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BA and BS Degrees in the US

What are the differences between a BA and a BS?

The most common undergraduate degrees in the US are the bachelor of arts (BA) and the bachelor of science (BS).

Both degrees are equivalent academically, but there are important differences between the BA and the BS.

Who Earns a BA? Who Earns a BS?

College graduates with different types of degrees

The critical differences between a BA degree and a BS degree are the ancillary courses that are taken.

The BA degree is often mistakenly thought to be exclusively for a humanities major such as history, literature or philosophy, but a BA can also indicate a science major such as psychology, biology or physics.

The defining characteristic of a BA degree is that it requires a core curriculum in the humanities and social sciences. A student pursuing a BA will have more freedom to explore disciplines outside his/her major field.

The BS degree, without exception, indicates either a science major or a vocational major such as nursing, engineering or business management.

A BS degree usually includes more requirements in your major field than a BA degree does. This means that a student taking a BS degree will have fewer opportunities to explore courses outside of his/her major.

A typical curriculum for a BA degree may include:

  • First year: A survey of literature and/or the humanities, and elementary study of a foreign language. The first year can also include distribution requirements outside your major field.
  • Second year: Courses in creative writing, autobiography or history, and intermediate study of a foreign language, as well as foundational courses in your major.
  • Third year: Courses in literary or psychological theory, and advanced study of a foreign language. The third year can also include a semester or year abroad.
  • Fourth year: Intensive seminars or colloquia in your major field.

A typical curriculum for a BS degree may include:

  • First year: Introductory courses in mathematics, economics and/or language studies, as well as introductory courses in your major field of study.
  • Second year: Intermediate courses in topics such as statistics, engineering or archaeology, and fulfillment of distribution requirements.
  • Third year: Advanced courses in your field, and laboratory courses and/or practicums.
  • Fourth year: In-depth seminars in your major field. Courses may focus on specific theories in science or mathematics.

Some schools in the US, such as St. John’s College and Pomona College, only award BA degrees.

Other schools, such as MIT, California Institute of Technology and Georgia Tech, only offer a BS degree.

Most schools, however – especially larger universities – will offer both types of degrees.

Deciding Which Degree To Pursue

When choosing which degree to pursue, consider what your future major and career will be. A school that offers a BA degree may be ideal if you haven’t decided on a major yet, since BA degree programs tend to provide more flexibility.

If you have selected a major, make sure the colleges you consider offer the degree you need. For instance, a prospective engineering or business student should choose a school that offers the BS degree. A student with aspirations in English literature or film, however, will be best served by a school that offers the BA degree.

Here are some other questions to consider before you decide which degree to pursue:

  • What are your school’s specific requirements for the BA and BS degree in your field?
  • How many courses will you have to take to complete the requirements?
  • Do you want to take a lot of courses outside of your major discipline?

Will the BA course path or the BS course path bring you closer to your post-college goals? Consider the steps you would need to take after college to start on your chosen career path.

What Careers Would Follow from a BA or BS Degree?

Both BA and BS degrees provide transferable skills that will serve you well in diverse careers.

The communication skills you learn pursuing a BA degree can prepare you for a career as an educator or human resources representative. Language and writing skills will serve you well as a copywriter or editor. And a solid grounding in art, music or film will stand you in good stead as an artist or arts administrator.

The analytical and technical skills you learn pursuing a BS degree will aid you in a career as a scientist or statistician. BS degree programs may also provide on-the-job training for professions such as nursing and engineering. And a complex knowledge of science and mathematics will enhance a career as an architect or geologist.

Your BA or BS degree is the first step towards realizing your career goals. No matter which major or degree you choose, you will be well served by excelling in your course of study.

A BA or BS degree will also provide solid academic grounding; you can go on to pursue a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, as well as post-doctoral studies. Both the BA and BS degrees will prepare you for a rewarding career path, whether you get a job immediately out of college or pursue more schooling.

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