UC vs CSU – Differences and What’s Better for You?

As millions of students in California, US or International try to decide UC vs CSU – which school is better for them in California, they are faced with a fundamental decision related to UC (University of California) and CSU (California State University) system. Should they apply to one or the other or both?  What is the difference between UC and CSU schools and which is better for you?


Co-authored by Tanmoy Ray

Before we discuss the difference or which system is better or the campus students should apply to, it is important to understand what is the UC system and what is CSU.

UC System | University of California

The University of California (UC) system is the premier flagship university system in California with many of the campuses in this system among the top institutions in the world. The University of California opened its doors in 1869, and today, the UC system includes more than 280,000 students and more than 227,000 faculty and staff, with 2.0 million alumni living and working around the world.

UC Colleges

There are 10 campuses in the UC system spread around the whole state with UC Davis in the north to UC San Diego in the south.

  • UC Berkeley (Located in the heart of silicon valley, close to San Francisco in the city of Oakland and Berkeley)
  • UC Davis (Located between San Francisco and Sacramento in the city of Davis. Close to Tahoe for students who like skiing)
  • UC Irvine (Located between Los Angeles and San Diego. Close to Disneyland and Orange County)
  • UCLA (Located in the heart of Los Angeles, close to Hollywood and the famous beaches of LA)
  • UC Merced (Located in central California and one of the newest UC campuses.)
  • UC Riverside (Located in the city of Riverside, southeast of Los Angeles)
  • UC San Diego (Beautiful weather, close to north San Diego and a wonderful campus)
  • UC Santa Barbara (Small city town known for beautiful weather, fun, sun and beach town. Located north of Los Angeles)
  • UC Santa Cruz (Situated in the city of Santa Cruz, about 35 miles west of San Jose).
  • UC San Francisco (graduate/professional degrees only)

UC campuses are more selective in their admissions with some of the campuses such as UCLA receiving more than 135,000 applications for admission to their undergraduate program. You need to be in the top 10% of your high school class to have a fair shot at admission at one of the UC campuses.

Required GPA for UC Colleges

Below is the admit rate, admits and average GPA for each of these campuses:

CampusAdmitsAdmit Rate75%-25% GPA
Los Angeles15,00410.8%4.32-4.19
San Diego40,61634.3%
Santa Barbara30,86029.2%4.29-4.10
Santa Cruz36,27558.8%4.20-3.80

UC only considers the grades after the summer of 9th grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, and the summer after 11th grade. They do not look at your courses and grades from 9th grade or 12th grade.

As any student can see from the table above, UC Berekely and UCLA are the most competitive schools to get into and require any student to be in the top 5% of your high school class and even a higher rank if you are considering to apply to Computer Science, Engineering and Business programs. UC also has moved away from standardized scores and they do look at the rigor of your courses and weighted GPA.

UC Programs

Most of the UCs have a strong engineering and business program. UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, and UC Davis also have strong biology programs for undergraduate students.

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CSU System | California State University

Meanwhile, CSU offers more than twice as many options with 23 campuses and a total of around 447,000 students. It is the largest public four-year university system in the US.

The CSU offers one of the most affordable and high-quality college educations in the nation. In addition, 83% of undergraduate students qualify for financial aid. Most CSU students remain in the state after graduation, applying their skills and knowledge to help California’s economy thrive.​

CSU Colleges

The CSU campuses are listed below and all of them are spread over the whole state to support studies for students from local high-school who want to stay in the state and want to study locally.

CSU colleges also have a lower cost per credit hour and provide a more affordable education option if you do not have the funds to support your education or do not have a full ride to education.

Here are a few ways to look at the comparison among both the systems as you try to make a decision to apply to UC and or CSU. These also touch upon the pros and cons of UC vs CSU.

UC vs CSU: Which is Better for You?

CSU vs UC Acceptance Rate

UC admits around 12.5% of the top high school graduates. UCLA has the lowest acceptance rate (14%) and UC Merced has the highest (85%). Typically, other UCs have got an acceptance rate of around 40%.

CSU colleges have higher acceptance rates. They admit around 35% of all high school graduates.

UC vs CSU Requirements

Both systems have simpler requirements compared to many other colleges in the US. Both the systems primarily look at your high school courses, rigor, and the grades in the courses. UCs also have a few essay prompts while CSU does not have them.

