Owaves has worked on developing a holistic mental health ranking system for the nine University of California (UC) Campuses—UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz—at the undergraduate level. The motivation behind this ranking system is as follows. Many students utilize ranking systems provided by various sources such as US News and the American College Health Association when determining which four-year accredited universities may better cater to their future plans. Similarly, we would like for there to be a mental health ranking system available for students and parents to utilize.

This system will better allow incoming or matriculating college students to choose their future university by considering mental wellness. Through this process, Owaves strives to promote and attain Sustainable Development Goal 3, developed by the United Nations: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” and specifically target 3.4, which is to “… promote mental health and well-being” (World Health Organization, n.d.).  

UC Rankings for Mental Health

By consolidating various articles and scoring systems by the UC Student Association; looking at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) employee-to-student ratio and student organizations of each college; and considering financial debt of graduates and the advocacy and innovation of mental health programs, we established the following 2020-2021 mental health rankings. These rankings are subject to grow and change through the years. We will continue to update them and work on informing students of new developments. In this way, the rankings will most accurately reflect the mental health status across the different UC Campuses.  

Chart that displays the various UC campuses and their individual mental health rankings. UC Davis is ranked #1, UC Santa Barbara #2, UC San Diego #3, UC Los Angeles #4, UC Santa Cruz #5, UC Berkeley #6, UC Irvine #7, UC Riverside #8, and UC Merced #9.

In this ranking, we gave the university that ranked highest or best in terms of mental health and wellness the number one position. Subsequent numbers signal a downward trend. 

Factors We Took Into Consideration

While each of the UC schools has their own CAPS, this ranking was meant to encompass multiple parameters that can facilitate the creation of a ranking system that includes other major aspects that correlate with students’ mental health and wellness. Results from a 2015 to 2016 study conducted by the UC Student Association that ranked the nine UC campuses based on “accessibility, diversity of staff, and outreach to students” revealed UC Davis scored the highest at a B- while UC Merced scored the lowest with an F+ (UC Student Association, n.d.). Many of the other universities ranked similarly to each other in the UC Student Association study. These include UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles, and UC Santa Barbara due to their C+ score (UC Student Association).

While these rankings guided us, we took many other factors into consideration to establish this UC mental health ranking system. Such factors include financial debt, student-to-mental wellness provider ratios, innovation of mental health programs, and cost of living.

Innovation of Mental Health Programs

Due to financial constraints serving as a barrier to access to care, we considered innovation of student programs and support groups when evaluating campuses. Recently in 2019, UC Davis came in second in “Top 10 Colleges Advocating for Mental Health Awareness.” This is because of the campus’s innovative wellness and mental health efforts. These include “student-run mental health initiative groups” that work to institute preventative care measures and inform students of mental wellness programs and simple strategies that can allow them to take care of their health during stressful times (Wayne, 2019). Student organizations also offer peer support. UC Davis’s innovative care programs, lower cost of living (Nikols, 2017) and better student-to-counselor/psychiatrist ratios placed it at the top of our ranking. 

Debt of Graduates and Cost of Living

The average debt and financial strain of each location was also assessed. This is due to the correlation between financial burden and mental health. According to the University of California Student Association (UCSA) and the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), average debt of graduates from highest to lowest was found to be as follows for the 2017-2018 year: UCLA ($22,300), UC Riverside ($21,100), UC San Diego ($21,100), UC Santa Barbara ($21,100), UC Irvine ($19,000), UC Davis ($18,600), UC Berkeley ($18,200), and UC Merced ($18,200). Increased costs have been found to push students to take on more work. Sometimes this can be at the expense of their education (UCSA and TICAS, 2019). 

Student-to-Mental Wellness Provider Ratios

Additionally, an executive summary by the Office of the President to the Health Services Committee on the updates of student mental health services in the UC system found student-to-counselor ratios to be lowest for UCLA and UCSB at 965:1 for the former and 857:1 for the latter. The highest ratios, indicating fewer counselors, were determined to be at UC Merced (1709:1) and UC Riverside (1945:1). Student-to-psychiatrist ratios saw a slightly different trend with UC San Diego (18944:1) and UC Riverside (11961:1) having the highest. Meanwhile, UC Merced (4497:1) and UC Santa Cruz (5239:1) were found to have the lowest (University of California Office of the President, 2019). Due to UC Merced’s high student-to-counselor ratio and its relative newness, we placed it in the ninth position. 

Justifications for Mental Health Rankings

We considered a culmination of factors, including UCSA rankings, technology-based programs, student-to-counselor/psychiatrist ratios, cost of living, location, and innovation of mental health programs to place UC Santa Barbara second and UC San Diego third. UC San Diego’s high ranking is also attributed to its technological advances in monitoring students’ well-being and helping students evaluate it. Such initiatives include the Well-Being Peer Health Education program for undergraduate students and a mental health screening tool created by MindWise Innovations (University of California San Diego, n.d.). 

