What Is the Difference Between a BA and a BS Degree?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 22, 2021

Learn more about the difference between these two bachelor's degrees and how to choose the best degree for your goals.

A female professor in a white lab coat teaches a male and a female student by showing a document on the laptop

Both the Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Science (BS) are postsecondary degrees that you can earn to help elevate your career and develop skills that are relevant to many jobs. Although programs vary depending on the school, BS degrees typically have more coursework in subjects such as science, math, and technology, while BA degrees tend to focus more heavily on the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Ultimately, your decision to earn a bachelor’s degree has the potential to steer your career in a new or different direction, but it is an investment of time and money. Understanding the different types of programs is important in making an informed decision.

BA vs. BS degrees: What’s the difference?

The main difference between the BA and the BS is the subject matter. BA degree coursework tends to focus on critical thinking, communication, and holistic learning. BS degrees tend to be focused on natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering, with coursework in logic, reasoning, and quantitative skills. 

Otherwise, the two are not that different. In most cases, you’ll be choosing between majors (the subject that is the primary focus of your degree), rather than between a BA and a BS. Plus, job recruiters are often subjective in weighing qualifications: they may focus on your previous work or internship experiences, or the way you express yourself in a cover letter, rather than your chosen major.

Typically, the major is less important than achieving the degree itself: by 2030, 70 percent of job openings could require at least a bachelor’s degree [1].

BA vs. BS degrees: Which is the right fit for me?

When determining whether to get a BA or a BS degree, consider the types of careers you are interested in pursuing. Knowing which paths align with certain majors will be helpful in choosing the right program for you. Here are four areas to consider when making your decision:

1. Majors

Choosing a major can be an exciting step toward your future career. Evaluate your own interests and values, as well as potential jobs, in your decision. Sometimes, a major that is relevant to an industry is enough to qualify you for the job. For example, a degree in communications might qualify you for a wide range of careers.

It's also possible to pursue several different industries depending on your major and work experiences. As an example, a biology major can become a science writer or teacher, while an education major interested in sustainability can work for a conservation organization or pursue a graduate degree in wildlife conservation. 

Some majors offer students a choice between a BA or a BS. Psychology majors may choose to pursue a BA if they prefer social work or counseling, or a BS if they enjoy lab research. For education majors, there is a perception that BS degrees are more rigorous, but programs vary so widely that it is more important to know whether or not the degree prepares you for your teaching license.

Questions to ask yourself when choosing a major:

  • What kind of career industry or field am I interested in?

  • What skills or work experiences do I have that align with a particular major?

Though not exhaustive, the examples below may help you gain clarity about majors and their potential career fields:

Common BA majors

Humanities (literature, music, religion, philosophy, history, foreign languages)

  • Business (including museums and institutions)

  • Education

  • Media

  • Visual and performing arts

Social sciences (sociology, anthropology, geography, political science, legal studies)

  • Non-profit organizations

  • International development

  • Government

  • Social services 

  • Law

Communications, journalism, or media

  • Business (advertising, sales/marketing, human resources)

  • Journalism or media

  • Research

Common BS majors

Natural sciences (biology, environmental science, chemistry, physics)

  • Healthcare (medicine, nursing)

  • Natural resource and sustainability management

  • Agriculture or food and beverage

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Research and development

  • Chemical manufacturing

Mathematics and technology (mathematics, statistics, information technology, computer science)

  • Technology

  • Information technology

  • Data science

Engineering (chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical)

  • Engineering

  • Manufacturing

  • Aviation or aerospace

  • Technology

Common BA or BS majors

These fields frequently have an option for a BA or a BS with slightly different curricula:

Psychology

  • Social work

  • Business (marketing and sales)

  • Research

Education

  • Primary or secondary education

  • Non-profit organizations

Business and economics

  • Banking or finance

  • Business (from corporations to start-ups)

  • Governments or think tanks

2. Types of jobs

Your choice of major can lead to many different jobs that are based on your skills and interests. It might be helpful to look up job listings in your chosen field, or search people in similar jobs on LinkedIn to understand the types of degrees and work experiences that led them to that role. Maybe you’ve always had a knack for computers, and an IT degree could be the right fit for you.

3. Job industries

At the same time you evaluate your preferred job scenario, it can be helpful to think of industries that excite you. If you enjoy using creativity and workplace skills, then you might seek out a BA to pursue social work for non-profit organizations. If you are drawn to more analytical and methodical work, you may choose engineering, manufacturing, or technology industries that emphasize logic and reasoning.

Questions to ask yourself when choosing an industry:

  • What type of degrees and majors do industry leaders earn?

  • What type of specialization does the industry require for [insert job here]? 

  • Do I need a bachelor’s degree to advance in the industry?

  • How does my background and interests align with the industry?

The critical thinking or technical skills you can learn during a bachelor’s degree program are often transferable, building a strong foundation for many different industries. However, it is important to know that if, for example, you choose to do a BS in nursing now, you may need additional training to switch to a career in finance in the future.

4. Curricula

Coursework may vary depending on the university. BA degrees tend to have a liberal arts approach, requiring fewer core or major credits and allowing more flexibility to customize your education to your particular interests. It may be easier to double major or minor in another subject. BS degrees are typically more structured, strictly focused on the major and mastering the technical skills needed for their chosen field.

If you know you want to pursue an advanced degree in the future, that can help determine what you choose to study now. For example, if you would like to earn a master’s in social work one day, then opting for a social sciences BA or BS degree might be a wise choice.

Questions to ask yourself when choosing a program:

  • How will this program prepare me for my career goals?

  • What kind of courses are taught in this program? 