So CSU is just as simple as it gets for applying to the university. When it comes to the minimum subject requirements, both CSU and UC require students to complete the “a-g” courses with a grade of a C or better. These courses are as follows:

  • History/Social Science: Two years, including one year of world history and one year of U.S. history or one half-year of U.S. history and one half-year of American government
  • English: Four years of college prep classes
  • Mathematics: Three years required (algebra I, geometry, and algebra II)
  • Laboratory Science: Two years (lab biology, chemistry or physics)
  • Foreign Language: Two years in the same language (other than English)
  • Visual and Performing Arts: One year required (dance, drama/theater, music or visual art)
  • College Preparatory Electives: One year of college preparatory elective

UC vs CSU Tuition, Cost and Financial Aid

CSU is clearly a lot cheaper to attend than UC. However, there is a significant difference in overall academics and reputation.

  • The approximate cost of attendance for UC is $38,504 per annum for in-state (California resident) and $69,710 per annum for non-residents.
  • The average cost of attendance for CSU is $25,466 per year for residents and $40,000 – $50,000 per year for non-residents.

UC’s high cost, 56% of California undergrads at UC pay absolutely nothing towards tuition. As for CSU, there are tons of merit-based scholarships you can apply for to try to save some money.

UC vs CSU: For Medical School

Since medical school is a graduate program so students can study at UC or CSU if they are looking for a medical degree as far as they complete the pre-med course requirements.

Definitely, UC has more options for students in terms of research, better facilities, and professors during the undergraduate studies but there is also more competition and pressure to stay ahead of your classmates.

Medical schools like to have diversity in their class profile so sometimes being a top student at a smaller college helps compared to being a mediocre student at a large public university.

If you are interested in areas like psychology, anthropology, English, political sciences, and many other majors, CSU may not be a bad option compared to UC colleges as you may be able to get a good education and a college degree at a substantially reduced cost.

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UC vs CSU Engineering

Definitely, UC is a better option if you are looking at doing engineering or computer science. UCs have better facilities, research, and professors associated with the engineering and sciences department. Since computer science has become more about having good, strong coding skills, many students can opt to study CS at a CSU campus and some of the campuses such as San Luis Obispo and San Jose State are known to have good programs.

Related Post: How to Build Profile for Top Engineering Colleges


The GPA requirements for UC are very high, in fact, one of the highest in the country. Most of the students getting admitted to UC are in the top 5-10% of their graduating high school class. CSU GPA requirements can vary and you can gain admission into one of the CSU campuses with a B average.

UC vs CSU for Jobs

Jobs are definitely easier to find in California given the large economy and number of companies in the region. Always easier to find jobs from the UC since many companies come for on-campus recruiting.

However, 60-70% of all jobs are filled through networks and contacts so students who are focused on networking, are hard-working, have the technical skills, can find jobs in the region in a wide variety of industries in the region from high tech to entertainment to logistics and public sector.

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UC vs CSU Education

Education-wise, UC has an upper edge over CSU just because you are surrounded by students who have been among the top graduates in their class, a faculty that is world-renowned, state-of-the-art labs, and research facilities that have more grants than many colleges in the world. However, given the size of UC classes, it may be challenging sometimes to get the more coveted classes on the campus.

CSU schools tend to focus on maintaining small, direct class sizes, while UC systems are based on a self-motivated style of learning. The reputations of UC schools are higher than those of the CSU system, but this is a skewed understanding.

UC vs CSU Transfer Requirements

The transfer requirements are similar for both UC and CSU and similar to the admission requirements where they focus on courses in college and grades. Read more about transfer applications.

Conclusion: UC vs CSU

It’s important to note that neither public university system is better than the other—as long as you know which one is best for you. One of the main differences between UC and CSU schools is their approaches to education. Those interested in advancing their career in academia, research, and theory skills should strongly consider attending a UC.  

  • UC schools are more expensive.
  • UC offers research-oriented education.
  • CSU offers education appropriate for professional positions that are not research-oriented.
  • CSU leans toward developing smaller class sizes.
  • UC schools carry a better reputation.
  • UC schools are a good choice for postgraduate studies. Undergraduate options are research-orientated.
  • Credits are not easily transferred between the two systems.
  • CSU classes are more likely to be taught by a single, consistent professor.

Read Why Universities in California Offer Great Value to International Students Looking to Study in the USA?

Neither the UC nor the CSU system is better than the other – rather, students may be more suited to a particular system due to their academic and/or career goals.

If you want to find out more about UC or CSU admissions, set up some time with one of our counselors or send an email to customer.support@stoodnt.com or book a 1-on-1 Session with one of our counselors.

Featured Image Source: GoodDay

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

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