USC vs. UCLA—Which College Is the Best Fit for You? (2024)

April 12, 2024

ucla vs usc

The University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) are two of America’s most prominent higher education institutions. They are both incredibly prestigious undergraduate, graduate, and research institutions. Both campuses sit within the city of Los Angeles, giving their students access to rare opportunities in art, the sciences, and business. It can be hard to tell the difference between two similarly situated places. Particularly, if you are a high school student (or the parent of a student) considering applying to one or both of these schools, it may seem difficult to understand what makes one stand apart from the other. What are the most important differences? And how should you think about these two schools? In this article, we’ll dive into the most important distinctions between USC and UCLA. The differences between USC vs UCLA include:

  • The private versus public school experience
  • The most prominent programs and majors, and
  • The admissions prospects at each school

First, let’s take a look at a brief overview of each university.

The University of Southern California (USC) 

Founded in 1880, it is the oldest private research university in California. It functions as a private public-benefit nonprofit corporation, run by a board of trustees with 50 voting members and other long-term non-voting members.

USC is ranked number 22 out of 400 public and private universities in the United States, according to the 2024 Wall Street Journal/College Pulse Rankings. USC is also ranked in the top five among all California public and private higher education institutions. Those rankings consider student experience, salary impact, and social mobility.

In the 2023-2024 academic year, the school had 21,000 undergraduates and 26,000 graduate and professional students. The overall student population totals 47,000 people. There are 4,767 full-time faculty, more than 18,000 staff members, and 8,654 student workers, a number which does not include teaching and research assistants.

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For that same academic year, the undergraduate tuition was $66,640 and fees were $1,488. But total expected costs for room and board, books, tuition, fees, and general costs of living on campus total more than $90,000. The average amount of student aid, including private and federal grants, loans, and scholarships is $45,262, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Given the cost of attendance, living, and financial aid, the average net price for all incoming, first-year students in 2021 was nearly $37,000.

In sports, the USC Trojans compete in the NCAA as a part of the PAC-12.

The campus sits in the University Park district of Los Angeles, two miles outside of downtown.

The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) 

Founded in 1881, the University of California, Los Angeles began as the southern branch of the California State Normal School. A “normal school” is a school that trains teachers. The normal school evolved into San Jose State University, which was transferred to the University of California system in 1919, when it became UCLA. It is the second-oldest campus in the ten-campus UC system, with UC Berkeley being the oldest.

In 2023, UCLA was ranked as the no. 1 public university, along with UC Berkeley, as determined by US News and World Report. It sits at no. 20 in overall institutions (public and private), as ranked by US News and World Report. UCLA is quick to point out that the US News and World Report rankings “place more emphasis on factors that tend to favor private universities, such as endowment size, rate of alumni giving and student-faculty ratios. Nevertheless, they can be a useful tool that focuses largely on factors related to undergraduate education.”

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For the 2023–2024 academic year, there are 32,423 undergraduate students at UCLA, 14,007 graduate students, 5,247 international students, and 7,941 faculty members. There are 4,525 graduate assistants working on campus.

Tuition and fees for this academic year are less expensive than those at USC, even considering out-of-state student costs. At UCLA, current tuition for in-state students is $13,747, and for out-of-state students, tuition is $44,524. Fees for both sets of students are $1,574. Total expenses for in-state students living on-campus—including things like room, board, tuition, fees, and books—totals $38,031 for one academic year. For out-of-state students living on campus, the total cost for one academic year is roughly $68,808.

The average amount of student aid, including private and federal grants, loans, and scholarships is $45,262, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Given financial aid, averaging for in-and-out-of-state students, and total costs, the median “net price” for full-time, incoming students in 2021 was nearly $17,000.

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In sports, the UCLA Bruins compete in the NCAA as a part of the PAC-12.

The campus is located in Westwood, Los Angeles, which includes the Westwood Village, a historic, walkable neighborhood located in the car-centric city.

The private versus public school experience

Perhaps the most important distinction between USC and UCLA is the fact that one is a private institution and the other is a public institution, respectively. For students, that will show up most in the price tag. This is particularly important for in-state, California families, though the costs between public and private schools—and access to financial aid—is always relevant, no matter what state students are coming from.

