The BA/BS distinction is BS


If you have a science degree, does it matter if your diploma says BA or BS? Nope.

When you take your degree to a new institution, the labels of “Bachelor of Arts” and “Bachelor of Science” will mean different things to different people. If anybody reads into the meaning of your BA or BS, that’ll say far more about the other person than about what you did in college.

I’ve heard folks vigorously argue a wide range of positions about the general distinction between a BA and a BS. These have included:

  • The BS has more lab courses.
  • The BA has a deeper education in the liberal arts.
  • The BS has more quantitatively rigorous courses.
  • The BS is in a specialized topic of concentration, whereas the BA is more generalized.
  • The BS is designed for someone entering professional or graduate school, and the BA is designed for someone not pursuing an advanced degree.

All of those things can be true in certain institutions, but are not generally true, despite whatever others might say.

(I was raised to believe that the term “several” meant “at least seven.” Several was definitely appreciably greater than “a few.” Apparently that’s not how most people use it. I could go around insisting that other people are wrong, but what people think is what matters, in cases of counting and college degrees.)

At any given institution, the difference between a BA and a BS is real, with different curricular requirements. However, the distinction between the BA and the BS varies among institutions so much that it would be foolhardy to say that the BS degree or the BA degree means, or doesn’t mean, something in general terms.

Let me illustrate with some examples from different universities in southern California.

  • In my current department, the BS has three specific tracks. The BA lacks a track, requires fewer total units, and doesn’t have a calculus requirement.
  • In the university where I used to work, they only offer BS degrees in engineering, and other STEM departments have only BA degrees.
  • The place where I went to college only offers BA degrees, and had a bunch of laboratory classes, and required calculus and organic chemistry, for both ‘general’ biology and specialized tracks.
  • The biology majors at UCLA are all BS degrees, even though this might involve only a couple upper division lab courses. (Note, they have an interdepartmental “Human Biology and Society” degree, which looks super cool, though is not purely a degree in biology.)
  • Down the road at UC Riverside, it’s possible to get either a BA or a BS in Biology. The only difference is that the BA requires 16 units in a foreign language, whereas the BS, has 16 more elective units in science instead. There are also BA and BS degrees in other majors, at UCR, including Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology, and, Entomology, and Plant Biology. It looks like at UCR, in general, the BA degrees require more humanities and social sciences, and the BS requires more upper division science courses.
  • Meanwhile, UC San Diego only offers BS degrees in biology, including a a broad degree in General Biology as well as many specialized tracks.
  • Over at Cal State Northridge, there are BA and BS degrees, both of which require a track in upper-division coursework, and like at my university, one clear difference is a calculus requirement.

Here’s what I make of the BA/BS situation, in general:

The BA degree does not necessarily have more coursework in the humanities, and the BS degree does not necessarily have more work in the sciences.

In many institutions, if you have a STEM major, you may have no choice between a BS or a BA.

A BS degree is not necessarily more specialized than a BA degree.

If an institution does offer both a BA and a BS, then the BS would tends more required STEM coursework, and the BA may have more non-STEM coursework. However, once comparing across institutions, such comparisons are relatively useless.

If you search, “what is the difference between a BA and a BS,” there are a lot of thoughts out there. Most of them are BS.

7 thoughts on “The BA/BS distinction is BS

  1. Nice article. Probably very true about the US, but in UK/EU the situation is different (I know…). It is very rare here for any STEM subjects to be a BA (historical institutions are the exception). (Applied) sciences/maths/technology is usually BSc, engineering is mainly BEng, and anything “non-science” is BA. There are some odd overlaps (e.g. economics, education) where it depends on subfields, and there are the specialist degrees (LLB for law, BEd for education vs. BA in education vs. MBBS in medicine & surgery etc.).

  2. When I was getting my bachelors I considered both. The difference in my case was going to be 1 semester organic chem (BS) or 2 semesters of a foreign language (BA).

    Granted I was getting a math minor so if there were differences in math requirements I already surpassed both of those, and the same may have been true for other labs and other courses. I mainly was not excited about taking organic chem again (I had transferred from another school where I took organic chem but it was not recognized at this school). I got the BS and an A in organic chem :)

  3. Also note that many (a few? several?) institutions do not offer a BS degree. Many of the institutions that do not offer the BS are elite liberal arts colleges that contribute disproportionately to future PhDs in science.

  4. Funny that you posted this, as I’m headed into a meeting about adding a BA in Biology for Science Ed majors today. I feel more prepared now! What prompted you to write this post, Terry?

  5. This post has long been on queue of things to write about, and I finally got around to it as we are discussing curricular revisions in our department.

    The reason our BA is a BA is weird and historical, and at our institution, it has fewer requirements and fewer units, definitely less than the BS option. But I realize that’s only true at some institutions, because the BA that other people earn has the curriculum of our BS and then some. And there are some places where the BS degree has less hard and challenging science than our own BS.

    I just get tired of people saying how a BS is different from a BA when this is not the case. Because the point of having a degree is usually about taking it elsewhere when you’re done, then institution-specific notions of the BA and the BS fall apart when you step off campus. I guess people don’t see this because they fall into the trap that their own university experiences, or their own institutions, are representative of higher ed in general.

    If folks aren’t familiar with liberal arts colleges, like Chris pointed out, they won’t realize that they have science-heavy degrees that are a BA. And if they aren’t familiar with some big state universities, they don’t realize that you can get a BS with having very little lab experience in the upper division courses.

  6. I am from California, where my degree is a BA in science that looks exactly like anyone’s BS from anywhere, but I now live in the Midwest, where a BA is viewed with something between suspicion and horror by Midwestern scientists. Get over it, people. Read the transcript.

  7. I believe I have a particular remark that might be of interest to this discussion about the difference in BA/BS degrees. Think about it this way, if you are required to write a dissertation than naturally the BA would help one out tremendously due to the extra writing classes most schools require one to have in order to get a BA, whereas the BS just ten years ago did not require one to have high writing skills it was just assumed as it has become a real issue to students that are weak in this area. Schools have even changed how the process is done by trying to help more students obtain their Ph.D. once they get to this problem that has perpetuated problems of plagiarism that students have to resort to or face the fact that they do not have the time to go back and learn what is presumed necessary to have something published so they meet the requirement needed by all doctoral students. My advice to anyone that is contemplating one or the other to choose the BA curriculum because you will need it if you have any aspiration to go all the way.

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