Is Cal Poly SLO a Good School? (An IN-DEPTH Analysis)

California is home to many of the most respected universities in the United States. There are all types of colleges for people of any background. But with so many options at hand, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and unable to make the right choice.

And that begs the question, is Cal Poly San Luis Obispo a good school?

In short, Cal Poly SLO meets the criteria to be considered a good university, as it has a solid reputation in fields like Engineering, Computer Science, and Business Administration. Furthermore, the school registers high student satisfaction levels and keeps going up in the rankings.

However, there are many different factors that come into play when choosing a college. In order to determine if Cal Poly SLO is a good fit for you, it is important to be well informed and carefully evaluate every single variable.

And that’s what we are about to do in this article. We’ll start off by taking a quick overview of this college. After that, we’ll analyze the key factors that may influence your decision, such as reputation, student satisfaction, cost of attendance, class size, and even the salaries that graduates are likely to earn.

So if that sounds interesting to you, let’s dive right in!

Overview of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

With over 120 years of existence, the California Polytechnic State University is well known for its ‘learn by doing’ approach, which has been its unifying philosophy from the very beginning. For that reason, students can take part in lab work and hands-on assignments that improve their learning experience.

Cal Poly is also the second largest land-holding university in the state of California. It offers more than 150 undergraduate programs in a broad spectrum of subjects, ranging from History to Engineering, through the following six colleges:

  • College of Engineering.
  • College of Liberal Arts.
  • College of Science and Mathematics.
  • Orfalea College of Business.
  • College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.
  • College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

The university has a solid reputation in Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, as well as Biology, and Business Administration.

In addition, students are able to find a wide variety of options to study abroad, as there are over 400 Cal Poly-approved programs in 75 countries. However, some of them have been affected because of travel restrictions.

Finally, as part of the ‘learn by doing’ approach, the university has made a great effort to prepare students for the job market. According to the latest graduate status report, 78% of its former students were working full-time within nine months of graduation, while 12% were attending grad school.

Prestige and Rankings.

When it comes to reputation, we can get an idea of how Cal Poly SLO has performed by checking out the latest college rankings, which are published on a yearly basis.

Rankings are a useful tool if you want to take a glance at a school’s prestige. And while your choice shouldn’t be based entirely on these numbers, they are still a good starting point in the decision-making process.

In the following table you can see which position Cal Poly holds in 2022, according to the most reliable publications:

Times Higher Education189

However, looking at these simple numbers is not really that helpful. They only show you the school’s performance at this moment, causing you to miss the forest for the trees.

Besides, rankings tend to vary depending on the methodology used by the company, meaning that a school that does well in one ranking may have a very different result in another one.

So in order to address this issue, we’ll take the average of the last years and show you the historical trend. The main goal is to evaluate the school from a more unbiased point of view.

Below is a graph with the average rank for Cal Poly SLO over time:

Cal Poly SLO average national rankings
Average rankings calculated with data from Times Higher Education and Forbes

Now you have a wider view of what’s going on. Every chart tells you a story. And what we can see here is that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has been consistently climbing spots in the national rankings.

Back in 2017, this university was standing at an average position of 196. However, it moved up to spot 123.5 in 2022. In other words, it climbed 72.5 positions over a 5-year period.

By tracking Cal Poly’s position in the national rankings we were able to see how it has improved as the years go by. And even though Forbes and Times Higher Education give very different ratings, we managed to get a more accurate view by plotting the average position and analyzing it.

What we just did is a more effective approach to evaluating how a school has performed over a given period.

In the next part of the post, we’ll use a similar method to assess how satisfied students are at Cal Poly. So keep reading because this will be important.

Student Satisfaction.

If you’ve been doing your research for a while, chances are you’ve visited other sites to read reviews from other students. And while internet reviews may be useful at first glance, the truth is that they are often contradictory and you might end up more confused after reading many of them.

Besides, there are several disadvantages to this approach. Just to name a few:

  1. There is no way to verify that online reviews were written by actual students.
  2. Fake reviews are a common practice and they are often hard to detect.
  3. Star ratings can be easily manipulated to artificially improve or damage a school’s reputation.

The above mentioned are just some of the reasons why you should take reviews with a big grain of salt.

But don’t worry. If you’re wondering if there is a more reliable way to gauge student satisfaction, the answer is yes. We achieve that by analyzing retention rates, and that’s what we are going to do in this section!

