USC vs. UCLA Which College Is the Best Fit for You to Study? 2024

The University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) stand as towering pillars in the landscape of American higher education. Renowned for their academic excellence, research contributions, and vibrant campus cultures, both institutions offer a plethora of opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students alike. Nestled within the bustling city of Los Angeles, they provide unparalleled access to diverse fields ranging from the arts and sciences to business and beyond. Yet, for high school students and their parents embarking on the college application journey, distinguishing between these two prestigious universities can pose a challenge. What sets them apart, and how should one navigate the decision-making process? In this article, we’ll explore the key differences between USC and UCLA to help you gain clarity and make informed decisions.

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The University of Southern California (USC)

The University of Southern California (USC), established in 1880, holds the distinction of being California’s oldest private research university. Operating as a private public-benefit nonprofit corporation, it is governed by a board of trustees comprising 50 voting members and other long-term non-voting members.

USC boasts an impressive academic standing, ranking 22nd out of 400 public and private universities in the United States, according to the 2024 Wall Street Journal/College Pulse Rankings. Furthermore, it secures a spot in the top five among all California public and private higher education institutions, based on metrics such as student experience, salary impact, and social mobility.

With a student body totaling 47,000 individuals, USC welcomed 21,000 undergraduates and 26,000 graduate and professional students during the 2023-2024 academic year. This diverse population is supported by 4,767 full-time faculty members, over 18,000 staff members, and 8,654 student workers, excluding teaching and research assistants.

For the same academic year, undergraduate tuition at USC stood at $66,640, accompanied by fees of $1,488. However, when factoring in additional expenses such as room and board, books, and general living costs on campus, the total expected cost exceeds $90,000. Fortunately, the average student aid package, inclusive of private and federal grants, loans, and scholarships, amounts to $45,262, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite the comprehensive financial aid offerings, the average net price for incoming first-year students in 2021 approached $37,000, reflecting the realities of attending USC.

On the athletic front, the USC Trojans compete in the NCAA as members of the PAC-12 conference.

Situated in the University Park district of Los Angeles, USC’s campus is located just two miles outside downtown, providing students with access to a vibrant urban environment.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) 

Founded in 1881, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has a rich history that traces back to its origins as the southern branch of the California State Normal School. Initially established to train teachers, the institution evolved over the years, eventually becoming UCLA in 1919, as part of the University of California system. It stands as the second-oldest campus in the UC system, with UC Berkeley holding the distinction of being the oldest.

In 2023, UCLA earned the esteemed title of the no. 1 public university, sharing this accolade with UC Berkeley, according to US News and World Report. Additionally, it secured the 20th position among all institutions (public and private) in the same rankings. It’s worth noting that UCLA acknowledges the biases inherent in rankings such as those of US News and World Report, which tend to favor private institutions due to factors like endowment size and alumni giving. Nonetheless, these rankings offer valuable insights into factors related to undergraduate education.

For the 2023–2024 academic year, UCLA boasts a robust student body, with 32,423 undergraduate students, 14,007 graduate students, 5,247 international students, and 7,941 faculty members. Additionally, there are 4,525 graduate assistants contributing to campus life.

In terms of tuition and fees, UCLA presents a more cost-effective option compared to USC, even for out-of-state students. In-state tuition stands at $13,747, while out-of-state students pay $44,524, with both groups incurring fees of $1,574. When factoring in additional expenses like room, board, and books for on-campus living, the total cost amounts to $38,031 for in-state students and approximately $68,808 for out-of-state students per academic year.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average student aid package, encompassing private and federal grants, loans, and scholarships, equals $45,262.

Taking into consideration financial aid and total expenses for both in-state and out-of-state students, the median “net price” for full-time incoming students in 2021 was nearly $17,000.

Comparing the private versus public school experience

One of the most significant disparities between USC and UCLA lies in their institutional structures—one private and the other public, respectively. For students, this contrast is most evident in the price tag attached to their education. While this discrepancy is particularly pertinent for in-state families in California, the distinction between public and private schools, as well as access to financial aid, holds relevance regardless of the students’ state of origin.

As previously mentioned, the average “net price” at each institution varies. The net price represents an estimate of the annual cost of attendance, encompassing tuition, fees, average living expenses, and subtracting the average financial aid package received by students. It’s crucial to note that financial aid packages may include federal student aid loans, which require repayment, potentially increasing the overall cost. Therefore, the net price serves as an average based on diverse student experiences.

