Profile: Saint Mary’s College of California

Saint Mary’s College of California is the twelfth of the Colleges That Change Lives that I have had the privilege to visit, and it has the nicest location among all of them. Set in a picturesque valley near San Francisco, Saint Mary’s is also the only one of the College That Change Lives that competes in NCAA Division I varsity scholarship athletics. It’s teams, the Gaels, compete in the West Coast Conference, one of the most competitive mid-major basketball conferences in the country. I had the opportunity to spend a day there, and write a profile of the school. I have also gathered some photos on Pinterest.

One of only seven Lasallean Brothers colleges in the US, Saint Mary’s is an excellent school for a student who is undecided between the liberal arts and either business or education. Students are admitted to the college, not a major, and do not need to declare their major until the end of their sophomore year. Unique features of the curriculum include an annual Collegiate Seminar, one course each year based on the Great Books and a January term where students take one course that must be outside their major, and may be taken abroad or off campus. The college also has a very large alumni base in the Bay Area, over 18,000 strong, to support its student body. To lend perspective, there are fewer than 5,000 Rutgers alumni based there, less than 7,000 from Penn State’s main campus, and fewer than 14,000 from the University of Illinois’ main campus. 

Saint Mary’s has interesting degree options for a small (2,800 undergraduates) school, especially in business and the performing arts. Students also have the option of designing their own major. The college also offers the option of pursing a cross-disciplinary curriculum called the Integral Program that is based more extensively on the Great Books. Saint Mary’s students held their faculty in much higher regard on than their peers at Loyola Marymount, Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco as well as the University of California-Santa Cruz. This is not an exceptionally selective school—a B/B+ student with SATs between 1050 and 1200 should get in—but it offers as much academic rigor as the more selective colleges for the students who seek it. This is an important characteristic among the Colleges That Change Lives.

The college also has some weaknesses. Saint Mary’s is less residential than most liberal arts colleges. Over half of the juniors and seniors do not live on campus. While the location and campus are quite nice, the college is not within walking distance of its community. Mass transit has been more limited than students would like, though the college has a transportation plan to help resolve this problem in the short team. While the college has recently opened a modern recreation center, renovated its main indoor sports venue and has renovations to the student center underway, it’s dining facilities need an update. And while Saint Mary’s  recruits an ethnically diverse student body, especially from within California, and makes it easy for merit award recipients to keep their awards, the direct charges—tuition and fees, room and board—still approach $63,000.

I found a lot to like about Saint Mary’s during my visit, and learned that the college is working hard to address its weaknesses. If you are drawn to the idea of going to college near San Francisco, and possibly wish to remain there after graduation, but you might be undecided on a major, this could be your school.

Report Card: Saint Mary’s College of California 

  • Four-Year/Six-Year Graduation Rates: B+/B+
  • Freshman Retention: B+
  • Costs: B
  • Curriculum: A
  • Community: B
  • Comforts: B
  • Connections: A (San Francisco Bay area)/C (elsewhere)

Check out my profile of Saint Mary’s College of California!

Check our my Saint Mary’s College of California Pinterest page!

Need help finding schools that might be a good fit, even if undecided on a major? Contact me at or call me at 609-406-0062.

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