Revisiting some information from the previous sections, the average “net price” at both schools is different. The net price is an estimation of the cost of attendance for an academic year which takes the cost of tuition, fees, the average cost of living, and then subtracts the average financial aid package received by students. Keep in mind, a financial aid package can also include federal student aid loans, which will have to be paid back. So, this number can certainly grow, and is only an average based on different student experiences.

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At USC, the average “net price” is about $37,000.

At UCLA, the average “net price” (averaged across both in-and-out-of-state students) is about $17,000.

So, clearly, the cost at UCLA is substantially less because of public funding, but the scholarships and grants at USC might be larger because of private endowments. At the end of the day, your individual situation will determine your financial aid package. It could very well be that you qualify for enough institutional and federal grants and scholarships that your cost of attendance is lower at USC than at UCLA. The only way to find out is to apply to both and see. But if you’re an in-state student and you know that you need to minimize costs, you might not be able to beat the in-state tuition.

It’s also worth noting that UCLA is part of the state of California’s Master Plan adopted in 1960 to guarantee higher education opportunities to all California residents. According to the California Board of Regents, the University of California “is designated the State’s primary academic research institution and is to provide undergraduate, graduate and professional education.” The UC system (including UCLA) has “exclusive jurisdiction in public higher education for doctoral degrees (with the exception that CSU can award joint doctorates) and for instruction in law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine.”

The equally public California State University (CSU—not USC) is charged with, by contrast, “undergraduate education and graduate education through the master’s degree, with particular emphasis on ‘polytechnic’ fields and teacher education. Faculty research is authorized consistent with the primary function of instruction. Doctorates can be awarded jointly with UC or an independent institution.”

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Finally, the California Community Colleges have a different job. Their primary mission is “providing academic and vocational instruction for older and younger students through the first two years of undergraduate education.”

It’s worth noting that the UC system was instructed to select from the top 12.5% of high school graduating classes. The California State University system was to select from the top 33.3% of a high school graduating class. And the community colleges are supposed to admit any student capable of “benefiting from instruction.”

So, these diverse missions on the part of the state of California help to inform the way in which UCLA functions, particularly as the most selective of the UC system schools. It’s followed closely by UC Berkeley. They can also help you to understand what you might consider if you’re thinking about transferring from a community college to UCLA. This article might also help you out, too.

Transferring to USC is a different story. Check out this detailed write-up on the prospects of transferring to USC for more help.

In the end, you’ll want to think about which campus, field of study, and overall “vibe” at the school feels better to you as a student. It’s worth talking to current students about their experiences as you go through the admissions process. Ask what they like best about the school, why they chose UCLA or USC, and what they notice about being at a public or private school.

Most prominent programs and majors

At USC, the most popular majors for undergraduates are Business (by a long shot), Visual and Performing Arts, Social Science, and Engineering.

Interestingly, at UCLA, the Social Sciences are far and away the most popular group of majors at UCLA. This includes things like Economics, Political Science, and Sociology (the three most popular in the overall group). This is followed by the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Psychology, and Mathematics.

Admissions prospects at USC and UCLA 

In the 2023–2024 academic year, USC received 80,808 applications and admitted 8,094 students. That’s an admissions rate of 10 percent. Out of those admitted, 3,633 accepted and enrolled. The middle 50 percent, average, unweighted GPA was 3.79–4.00. More than 25 percent of the 2023 incoming class are first-generation college students. This means that they are the first in their family to attend a college or university.

Those numbers are more competitive than the year previous, 2022–2023, when 69,062 students applied and 12 percent were accepted.

In the 2023–2024 academic year, UCLA saw a whopping 145,910 applicants and admitted 12,737 students. That’s an admissions rate of 9 percent. Out of those admitted, 6,587 enrolled. The middle 50 percent unweighted GPA for admitted students was 3.95–4.0. Among first-year students who are from the United States, 27 percent are also first-generation students.

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Those numbers are pretty consistent with the previous admissions cycle at UCLA. In 2022, there were more than 149,000 applicants and 9 percent admitted. About half of those students also enrolled in 2022.

You’re up against competitive odds at both schools. To make the most of your application, talk to a College Transitions counselor to get yourself on the road to being a Bruin or a Trojan—whichever you prefer.

UCLA vs USC – Additional Resources

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