While UCLA has similar trends of a low student-to-counselor ratio and the same UCSA mental health ranking as UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara, we placed it in fourth in this ranking system, right after the two universities mentioned prior. This is due to its graduates’ higher debt, coupled with the high cost of living in the Los Angeles area. Westwood, California was determined to be one of “California’s priciest spots for renters” (Flemming, 2019).

Additionally, we ranked UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) and Berkeley fifth and sixth, due to their C and C- scores, respectively, by UCSA; relatively low student-to-psychiatrist ratio at UC Santa Cruz; and lower financial debt at time of graduation at UC Berkeley. Because of the increased cost of living around Berkeley and smaller student body at UCSC, we ranked UCSC higher. Furthermore, we ranked UC Irvine 7th and UC Riverside 8th. This is due to Riverside’s graduates’ higher debt and its higher student-to-professional mental health provider ratios. 

Technological Services for Mental Wellness

To provide increased service and help connect students to the appropriate resources, many UC campuses utilize unique technological services such as the Therapy Assisted Online (TAO Self-Help) tools for students. Students can take a self-assessment for guidance on what tools or services they can utilize for their needs. Many of the UC campuses including UC Irvine, UC Riverside, and UC Merced utilize TAO. This helps them further promote specific services that can directly aid their students.

Rankings Subject to Change

As previously mentioned, these rankings were determined only for the 2020-2021 year. They are subject to change as institutions continue to grow and implement new systems. With the transition to a virtual platform and virtual appointments, even for Counseling and Psychological Services, there have been many unexpected challenges for many students and providers. As a result, the transition back to in-person offerings from this COVID-19 environment will most likely lead to changes in future rankings. 

Our Goals for the Future

We look forward to continuing to help inform students, institutions, and communities about college mental health. Our aim is to promote a positive atmosphere of change, especially during these tumultuous, unpredictable times. We aspire to promote an environment of holistic growth, development, and change at universities that can continue to allow students to prioritize their wellness in an inclusive, collaborative space. Owaves will publish annual mental health rankings. They will be based on factors such as the following:

  • Undergraduate student services
  • Student testimonials
  • Pre-existing published data
  • Prevention programs
  • Effectiveness and innovation of mental wellness offerings

Owaves also hopes to offer some solutions to improve mental health at universities. These span from addressing the prevention approach, to incorporating mental health videos as students are welcomed into their freshman year. Additional solutions could entail offering more technological tools to help bridge barriers to access and partnering with student organizations that aim to improve mental wellness.

Eventually, Owaves would like to develop and implement a University of California-Wide College Well-Being Index. This index would rank these universities according to the mental health of their student population. The scope of this index and its components, such as a Mental Well-Being Survey administered to the student population, can be utilized to increase positive care outcomes at university health and wellness centers. We want these rankings to not only serve as a tool to help matriculating students make informed decisions, but also as a means to improve mental health and wellness collectively.        

Student Testimonials re: UC Mental Health

Quote by an undergraduate student from UC Davis that says, “Words cannot express how comfortable I felt reaching out to programs available at Davis. My peer mentor, student-run initiative groups, and availability of abundant resources help me feel comfort in knowing that I have a support system.”
Quote by an undergraduate student from UCLA that says, “I am very thankful for the student services ranging from the CARE program to mindfulness workshops. However, my personal finances make it difficult for me to reach out to CAPS and the longer waiting times to reach out to a counselor make it harder for me to schedule an appointment on top of my busy schedule.”
Quote by an undergraduate student from UC Merced that says, “I like how the campus is providing us with helpful resources, but because it is very new, there is a lot of room for improvement. I think as students it is also up to us to work on creating more ways to support our peers.”


Flemming, J. (2019, October 9). Westwood is once again California’s priciest spot for renters, study finds. The Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/business/real-estate/story/2019-10-09/westwood-california-highest-rents

Nikols, S. (2017, February 17). 5 UC schools with the lowest cost of living. Campus Explorer. https://www.campusexplorer.com/college-advice-tips/A323824D/5-UC-Schools-With-the-Lowest-Cost-of-Living/

The University of California Student Association (UCSA) and The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). (2019, March). First comes diploma, then comes debt. Unequal debt burdens among University of California undergraduates (Report). TICAS. https://ticas.org/wp-content/uploads/legacy-files/pub_files/first_comes_diploma_then_comes_debt.pdf

UC Student Association. (n.d.). Results of UC campus student mental health evaluations. https://ucsa.org/smh-rubric/

University of California Office of the President. (2019, February 11). Update on student mental health services. University of California Board of Regents. https://regents.universityofcalifornia.edu/regmeet/feb19/h4.pdf

University of California San Diego. (n.d.). How are you feeling? https://screening.mentalhealthscreening.org/SANDIEGO

Wayne, M. (2019, May 3). UC Davis ranks second on ‘top colleges advocating for mental health awareness.’ The California Aggie. https://theaggie.org/2019/05/03/uc-davis-ranks-second-on-top-colleges-advocating-for-mental-health-awareness/

World Health Organization. (n.d.). Mental health > suicide prevention: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/SDGs/en/

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