving Program!
If you truly are just looking for the ocean to be your playground, San Diego State University gives one credit for courses like surfing, sailing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, and stand up paddle board yoga through the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. That is the essence of California dreaming!
The U.S.-Mexico border is the site of much political debate. It is an important region to understand politically, economically, and socially. There are many universities in California with majors, study abroad programs, or cultural experiences that give students a better understanding of U.S.-Mexican relationships and Latinx heritage. University of California, Irvine highly encourages their Chicano/Latino Studies majors to study abroad for a semester. They can apply to any program available through the UC Education Abroad Program, which includes countries throughout most of Latin America and Spain.
Beyond Chicano Studies majors and opportunities for short academic trips to Mexico, aside from Texas, California has some of the campuses with the highest concentrations of Latino students (see chart). For students who have Latin heritage or are interested in learning more about Latino culture, these campuses are an amazing place to do so. For example, California State University, Los Angeles just celebrated its 50th anniversary of it Chicano Studies department during the 2018 Conference on Chicano History, a colloquia open to the public.
Make sure to do your cost calculations
For a student determining their next step in their education, it is clear that they have abundant opportunities in the state of California. It is important for students with their eyes set on the California public colleges and universities that there is little to no financial aid for international undergraduate students, which can be a challenge for many families. It is critical to understand the tuition, scholarship opportunities, and cost of living of any institution that a student looks at to ensure that it is within the family’s budget. Both Stanford University and the Claremont Colleges offer scholarships based on student’s need, which makes their institutions quite affordable to families with a lot of financial need.
Next stop – California!
Once you have determined if you want to apply to California, feel free to get in touch with EducationUSA to receive advice about the application process. EducationUSA is a free advising service, funded by the U.S. State Department. Educationusacanada.ca