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let me give you some context on retention rates and their importance.

Retention Rates: What Are They and Why Should You Care?

A retention rate is simply the percentage of first-time students who remained at the same school for their sophomore year. It is one of the most accurate parameters to measure student satisfaction because of the following reasons:

  1. It’s calculated with actual data from real students.
  2. The data is reported to the National Center for Education Statistics and it’s hard to manipulate. Any attempt to falsify this information could have serious consequences for the school.

Even if this is the first time you hear about this concept, there are solid arguments why you should pay close attention to it.

A student will be more encouraged to keep studying at the same university if his freshman experience was positive. Accordingly, the higher the retention rate is, the better expectations you can have for your first college year.

On the other hand, a bad first-year experience will induce more students to drop out or transfer to another college, causing the retention rate to decrease. Therefore, this is something to keep in mind before you make your final decision.

There are, of course, other factors that may lead students to drop out, such as personal problems or lack of money. However, colleges that take good care of their freshmen indeed hold high retention rates throughout the years.

Retention Rate at Cal Poly SLO.

As of 2020, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo reported a retention rate of 94.24%.

The following chart illustrates how retention rates have varied over the years at this institution. I want you to take a look at it carefully. What can you notice?

Cal Poly SLO retention rate line graph
Retention rates calculated with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

First of all, it is a fact that this parameter has remained incredibly high. And maintaining a retention rate above 90% is not an easy task. But besides remaining at such a high level, we can also see that it has increased with respect to some previous years.

In 2013, Cal Poly SLO had a 92.49% retention rate. A few years later, it reached its highest point at 94.97%. And now it is standing at 94.24%, which is still an impressive value.

The data for 2021 has not been released yet, but it is expected to be above 94% once again.

This is a clear and undeniable indicator that new undergraduate students are highly satisfied with their experience at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The odds of dropping out after the first year are low, and freshmen find a good environment to keep studying at this university.

Graduation Rates: What You Need to Know.

In the previous section, we analyzed how satisfied students are after their freshman year.

But now it’s time to answer an equally important question: how many undergrads actually finish their studies?

We can find the answer to that question by simply looking at the graduation rate of the school, which is the percentage of students who completed their program.

A high graduation rate is a very positive signal, as it reveals that all the time, effort, and resources you spend at this school will be probably worth it.

On the contrary, low graduation rates may suggest that students don’t get academic support along the way or they just feel disappointed over time. So this is also something that you’ll want to take into account.

Graduation Rate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Cal Poly SLO registered the following graduation rates:

TimeGraduation rate
6 years81.74%
4 years47.99%
Graduation rates calculated with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

In the following plot you’ll visualize the 6-year graduation rate over time. In other words, the proportion of students who completed their program within 6 years after enrolling:

Cal Poly SLO graduation rate line graph
Graduation rates calculated with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

This graph clearly illustrates how this parameter is going up over time.

As of 2015, Cal Poly registered a graduation rate of 69.72%. However, it showed consistent growth during the following years, reaching its second-greatest value at 81.74% in 2020.

In summary, the 6-year graduation rate at this university increased by 12.2 percent points between 2015 and 2020. And it will probably remain at a similar level in 2022.

This dramatic change in a relatively short period indicates that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo provides the right conditions for students to advance and graduate within a reasonable time.

Outcomes 8 Years After Attending.

We can dive a little bit deeper and find out the proportion of students that dropped out or transferred from Cal Poly. For this purpose, take a look at the following doughnut chart:

From this chart, you can tell that within 8 years of entry, 85% of the students had already graduated, while 11% transferred to another college. Probably the most interesting fact is that only 4% of the students dropped out, which is a very small proportion of the entering class.

Class Size / Student-to-Faculty-Ratio.

Class size is another factor that could define whether or not this school is a good fit for you. If you prioritize being able to interact with your professors regularly and receiving more personal attention, you’ll want to find a college with a low student-to-faculty ratio.

This parameter tells you how many students there are at a college for every faculty member. Thus, a lower value typically indicates that classes are more reduced and personalized.

On the other hand, a higher student-to-faculty ratio isn’t necessarily something negative. It all boils down to the type of experience you are looking for. Some people feel comfortable in larger classes, while some others don’t.

