Top Nursing Schools in California

Nurse taking notes in seminar audience
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If you're looking for a top nursing school in California, the search can be daunting. California is such a populous state that it is home to 181 institutions that offer some form of nursing degree. When we remove for-profit colleges from the list, the state still has 140 options for nursing.

However, 100 of those schools don't offer degrees beyond the associate's level. A nursing certification or two-year degree can certainly lead to a career in nursing, but you'll find that your salary will be significantly higher with a bachelor of science in nursing degree (BSN) or graduate degree, and you'll also have far more opportunities for career advancement.

The schools below all have a bachelor's degree program in nursing, and most also have graduate programs. They were selected based on a range of factors including the size and reputation of the nursing program, the campus facilities, and the availability of meaningful clinical experiences.

Azusa Pacific University

Azusa Pacific University Library
Azusa Pacific University Library. Bill Selak / Flickr

Nursing is by far the most popular undergraduate major at Azusa Pacific University (APU), where roughly one-third of all undergraduates are working towards their BSN degree. This private Christian university has a holistic approach to nursing, and the school offers a range of bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree programs. At the undergraduate level, APU has a traditional four-year BSN program for students coming out of high school as well as programs designed for transfer students and students who have completed an associate's degree in nursing.

APU students gain hands-on experiences with the school's simulators and virtual patients, and they also clock many clinical hours at a range of teaching hospitals, community health centers, and medical research facilities. True to its Christian identity, APU also has opportunities for health missions both locally and internationally at locations including Mexico, Uganda, and Haiti.

Mount Saint Mary's University

The Doheny Mansion on the Mount Saint Mary's campus in Los Angeles
The Doheny Mansion on the Mount Saint Mary's campus in Los Angeles.

Bobak Ha'Eri / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 

Mount Saint Mary's University was the first California school to offer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree when the program opened its doors in 1928. Nursing is the most popular undergraduate major at the university with roughly two hundred nursing students earning their bachelor's degrees each year. The Mount also has a strong associate's degree program in nursing and accelerated three-semester BSN program for students who already have a bachelor's degree in another field.

Mount Saint Mary's Los Angeles location provides a wealth of options for clinical experiences at area hospitals and agencies. Employment opportunities after graduation are also excellent with growing demand from areas such as home care and community health agencies.

Mount Saint Mary's is primarily a women's college—women make up 94% of the total student body.

California State University - Fullerton

Mihaylo Hall at California State University Fullerton
Mihaylo Hall at California State University Fullerton. JimFeliciano / Getty Images

Part of the College of Health and Human Development, Cal State Fullerton's School of Nursing has degree programs at the baccalaureate, master's, and doctoral level. The BSN program graduates over 200 students ever year, and the school typically has a pass rate on the NCLEX examination of over 90%.

The Nursing Simulation Center helps prepare students for interactions with human patients. The facility has a conference room, debriefing room, two adult medical surgical simulation rooms, a reproductive health and child health area, a skills lab with multiple beds and mannequin patients, a practice exam room, and a library.

CSUF has numerous partners in southern California where students can gain clinical and practicum experiences. Possibilities include Children's Hospital Los Angeles, Los Alamitos Medical Center, St. Jude Medical center, VA Long Beach, UC Irvine Medical Center, and many others.

California State University - Long Beach

Student Recreation and Wellness Center at CSULB
Student Recreation and Wellness Center at CSULB. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

The California State University at Long Beach's School of Nursing offers degrees at the baccalaureate and master's level. Students can earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree through a consortium of Cal State schools that includes Long Beach. The university has programs for traditional undergraduates who enter as first-year students and for students who come to CSULB having earned a two-year nursing degree. The nursing school has a partnership with Long Beach Community College to make the transition to the bachelor's degree program as seamless as possible.

CSULB's urban location just south of Los Angeles allows for a wide range of clinical opportunities, and the university prides itself in preparing its graduates to assume both collaborative and leadership roles in the health care community. Note that nursing is the most selective program at CSU Long Beach, and the admissions standards will be significantly higher than they are for the university as a whole. The university has one of the highest NCLEX pass rates in the state.

California State University - San Marcos

California State University San Marcos
California State University San Marcos.

 Thomas / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Nursing enrolls more students than any other major at Cal State San Marcos, and the school graduates well over 500 nursing students each year. The success and popularity of the program is remarkable given that it is so young, having been founded in 2006. It is also impressive that the most recent cohort of students had a 97.71% pass rate on the NCLEX exam.

Nursing students who want to get out into the local community will be drawn to CSUSM's Student Healthcare Project. Students work with licensed medical professionals to offer free healthcare clinics in San Diego County. The program brings healthcare to poor and uninsured community members. The university also has clinical partnerships with dozens of hospitals, healthcare facilities, and school districts in southern California.

Fresno State University

Fresno State University
Fresno State University.

Nightryder84 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0


Part of Fresno State's College of Health and Human Services, the School of Nursing graduates well over 100 BSN students each year and a a few dozen students at the master's level. The university features state-of-the-art classrooms and simulation laboratories. Some courses are available on-line. The BSN program has a 90% pass rate on the NCLEX examination.

Fresno State is the largest university in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California, and students have opportunities for clinical placements at the region's top health care providers. Partners include St. Agnes Medical Center, Valley Children's Hospital, Community Hospitals of Central California, and the VA Medical Center.

San Diego State University

Hepner Hall at SDSU. Photo Credit: Marisa Benjamin

Nursing is one of the larger majors at San Diego State University, and the school offers many paths to a BSN degree. Students can enter as traditional first-year undergraduates, transfer students, or second baccalaureate students. Pass rates on the NCLEX examination have been in the 95% to 98% range in recent years.

The university has numerous facilities to support nursing students. The Media Lab has 24 computer workstations for viewing training and educational videos, and medical diagnostic equipment is available for check-out. The Nursing Fundamentals Skills Lab is used primarily by first-year nursing students to practice their skills with 10 mannequins. In the Health Assessment Lab, more advanced nursing students practice interviewing and assessment skills with both simulators and real humans acting as patients. Finally, the Sharp Healthcare Human Patient Simulation Center creates a realistic hospital unit environment for medical simulations.


University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Geri Lavrov / Getty Images

Offering degree programs ranging from the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and PhD in Nursing, the UCLA School of Nursing is not just a top California nursing school, but a top national nursing school. The master's programs have the highest enrollments, and the specialization in family nursing is the most popular at UCLA.

The School of Nursing places significant emphasis on research, and UCLA ranks among the top institutions in the nation for research funded by the National Institutes of Health. The strength of UCLA's classroom and clinical training is apparent in their NCLEX pass rates: 96% for undergraduate students and 95% for master's students.

University of San Francisco

University of San Francisco
University of San Francisco. Michael Fraley / Flickr

Nursing is one of the most popular majors at the University of San Francisco, and nearly 200 undergrads earn a BSN each year. The university has a holistic approach to nursing, and the curriculum is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences. Along with nursing classes, undergraduates will take courses in areas such as public speaking, math, ethics, literature, and the arts.

Like all top nursing schools, the University of San Francisco's School of Nursing and Health Professions has a hands-on, experiential approach to learning. Students will develop their skills in the Clinical Skills Lab and Simulation Center before participating in the Preceptor Programs that are offered at health care facilities throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Grove, Allen. "Top Nursing Schools in California." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Grove, Allen. (2020, August 28). Top Nursing Schools in California. Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "Top Nursing Schools in California." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 23, 2021).