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USC vs. UCLA Which College Is the Best Fit for You to Study?

  • At USC, the average net price is approximately $37,000.
  • At UCLA, the average net price (averaged across both in-state and out-of-state students) is approximately $17,000.

Clearly, the cost at UCLA is significantly lower due to public funding, whereas USC may offer larger scholarships and grants owing to private endowments. However, individual circumstances determine the financial aid package. Some students may qualify for substantial institutional and federal grants and scholarships, resulting in lower attendance costs at USC than UCLA. The only way to ascertain this is by applying to both institutions. However, for in-state students seeking to minimize costs, UCLA’s in-state tuition may present an unbeatable option.

It’s noteworthy that UCLA is part of California’s Master Plan adopted in 1960, aiming to ensure higher education opportunities for all California residents. According to the California Board of Regents, the University of California is designated as the state’s primary academic research institution, offering undergraduate, graduate, and professional education. In contrast, the public California State University (CSU) focuses on undergraduate and select graduate education, particularly emphasizing “polytechnic” fields and teacher education. While faculty research is permitted, the primary function remains instruction, and doctoral degrees can be awarded jointly with UC or an independent institution.

Comparison between USC and UCLA

Lastly, the California Community Colleges fulfill a distinct role in the educational landscape. Their primary objective is to provide academic and vocational instruction for students of varying ages, offering courses equivalent to the first two years of undergraduate education.

It’s important to recognize that the UC system is mandated to admit students from the top 12.5% of high school graduating classes, while the California State University system selects from the top 33.3%. Conversely, community colleges are open to any student capable of benefiting from instruction.

These varied missions established by the state of California significantly influence UCLA’s operational framework, particularly as it stands as the most selective institution within the UC system. This positioning is closely followed by UC Berkeley. Furthermore, understanding these distinctions can assist individuals contemplating transferring from a community college to UCLA.

Ultimately, when considering UCLA versus USC or any other institution, it’s crucial to contemplate factors such as campus culture, academic programs, and overall atmosphere. Engaging with current students to glean insights into their experiences can be invaluable during the admissions process. Asking about their preferences, reasons for choosing UCLA or USC, and observations regarding the differences between public and private institutions can provide valuable perspectives.

Prominent Programs and Majors

At USC, Business emerges as the undisputed leader among undergraduate majors, followed by Visual and Performing Arts, Social Science, and Engineering.

Conversely, at UCLA, the Social Sciences claim the top spot as the most favored group of majors. This category encompasses disciplines such as Economics, Political Science, and Sociology, ranking as the top three within the group. Following closely are the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Psychology, and Mathematics.

Admissions Prospects at USC and UCLA

In the 2023–2024 academic year, USC received a staggering 80,808 applications and admitted 8,094 students, resulting in an admission rate of 10 percent. Of those admitted, 3,633 enrolled, with the middle 50 percent unweighted GPA ranging from 3.79 to 4.00. Notably, over 25 percent of the incoming class were first-generation college students, marking a significant milestone for their families.

Comparatively, UCLA experienced a similarly high demand, with 145,910 applicants vying for admission. The university admitted 12,737 students, translating to a competitive admission rate of 9 percent. Of the admitted students, 6,587 chose to enroll. The middle 50 percent unweighted GPA for admitted students ranged from 3.95 to 4.0, reflecting the academic rigor of UCLA’s applicant pool. Additionally, 27 percent of first-year students from the United States identified as first-generation college students.

These statistics underscore the competitive nature of admissions at both USC and UCLA, with each institution attracting a diverse pool of high-achieving applicants. To navigate the admissions process successfully, consider seeking guidance from a College Transitions counselor, who can provide valuable insights and support tailored to your individual goals and aspirations.


The choice between USC and UCLA is a significant decision that requires careful consideration of various factors, including academic programs, campus culture, financial considerations, and admissions prospects. Both institutions offer unique opportunities for personal and academic growth, with USC’s private status and UCLA’s public affiliation shaping distinct experiences for students. While USC boasts a rich history and strong programs in business, arts, and engineering, UCLA excels in social sciences, biological sciences, and mathematics. Despite their differences, both universities provide a pathway to academic excellence and success, and the decision ultimately depends on individual preferences, goals, and priorities.