What Is the Student-to-Faculty Ratio at Cal Poly SLO?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo has a student-to-faculty ratio of 21:1, meaning that there are 21 students for every faculty member.

This number has not changed significantly in recent years, as shown in the following table:

CycleStudent-to-faculty Ratio
2020 – 202121:1
2019 – 202020:1
2018 – 201921:1
2017 – 201822:1
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

It is important to point out that you should not take this parameter literally. In other words, a 21:1 ratio doesn’t mean that every single class at Cal Poly will have exactly 21 students. However, it is still a good approximation to get an idea of how big or small classes are.

Keep in mind that class size is not set in stone, and it does vary across different courses and majors.

Estimated Student Expenses.

Paying for college is one of the main concerns that will have an impact on your final choice. So in order to make an informed decision, the first step is to get familiar with the expenses you’ll have to cover.

The following table contains the reported Cost of attendance (COA) for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The COA is a quick estimation of the amounts you would spend annually without receiving any kind of aid. This includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, and other expenses:

Tuition and fees$9,943$23,833
Room and board$14,208$14,208
Books and supplies$1,941$1,941
Other expenses$2,835$2,835
Total cost of attendance$28,927$42,817
Source: College Navigator. National Center for Education Statistics

This cost can be significantly lower if you are awarded financial aid. For that reason, we’ll dedicate this whole section to take an in-depth look into the questions that matter to you.

Is the school getting more expensive? What’s the average amount that students receive in grants or scholarships?

These are some of the key questions that we will respond in the next paragraphs. So stay tuned.

Cost of Attendance and Financial Aid.

In this part of the post, we will see how the amount of aid compares to the cost of attendance. Ideally, if the cost of attendance is going up, we want the amount of aid to be growing at the same or even at a higher rate.

But before we get in more detail, I want to make something clear:

This section is only intended to provide a general picture of how the cost and the amount of aid have performed.

All of the numbers presented here are estimates reported by the school. However, every person has a different background, and in case you are eligible for financial aid, the amount will strongly vary depending on your circumstances.

If you need a more accurate estimation based on your personal case, please refer to Cal Poly’s net price calculator.

Having said that, let’s take a look at the chart:

Cal Poly SLO cost of attendance and financial aid line graph
Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

As the graph shows, the cost for both in-state and out-of-state students is going up steadily.

Part of this increase is already expectable, as inflation consistently drives up prices. Nonetheless, there are many factors that define the cost of attendance. Consequently, the change in price from one year to another can easily be above inflation.

During the 5-year period we are analyzing, the cost of attendance grew by 17.19% for in-state students. At the same time, it went up by 19.45% for out-of-state students.

On the other hand, the average amount of grant aid for freshmen grew at a slower pace over the years. In 2014-2015 it was standing at $5,621, and after five years it went to $6,186, which is an increase of 10.05%.

Even though the amount of aid experienced slower growth, we still need to know more details before we can draw any conclusion. And that’s the topic of our next section.

Percentage of First-Year Students Receiving Grant or Scholarship Aid.

So far, we know how the annual cost and financial aid have varied over the last years at Cal Poly. But now it’s time to know if there are enough freshmen receiving this benefit.

In the chart below, you’ll see the percentage of new students that have been awarded aid during the last cycles. What can you notice?

Cal Poly SLO percent of first-time students receiving grant or scholarship aid
Percentages calculated with data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

The graph clearly shows that the percentage of students receiving aid is reaching higher values over time.

Back in the 2013-2014 cycle, only 37.06% of the entering class at Cal Poly received grant or scholarship aid. However, this percentage changed dramatically in the next years, when it reached new peaks above 50%.

As of 2019-2020, which is the last reported cycle, 53.34% of new students received grant or scholarship aid. This is an increase of 16.28 points over a 6-year period.

This could also indicate that the odds of being awarded aid as a new student are now higher than ever. But remember, if you need an estimation based on your situation, head over to Cal Poly’s net price calculator.

Bottom Line.

To summarize, in this section we analyzed the environment that students face when it comes to paying for college. Our key findings are listed below:

  • The cost of attendance at Cal Poly is going up steadily.
  • The average amount of grant or scholarship aid has increased at a slower rate.
  • However, the percentage of students receiving this type of aid has been rising dramatically.

This probably reveals that the school is achieving a more equal distribution of financial aid.

Expected Salaries.

