The Difference Between a B.A. and B.S. Degree

The Difference Between a B.A. and B.S. Degree

Generally, a Bachelor of Arts focuses on the humanities and arts while a Bachelor of Science emphasizes math and science.

By Josh Moody | June 18, 2021, at 9:51 a.m. 

Picking a college major can be a daunting task for many students. But once they settle on a major, they may be faced with another decision: choosing between a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree. While some colleges have B.A. or B.S. programs only in certain disciplines, others offer both options.

To help students make that choice, experts say they should consider their long-term goals. Generally, a B.A. focuses on the humanities while a B.S. emphasizes science and math, notes Ellen Schendel, associate vice president for academic affairs at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

"I think a lot of this becomes about what the student wants to learn and how they want to use their education once they graduate, and how they want to tell their story about who they are," Schendel says, adding that the type of degree can shape a student's future career path.

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)

Some key points from college websites can help prospective students understand how a B.A. differs from a B.S. For starters, a B.A. may be less specialized than a B.S., with more of an emphasis on humanities courses that allow students to study a broader range of topics. Depending on program structure, that may mean more opportunities to take electives for students pursuing a B.A.

Bachelor of Science (B.S.)

College websites outlining the difference between a B.A. and a B.S. often note that the latter is typically centered around technical fields. Additionally, there may be more math and science courses or lab work, as opposed to a higher number of electives more common in B.A. programs. Depending on the structure of the program, a B.S. may require more classes focused on a chosen major as opposed to a B.A. degree that offers more avenues to explore other topics.

What Is the Difference Between a B.A. and B.S.?

A B.A. degree reflects the liberal arts tradition guiding many colleges, Schendel says, which emphasizes philosophy, literature, history, social sciences, art, and foreign language study. While a B.A. isn't devoid of math and science, it doesn't have the same emphasis on these subjects as a B.S.

Depending on the field, a B.A. or B.S. option can set students on different career tracks, says Mark Robbins, professor and psychology department chair at the University of Rhode Island.

For example, he notes that psychology majors in the B.A. degree option often go into counseling while those who earn a B.S. tend to focus on research. For a student interested in earning a Ph.D. in psychology, a B.S. is a practical first step and will enhance understanding of statistics and research methods more than a B.A., Robbins says.

Another example of how B.A. and B.S. degree options differ is illustrated by the University of Colorado Boulder, which explains the different tracks in its computer science program on its website. For computer science students interested in becoming engineers, the CU website highlights the B.S. option, whereas a broad range of careers extending beyond engineering is noted for the B.A.

Both tracks produce graduates with desired skills, says James W.C. White, interim dean of arts and sciences at CU Boulder. White says employers are unlikely to split hairs over the degree type, and that "it's far more important when you apply for a job to make sure your employer knows what classes you've taken and what background you have because that will make a difference."

White says a bachelor's degree itself matters more than the initials that come attached to it. He says both degree options offer value depending on what employers are seeking.

"Do you want somebody who has a broad-based education? Or would you like to have somebody who has really drilled down deeply? That's really an employer decision," White says.

Schendel says the differences between a B.A. and a B.S. aren't vast, which she attributes to how "disciplines have grown and changed and become more complicated."

She notes, for example, that GVSU's writing major has B.A. and B.S. options. The main difference is the three courses. For the B.A. option, those three courses are in foreign language study, whereas the B.S. shifts students into classes to build skills in areas such as technology and statistics. She says the focus of that coursework represents the differences between the two degrees at many colleges.

"It's really not a huge difference in many cases," Schendel says.

The reason those lines have blurred, White says, is because "there's really no national standard" for a B.A. or a B.S., allowing colleges to determine what type of degree to award.

He adds that adhering to a liberal arts tradition, CU Boulder offers more B.A. than B.S. programs. But that doesn't mean B.A. programs are entirely for the arts, he notes, highlighting the chemistry major at Colorado, which offers only a B.A. option despite being inherently focused on science.

Robbins says students are unlikely to be shut out of a job opportunity based on the choice of a B.A. vs. a B.S. degree. The CU Boulder website reflects that point, noting "demand for graduates with computer science skills is so high that employers are not making a distinction" between B.A. and B.S. degrees in the field, and that technology jobs will have a high need for years to come.

Which Degree Program Is Better: B.A. or B.S.?

Kristi Wold-McCormick, CU Boulder's registrar, offers students a historical perspective on the difference between a B.A. and a B.S. degree and how it has evolved over the years.

"Historically, the BA degree was considered the premiere degree, and at some institutions is still the primary or only degree awarded regardless of major or concentration," Wold-McCormick wrote in an email. "This is likely more prevalent at 'prestigious' private institutions. As colleges and student bodies became more diversified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prompted by things like the Morrill Act (which established many state universities), the industrial revolution, and the GI Bill, the BS degree became more common, especially in fields such as engineering, agriculture, and business. Again, these disciplines tend to be more science-oriented, and thus, the BS degree makes sense,"

Students who are unsure of which degree to pursue should take a close look at the curriculum of each to inform that decision, she suggests.

"I think students are best advised to look at the overall quality and content of the curriculum offered by an institution more so than the degree awarded. Neither the BA or BS should be viewed as superior to the other. Rather, they should be viewed as ... comparable or equal in quality with a slightly different focus based on the student's academic experience," Wold-McCormick says.