BA is a Bachelor of the Arts degree, what I term the soft stuff like English Literature, History while BS is a Bachelor of the Sciences degree, what I term the hard sciences like Math, Biology, Physics, Information Systems. Both are usually 4 year programs at the accredited higher learning institution of your choice. 1
There are two primary paths a serious-minded college freshman may choose from when entering into a degree program. Each is a Bachelors degree. One is the BS degree (Bachelor of Science) and the other is the BA degree (Bachelor of Arts). Under each of these headings there are many specific degree programs designed to reach certain ends. How does one decide which way to go?
What is a Bachelor of Arts (B.A. Degree)?
A Bachelor of Arts (BA or AB, from the Latin baccalaureus artium or artium baccalaureus) is a bachelor’s degree awarded for an undergraduate course or program in either the liberal arts, sciences, or both. Bachelor of Arts programs generally take three to four years depending on the country, institution, and specific specializations, majors, or minors. The word baccalaureus (from the Latin bacca, a berry, and laureus, “of the bay laurel”) should not be confused with baccalaureatus (translatable as “gold-plated scepter” by using the Latina bacum and aureatus), which refers to the one- to two-year postgraduate Bachelor of Arts with Honors degree (Baccalaureatus in Artibus Cum Honore) in some countries.
What is a Bachelor of Science (B.S. Degree)?
A Bachelor of Science (Latin Baccalaureus Scientiae, B.S., BS, B.Sc., BSc, or B.Sc; or, less commonly, S.B., SB, or Sc.B., from the equivalent Latin Scientiae Baccalaureus) is an undergraduate academic degree awarded for completed courses that generally last three to five years, or a person holding such a degree.
Whether a student of a particular subject is awarded a Bachelor of Science degree or a Bachelor of Arts degree can vary between universities. For example, an economics degree may be given as a Bachelor of Arts (BA) by one university but as a BS by another, and some universities offer the choice of either. Some liberal arts colleges in the United States offer only the BA, even in the natural sciences, while some universities offer only the BS even in non-science fields. Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service awards Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service degrees to all of its undergraduates, although many major in humanities-oriented fields such as international history and culture and politics.
The London School of Economics offers BSc degrees in practically all subject areas, even those normally associated with arts degrees, while the Oxbridge universities almost exclusively award arts qualifications. In both instances, there are historical and traditional reasons. Northwestern University’s School of Communication grants BSc degrees in all of its programs of study, including theater, dance, and radio/television/film. University of California, Berkeley grants BS degree in Environmental Economics and Policy in College of Natural Resources (CNR), BS degree in Business Administration in Haas School of Business and BA degree in Environmental Economics and Policy in College of Letters and Science (L&S). Cornell University offers a BS degree in Computer Science from its College of Engineering and a BA degree in Computer Science from its College of Arts and Sciences.
BA vs BS
There is no formal convention or standardization for awarding the BA versus the BS degree. One occasionally finds BS degrees awarded in English, history, and philosophy—academic disciplines traditionally associated with the BA degree. These BS degrees typically require students to take additional coursework in the natural/physical sciences and mathematics. Different institutions seem to make distinctions between the BA and the BS degrees at the local level. 2
First, the entering freshman should have some sense of what practical results he/she expects upon the completion of the degree program.
Is the student, for example, seeking a program that will be adequate in equipping the student for a lifetime of work in a particular field? Or is the student looking for a program that will adequately provide a broad array of exposure to the history as well as the contemporary norms of a particular artistic field of endeavor? In other words, is he looking primarily for an education that will equip him to enter, then advance in a particular field of employment? Or, is he looking for broad exposure to as much as possible in his desired artistic field?
Consider these simplified examples. Someone that wants to build bridges for a life work will enter a very different degree track than someone that desires to develop a budding musical talent, or teach Shakespeare in a college setting.
Traditional B.S. Tracks
1. The student that wants to build bridges for a life work will need to adhere to a very specific track of mathematical and physical sciences classes, learning stress factors and trigonometric relationships as they apply to structural integrity, etc. This curriculum will be literally filled with progressively more detailed technical classwork as the studying goes on.