  • Is there opportunity for team projects, mentorship, or career support?

Consider an online degree

Consider an online bachelor’s degree as a way to balance a part-time job or other responsibilities as you pursue your studies. An online degree can be just as valuable and respected as their on-campus counterparts. Learn more about bachelor’s degrees from top universities available on Coursera.

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Benefits of earning a BA or BS

Whether you choose to earn a BA or a BS, a bachelor’s degree can be an opportunity to pursue new career paths, a higher salary, a career switch, or networking potential. Let's take a closer look at some of the reasons you might choose to pursue your bachelor's:

To open up new career paths

An estimated seven out of 10 jobs will require a postsecondary education beyond high school by 2030 [1], according to a report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Earning a bachelor’s degree can often open up new careers. One in three adults earned a bachelor’s degree as of 2015 [2], making it increasingly likely that you will be vying for a job alongside other applicants with this level of education.

Earning a four-year degree can enable you to become marketable to a wider range of fields or industries. Higher paying positions sometimes offer better benefits and job security as well.

To increase your earning potential

Data shows that workers with higher levels of education earn more and experience lower rates of unemployment than those with less education. The difference in earnings is remarkable. On average, those with a bachelor’s degree earn over $25,000 more per year than those with a high school diploma, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [3].

Degree levelAnnual salary
No high school$32,188
High school diploma$40,612
Associate's degree$48,776
Bachelor's degree$67,860

Engineering, computer science, and math and sciences degrees continue to be the highest earning bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) [4]. If salary is a deciding factor for you, then a BS in any of these majors may be worthwhile.

To switch careers

If you’re ready for a change, a bachelor’s degree in a subject of interest can open new and exciting career paths. Whether it is a BA or BS, completing a degree demonstrates strong commitment and work ethic. While you do not necessarily need a bachelor's degree to reach your career goals, it could increase the likelihood of being considered for career advancement opportunities.

Hear from Blair, a Coursera learner who pursued a second bachelor's degree as a way to shift to a new career:

“My goal is to launch a career in software engineering. Previously, I was in manufacturing and feeling unfulfilled. The Google IT Support Professional Certificate counted toward my BS in Computer Science at the University of London that I am now enrolled in. The low cost and flexibility of the program allowed me to go back and pursue a second bachelor’s degree.” - Blair Currey, Coursera learner

To build a professional network

Today's job market is competitive. Building a professional network can help you find your next job. Once enrolled in a degree program, you could meet people in your courses, internships, volunteer roles, job fairs, and career development events, all of whom can help grow your network as you expand your career horizons.

To develop skills

Enrolling in a BA or BS program means you have the opportunity to gain skills such as writing, time management, teamwork, and presentation skills, all of which are valuable in the job market. It is an empowering experience because earning a bachelor’s degree is a globally recognized achievement. 

What does it take to earn a BA or BS?

Earning a bachelor’s degree is a commitment to learning that may be beneficial to your career, but it also requires resources like time and money.

Time to complete

A bachelor’s degree, whether a BA or a BS, typically takes four years of full-time coursework to complete. A part-time program may take longer. You may be able to finish programs with less rigorous requirements in just three years, particularly if you've earned credits from other programs. BS programs tend to have more required core and major courses than BA programs, and may take more time to complete.

Coursework

Throughout a BA or BS program, you will take core, major, and elective courses. BA degrees provide more room to tailor your education to your interests, whereas BS degrees are more specialized and practical in the subject matter. Curricula are designed to deepen your subject knowledge while expanding on relevant topics. Typically, students are expected to complete a minimum of 120 university credits for a bachelor’s degree.

Tuition

Tuition fees for bachelor’s degree programs vary widely by school, as well as by program or major. An estimated 60 percent of public research universities assess tuition based on year of study, major, or both, according to a study at New York University [5]. Another survey conducted at Cornell University in 2011 found that schools often charge more for business, engineering, and nursing programs.

This suggests that BS degrees can be more expensive at certain schools. Other schools charge the same for all incoming bachelor’s degree students, no matter their chosen major. 

It is important to compare costs for specific programs, in addition to whether there are additional costs for books or special equipment (such as art supplies, a laptop, or a software program).

Total fees (including tuition, room and board, and other fees) for the 2018-19 academic year were $18,383 for public institutions, $47,419 for private non-profit institutions, and $27,040 for private for-profit institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [6]. Online degree programs can sometimes offer a more affordable and flexible option.

Pursuing your degree: Next Steps

Take the time to consider whether a bachelor’s degree will help you achieve your career goals, including what subjects interest you and which programs will meet your needs. If you decide a BA or a BS degree is right for you, preparing an application is the next step. Applications typically require a resume, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.

If you're considering a bachelor's degree, explore these programs from top universities available on Coursera.

Related Articles

Article sources

1. Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Navigating the College-to-Career Pathway, https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/navigating_the_college-to-career_pathway-fr.pdf.” Accessed November 22, 2021.

2. US Census Bureau. “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/demo/p20-578.pdf.” Accessed November 19, 2021.

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education pays, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm.” Accessed November 19, 2021.

4. National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Salary Survey, https://www.wpi.edu/sites/default/files/inline-image/Offices/Career-Development-Center/2020-nace-salary-survey-winter.pdf.” Accessed November 19, 2021.

5. The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Why Universities Charge Extra for Engineering, Business and Nursing Degrees, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/06/01/why-universities-charge-extra-for-engineering-business-and-nursing-degrees.” Accessed November 19, 2021.

6. National Center for Education Statistics. “Tuition costs of colleges and universities, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76.” Accessed November 19, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Nov 22, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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