Story Social Mobility

CSU Ranks High for Value and Upward Mobility

Alisia Ruble

National rankings highlight the transformative power of a CSU degree to improve students’ lives.

​​​​​​​The California State University is frequently recognized for providing a high-quality education at an unequaled value, opening doors to educational opportunities for all Californians. Several recent national college rankings reinforce the power of a CSU degree to change the trajectory of students’ lives forever. 

Washington Monthly included all 23 CSU campuses in the top three-quarters of the “Best Bang for the Buck" colleges in the West, ranking Stanislaus No. 1 for value. Los Angeles (3), San Bernardino (5), Northridge (6), Bakersfield (9) and Long Beach (10) also ranked in the top 10.
Nineteen CSU campuses were ranked in the Washington Monthly’s top master's institutions, with San Bernardino (3), Stanislaus (9) and Los Angeles (10) in the top 10. Fresno and San Diego were among the publication’s top national institutions—four-year schools that award a significant number of doctoral degrees—and Cal Maritime was ranked No. 7 out of 248 of schools that almost exclusively award bachelor's degrees

Washington Monthly says it ranks colleges “based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: social mobility, research and promoting public service,” and how much they help non-wealthy students obtain marketable degrees at affordable prices. The CSU’s high rankings are a testament to the university’s success in educating more economically disadvantaged students at lower tuition and graduating them into well-paying jobs. 

Nearly all 23 campuses ranked in the top third of Money Magazine’s list of the “Best Colleges in America” and more than half of them were included in Money’s sub- ranking of the 50 “Most Transformative ​Colleges,” with San José earning the top spot in the nation. Stanislaus (5), Northridge (6), Fresno (7), Sacramento (9) and Pomona (10) also landed in the top 10. In addition, CSU campuses made up nearly one-quarter of Money’s list of the “Best Public Colleges” in the country. 

In U.S. News & World Report's 2021 "Best Colleges" rankings, CSU campuses dominated the list of the "Top Performers on Social Mobility​" among regional universities in the West, with Long Beach (2), San José​ (3), Pomona (5-tie), Monterey Bay (5-tie), Stanislaus (7), and Fullerton (9) in the top 10. The pulication also recognized CSU among the top public schools in the West, listing San Luis Obispo at No. 1 among regional universities and Cal Maritime at No. 2 among regional colleges.

Business Insider compiled its own list of the nation’s 24 colleges with the best return on investment this year, based on tuition figures and alumni earnings, and included Los Angeles (12), Dominguez Hills (14), Bakersfield (18) and Stanislaus (22). Most of the universities included were public schools like the CSU, which typically accept more first-generation students from underserved communities and propel them into higher economic strata following graduation. In fact, nearly one-third of all CSU undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college.

The added value of a college degree was a key factor in the rankings results as each of them stressed the importance of earning a degree that promises upward mobility in a time of uncertain economic outcomes. A recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates bring in $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime and a study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. This is especially important as the state, and the nation, face a probable economic downturn due to the pandemic. 

At $5,742 a year, the CSU represents the best value of all comparable institutions and sets aside one-third of new revenue from tuition fees to assist economically disadvantaged students. The combination of affordability and robust financial aid enables the university to provide all Californians with opportunities to pursue a high-quality education. Over 60% of all undergraduates have their tuition fully covered by grants and waivers and, in general, CSU students don’t pay tuition if their family’s total income is less than $70,000.

​Additionally, CSU students graduate with far less debt than their peers. More than half of students who earn bachelor’s degrees from the university graduate with zero education loan debt, and for those who do, the average amount is about $17,000—nearly a quarter less than the statewide average an​d 40% less than the national average.

CSU students are also earning degrees at a higher rate than ever before thanks to the university’s Graduation Initiative 2025​, which has improved completion rates for all students, resulting in record numbers of graduates entering the workforce each year. Improving time to degree also means students spend less time in college, saving money and advancing their careers sooner.

These rankings represent just the latest round of national acclaim for CSU’s value, academic excellence and contributions to the public good. View more accolades on our "Best Of" page.