Now we are getting to the final part of our analysis. And we cannot end this post without talking about about salaries. Even though people usually find it hard to bring up this topic, it is something you are probably interested in.

Hence the next question is, how much can you expect to earn after graduation?

The answer to this question is variable, as it depends on the major you selected, as well as the job offers available when you graduate. But the good news is that the U.S. Department of Education publishes a list of the typical salaries that graduates earn in the second year after graduation.

This piece of information is highly valuable for the following reasons:

  • It is calculated using data from actual Cal Poly SLO graduates.
  • It corresponds to the early stage of their career. At this point, you probably care more about your starting salary than you do about your late career income.

There are other sites like Payscale or Glassdoor that upload their own estimates. And while that information may be reliable as well, it is not as in-depth as the data that the government provides.

Salary Table.

The table below contains the median annual income for Cal Poly SLO alumni 2 years within graduation, according to the U.S. Department of Education:

ProgramMedian earnings
Aerospace Engineering $76,460
Agricultural Business$57,149
Animal Science $32,711
Biological Sciences$38,469
Biomedical Engineering$73,635
Business Administration$64,328
Civil Engineering$72,645
Computer Engineering$93,964
Computer Science$120,462
Construction Management$82,780
Electrical Engineering$79,647
Graphic Communication$52,385
Industrial Engineering$73,652
Liberal Arts & Engineering Studies$29,685
Mechanical Engineering$74,038
Political Science$37,208
Median salaries two years after graduation. To see the full list visit: College Scorecard. US Department of Education.

As the table shows, Computer Science graduates are the top earners during the first stage of their career, with a median income of $120,462.

Engineers are also among the highest-payed professionals from Cal Poly. Their median salaries are $93,964 for Computer Engineering, $79,647 for Electrical Engineering, and $74,038 for Mechanical Engineering.

Other disciplines like Construction Management, Business Administration, Economics, and Architecture, have also seen competitive annual earnings.

Another interesting fact is that Mathematics and Statistics graduates have registered median salaries above $50,000. This is especially appealing considering the fact that these majors are not so popular at this school.

If your program doesn’t appear on the list, you can visit Cal Poly’s page on College Scorecard to check if the information is available.


So there you have it. Needless to say, this post was meant to be strongly data-driven. Rather than relying on other people’s opinions, we took a logical approach intended to provide a more accurate picture of the school.

After analyzing the most important variables, a story emerged from the data and we managed to evaluate the school’s performance from different angles.

The following are some of our key takeaways:

  • Cal Poly SLO consistently climbs in the national rankings.
  • First-year students are highly satisfied, as we could tell by tracking the retention rate over time.
  • The university keeps improving its graduation rate. Meaning that more students are finding the right environment to advance and complete their program.
  • Only 4% of the students dropped out.
  • The cost of attendance is increasing faster than the average amount of aid.
  • However, the proportion of students reveiving financial aid is getting higher.
  • Overall Cal Poly satisfied the criteria to be considered a good university. In addition it has a tendency to get better as the years go by.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is Cal Poly SLO known for?

Besides being the second largest land-owning university in California, Cal Poly is known for its ‘learn by doing’ motto. Although it’s strongly geared towards engineering and technology, it also has a good reputation in other disciplines, such as Business Administration, Animal Science, and Architecture.

Is Cal Poly San Luis Obispo a party school?

The California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo does not fall under the definition of a party school, as its main focus is entirely on education. Therefore, people interested in a vibrant party scene may be better served at another institution.

What are the most popular majors at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the most popular majors by the number of graduates are Business Administration (654), Mechanical Engineering (308), Biological Sciences (196), Computer Science (191), Agricultural Business (162), Civil Engineering (159), and Animal Science (154)

Is Cal Poly the same as Caltech?

Cal Poly and Caltech are not the same. While Cal Poly is the short name for the California Polytechnic State University, Caltech refers to the California Insitute of Technology, a private research university in Pasadena.

How many students does Cal Poly San Luis Obispo have?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Cal Poly SLO has a population of 22,440 students, out of which 21,456 are undergrads, while 984 are pursuing graduate studies.

Is Cal Poly a D1 school?

Cal Poly features twenty-one teams that compete in NCAA Division I, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics. The Cal Poly Mustangs represent the school in a wide variety of D-I sports, including baseball, basketball, football, swimming, tennis, soccer, golf, and others.