2. The student that seeks to become proficient in the area of Cyber Security is going to follow a fairly strict curriculum on a very technical level. His coursework will take him through a a great deal of algebraic and logic-oriented mathematics, basic physical sciences, numerous branches of computer science, hardware and software saturation, and quite likely much cyber forensic analysis. There will be little in the way go basic history, sociology, psychology or the like.
Traditional B.A. Tracks
1. An art student that seeks development in a specific area of art is going to find that his degree program will include much in art history, human psychology, sociology, and world history. Otherwise his grasp of the true relationship between the art he hopes to produce and the people he hopes to reach through it will be stultified and out of context.
2. The person seeking to become a Shakespearian scholar, so as to teach English literature on a college or graduate school level, will need exposure to world history, British history, human psychology, European literature, literary criticism, perhaps even some international relations work. Apart from such broad exposure, the budding literary scholar will be ill-fitted to grasp Shakespeare or any other writers in the context of their times. How, then, can he hope to relate great literary themes to the present generation?
a. Clearly, once a student has identified specific educational goals and settled upon a general direction for his/her Bachelors Degree, the next step is looking for schools that can provide the appropriate degree programs to enable him/her to reach those educational goals. Universities are quite distinctive in the degree programs they offer. Should I attend a university that offers multiple degree programs in both areas, BA degree and BS degree? Or should I attend a university that specializes in one of the two primary degree tracks? There are, for example, schools that are known to be essentially liberal arts in their orientation, and others that focus entirely upon technical education in specific fields (like engineering).
b. Here is an example of a degree track that would suggest careful school selection. The student that seeks preparation for moving on into Medical School after undergraduate school is completed will need to shore up his high school science work with more work in life sciences, etc. This student may also need to include in his degree track solid language study in Latin (or Greek) since so much terminology in the medical field is derived from these languages. But, his coursework also needs an element of the humanities, since he will be interacting with people in his lifework, especially if he is headed into clinical medicine. Should he seriously consider a school that offers excellence in both types of degree work?
c. It is also well to keep in mind that universities differ as to the nature of student life outside of class. Technical schools will offer a different range of student activities from those available in schools with a distinctly liberal arts curriculum. Additionally, a university that combines both types of degree programs in its curricular offerings will likely provide a far more diverse set of options for student life outside the classroom. This is more significant than it may seem to be at first glance. A four year degree program engages the student in a demanding classroom commitment. Does he want to spend his time outside the classroom in contact with a fairly limited set of others, all of whom have similar aspirations? Or, would he benefit from exposure to a broader range of student activities and encounters with a more diverse student population?
d. Finally, the selection of a school on the undergraduate level must also take into consideration any expectations of attending graduate school in one’s desired field. If a student attends a mixed BA/BS university, he may find it difficult to find acceptance in the graduate school he hopes to attend to carry his education further along. His technical graduate school may demand a more technical undergraduate degree program. Or, equally, his desired liberal arts graduate school may demand undergraduate work in a more liberal arts arena.
Is One Track ‘Better’ than the Other?
There is no degree track that is in some way ‘better’ than any other track. B.S. degrees offer educational opportunities specifically tailored to meet very specific goals. B. A. degrees do the very same thing. The difference between them cannot be viewed from an artificial perspective of one being better than the other. Students that have followed tracks in both areas have found themselves to be very satisfied with the results of their studies. Additionally, students that have followed both tracks have become very productive members of the societies in which they have lived.
To suggest that those with a B. S. degree benefit society in more concrete ways is to devalue those whose lives have historically followed a more liberal arts track, or vice versa. Are those whose contributions carry us along into greater and greater technological advancement more ‘valuable’ to us than those whose contributions enable us to more honestly face and interpret our relationship to the advances we are making? Which is truly more ‘important?’
The amazing structures and technological advances we all enjoy using are no more important to life in this world than the arts we have come to appreciate. The Louvre Art Gallery in Paris is an amazing architectural delight. But, it is no more incredible than the art it houses. Neither is more important that the other. A B.A. degree is just what is needed for starting on the track leading to the production of such amazing art. The B.S. degree is, equally, just what is needed for engineering such marvelous structures. Each degree program serves to equip its students with the knowledge and skills necessary to a satisfying life in either field of endeavor.