National news magazine U.S. News & World Report has been ranking the nation's best colleges since 1983. While it's not the alpha and omega of summing up an institution, it offers a solid starting point. Below are the top universities in Southern California as ranked by the aforementioned publication (circa 2012-2013), along with some additional information on the schools. Of course there is other personally germane criteria through which to judge academic institutions (facilities, lifestyle, particular programs).
If you're casting a wide net and looking for something in California, I also suggest you check out Wikipedia's list of colleges and universities in California and then have a look at U.S. News & World Report's complete a to z list of universities for further reference.
1. California Institute of Technology
#5 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
Tuition and fees: $37,704
Cal Tech is a private science and engineering school involved in research projects with grants from NASA, among others. It boasts a very low student to faculty member ratio (3:1). The academic and research institution also has the distinction of having had over 30 of its alumni and faculty win the Nobel Prize.
345 South Hill Ave.
Pasadena, CA 91106
2. University of Southern California
#23 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
Tuition and fees: $42,818
USC is a private school whose School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) is well-known and respected within the film and television industries. Some of the SCA's alums include Robert Zemeckis, Judd Apatow, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.
In addition, USC boasts an impressive #9 ranking among U.S. News & World Report's Best Undergraduate Business Schools.
University Park Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90089
3. University of California Los Angeles
#25 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
In-state tuition and fees: $11,604
Out-of-state tuition and fees: $34,482
The University of California Los Angeles offers over 3,000 courses and more than 130 majors to undergraduate students.
UCLA's law program ranks highly as well, coming in at #15 amongst U.S. News & World Report's Best Law Schools. Tuition for the grad program is $44,922 per year for in-state full-time students; $54,767 for out-of-state full-time students.
Continuing Education at UCLA Extension:
Those wishing to explore a subject without enrolling in a full academic program can select many niche and vocational courses from UCLA Extension's eclectic catalogue. These often operate at night and are geared towards professionals who may want instruction on everything from screenwriting to graphic design to foreign languages.
405 Hilgard Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90095
4. University of California San Diego
#37 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
In-state tuition and fees: $12,128
Out-of-state tuition and fees: $35,006
Close to 40 percent of UCSD's classes have less than 20 students in them. Their student-faculty ratio is 19:1. The university has a high level of research activity. It operates the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, UC San Diego Medical Center, San Diego Supercomputer Center, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
9500 Gilman Dr.
La Jolla, CA 92093
5. University of California Irvine
#45 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
In-state tuition and fees: $12,902
Out-of-state tuition and fees: $35,780
Admissions at UC Irvine are considered 'most selective.' The school operates on a quarter-based academic year. Notable alums include Olympic athlete Greg Louganis, comedian Jon Lovitz, and writers Michael Chabon and Richard Ford.
531 Pereira Dr.
Irvine, CA 92697
6. Pepperdine University
#55 in U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges
Tuition and fees: $40,752
This private institution follows a semester based academic year. Former LA mayor James Hahn is among the school's alums. Famed stone-faced actor/writer/lawyer Ben Stein teaches law at Pepperdine, which is #49 among U.S. News & World Report's Best Law Schools (with a full-time tuition cost of $42,840).
In addition to its Malibu campus, Pepperdine also has international campuses in Germany, Italy, England, China, Argentina and Switzerland.
24255 Pacific Coast Hwy.
Malibu, CA 90263