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BA vs. BS: What's the difference between a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science?

African American college graduate smiling and holding diploma

by Cooper Nelson

At a glance

  • A Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) tends to focus on a breadth of knowledge in a discipline, while most Bachelor of Science (BS) programs concentrate on a more focused path of study.
  • BA degrees may include English, social sciences and other liberal arts; a BS degree may be in computer science or business administration connected to the sciences, but some schools offer both a BA and BS in the same subject area.
  • Both a BS and a BA generally require 120 semester credit hours, often over four years.
  • Students can explore the various degree programs, and find the best fit for their goals, by using our Find your program page.

BA vs. BS

Undergraduate students seeking a four-year degree often choose between a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a Bachelor of Arts (BA). While some subjects almost always fit into one category, others, such as sociology, communications or political science, are offered as BS programs at some schools and BA programs at others depending on the institution’s mission and tradition. 

Both require 120 semester credits, or about four years of full-time study, and lead to a bachelor’s degree. Full-time study may look different for students earning an online degree versus at a traditional university, depending on transfer credits or the school’s learning model. Traditional, on-campus institutions often schedule students for about four courses per semester, which students attend concurrently over that time period. Online students still complete four courses during a similar time frame, but may take one course at a time to focus their time and learning on one content area to better fit a busy schedule. Though BA and BS programs both provide content in a student’s chosen discipline area, the degree types differ in several important ways.

What is a Bachelor of Arts degree?

A Bachelor of Arts focuses on the breadth of a subject area, and also provides a broader liberal arts background. Students are exposed to a wide range of topics for educational awareness, knowledge and understanding. For example, students can enroll in a Bachelor of Arts in English program if they want to study literature and hone their writing skills but also gain a deeper understanding of a broad range of topics within the arts. 

BA degrees are a great option for students seeking a well-rounded education that combines in-depth classes in their chosen subject with general liberal arts studies. 

The diverse curriculum can be beneficial for careers that require skills like critical thinking and communication. The diverse knowledge from a BA can also be advantageous if a student wants to change careers in the future to a job that leverages a need for broad awareness and knowledge rather than functional or technical skills.  

Requirements for a BA degree

To apply for a Bachelor of Arts program, a student will need to have completed secondary studies (i.e., a high school or GED® diploma). However, there are other avenues where secondary completion isn’t needed. In addition, universities and colleges may have grade-point requirements for applicants, and some ask students to earn a minimum score on the SAT or ACT exam.

At the start of a BA program, students usually take general education classes meant to expand their general knowledge. In the second or third year, students start taking coursework in their chosen subject. Some colleges consider general education classes prerequisites for more advanced or specialized classes. In some cases, these general requirements may also be achieved through the transfer of an associate degree.

What can you do with a Bachelor of Arts degree?

A BA can help equip students with broad knowledge and skills that can better prepare them for midlevel management roles and other career paths that require skills of someone who is well balanced and knowledgeable about an array of topics. Depending on your area of study, you can apply for roles such as a graphic designer, web designer or supervisory roles, depending on your preference.

Another example is educators who want to teach specific subjects, such as history, literature or other liberal arts specialties; they can pursue a BA in their chosen field. Because a BA covers a breadth of knowledge, many BAs can translate into various career paths and be a stepping stone for graduate studies to become a teacher or professor.

University of Phoenix, for example, offers a Bachelor of Arts in English. With this degree, students gain knowledge of rhetorical concepts and diverse communication styles. These skills can provide an educational foundation to pursue, for example, a career as a technical writer who creates instructional manuals and informational articles, or as a public relations professional.

What is a Bachelor of Science degree?

Most BS programs focus on a deep dive into a student’s major or discipline with courses that emphasize the sciences.

BS programs are often offered for technical or technological subjects, like information technology (IT). Professions with specific knowledge and skill sets related to areas that lean on the sciences almost always require a BS. For example, nurses may need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) when advancing in their career, while hospital and clinic decision-makers might pursue a BS in healthcare administration or health management.

Some BS programs provide functional working knowledge in specific fields. For example, a computer science degree can help students prepare for a wide range of programming, software engineering, data science, cybersecurity or network administration careers. 

Requirements for a BS degree

Application requirements for BS degrees are typically similar to those for BA programs: Students need to complete secondary studies (high school or GED diploma), and may need a specific grade-point average and an SAT or ACT score that meet minimum thresholds set by the school. 

BS programs typically have slightly different general education requirements than a BA program. Students may spend the first year or two taking courses that teach skills necessary for their subject and an array of classes at the lower division level to give them a breadth of study in the liberal arts, but then they move into areas of study focused on their major or discipline. 

What can you do with a Bachelor of Science degree?

Bachelor of Science programs typically prepare students with specialized knowledge and skills that have specific, real-world applications. Examples include:

  • Nurse practitioners, during BS and master’s degree programs, develop healthcare skills to provide direct care to patients. 
  • Environmental scientists learn the science behind climate change, sustainable energy, conservation and other areas related to the environment and ecology. 
  • Computer programmers use their BS studies to learn coding languages and apply them to software design, cybersecurity and other digital specialties. 
  • Law enforcement professionals pursue Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice degrees to learn about law enforcement, investigative techniques, and rules and regulations they will use during their careers. 
  • Accountants start their bachelor’s degree program with math and bookkeeping classes before moving on to master more nuanced skills, such as budgeting, reporting and taxes. 

BS degree-holders in many careers have opportunities to earn professional certifications or licenses either during their studies or after graduation. 

Tips for choosing the right undergraduate degree

It’s important to determine what the ideal outcome and goals are when choosing an undergraduate degree. This will aid in determining whether a BS or BA is right for the student. If a student is seeking a practical and career- or technical-focused outcome, they should learn more about a BS degree. If a student is looking to expand their area of focus and learn a wider breadth of knowledge, they may want to home in on a BA.

Most schools follow the conventions discussed above, but if you want to truly understand the scope of a particular program, you need to look at all the course requirements and the institutional catalog.

Here are other important tips to keep in mind when you choose a degree program that fits your academic and professional goals:

  • Confirm your interest in a specific subject. You could undertake an internship to confirm your interest in a profession. If that isn’t possible, you can take a personality or career test to see if it matches your choice. 
  • Find out the requirements for your chosen profession. In some cases, you will need to complete a specific degree to qualify for graduate school or earn a license in your chosen field. Check the requirements beforehand to ensure your degree prepares you for certification or licensure. 

It’s OK to change your mind after starting a degree program. You will be able to use at least some of the credits you have already earned if you switch degrees, and the knowledge you gained could come in handy in your future career. However, changing degree programs or transferring schools may add cost, time and the need to take additional courses. Not all courses will carry over to a new major if it’s in an unrelated subject matter; so it’s essential to speak to the school you are looking to transfer into to understand their policies and practices.

If you're interested in an online BA or BS degree, visit the University of Phoenix website to learn more. University of Phoenix offers 34 bachelor's programs nationwide in the areas of business, technology, nursing, healthcare, criminal justice, education, psychology and behavioral sciences.