Once you narrow down your choice of a college major to mathematics, you may find that you have another important decision to make. Should you earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree? While some colleges and universities offer only a BA or only a BS in mathematics at their institution, others allow students to choose between the two distinct math degree options.
The differences between these two mathematics degrees include the approach to education and the graduate and career opportunities available to students, but there are also many similarities between BA and BS degrees in math.
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An Overview of Differences Between BS and BA Math Degrees
In general, if you want to work in some sort of math career or otherwise develop strong math skills, either a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics can help you reach that goal. However, if your future plans are more specific than that, one type of math degree may be a better choice than another.
The distinction between BS and BA in math degrees isn’t just a difference in name. It indicates whether the curriculum that you complete is based in the liberal arts or the technical sciences. This curriculum difference is the biggest distinction between these two programs of study, because taking different coursework means that you will have a somewhat different academic experience during your college studies.
When it comes to your professional future, including your career and potentially graduate school, the difference between a math BA and a math BS may not be as significant. A BS in math degree can put you on a slightly different path than a BA in math degree, and vice versa, but graduates from these programs usually aren’t as limited as they might fear. Many career opportunities are equally likely for students with a BA in mathematics as those with a BS.
It’s possible that having the “wrong” undergraduate math degree could hold you back from certain jobs and graduate school programs, but many math majors find that this hasn’t been the case in their careers. Further, if you find that you are missing some valuable coursework that you might have taken if you chose the other type of bachelor’s in math degree – like a foreign language or a couple of extra laboratory science classes – you could also address this deficit by taking a few non-degree courses at your local community college.
While prospective students should be aware of the distinctions between BA and BS in math programs, they should also know that those differences may be less significant than they might think. The bulk of the major curriculum in an undergraduate math program is likely to be similar for BA and BS students, including most of your mathematics classes.
The Liberal Arts vs. Technical Science Approach That Distinguishes BS and BA Maths Programs
The biggest factor that determines whether a math degree is a BA or BS degree is the approach to education. A math degree program that is offered out of a liberal arts college is typically a BA degree, while those that are part of a science or engineering school are more likely to be BS degrees.
A liberal arts degree is not a degree in the fine, visual or performing arts. Rather, this type of degree includes an emphasis on the liberal arts, which encompass the social sciences, humanities and languages. In a degree program that is based in the liberal arts, students do not just learn specific facts and technical skills of a field like mathematics. They complete an array of courses from these different disciplines that, together, help them to cultivate versatile skills in critical thinking and communication.
A goal of most liberal arts programs, including BA in mathematics programs, is to help students learn how to learn new information effectively. As such, students who complete a liberal arts degree like a BA in math aren’t only more well-rounded in terms of the subject matter they study at the college level. They are also better prepared for a lifetime of learning, both in their professional careers and their personal lives.
BS in mathematics degrees, on the other hand, may feature a curriculum that is more intensive in its natural and physical science course requirements. Students seeking a Bachelor of Science in mathematics will typically take fewer courses in social sciences and the humanities, although most universities’ general education requirements mean that these students will still take some classes in these areas. You should expect more extensive requirements for taking science classes such as physics, chemistry, biology or geology.
Whether you choose a BA or a BS degree program in math will affect the courses you take as a student, but how different your curriculum is will depend on the individual institutions you select. In a BS in math curriculum, you may take more math courses – but you also may not – and they may be more slightly complex or advanced in nature.
For example, undergraduate math students at the University of Kentucky can choose between BA and BS degree options, and they can choose between the mathematics program option and the mathematical sciences option. When you look at the curriculum for the BA and BS degrees in mathematics side by side, you’re likely to notice more similarities than differences. As of 2021, students in both programs of study have to take Calculus, Calculus II, Calculus III, either Calculus IV or Introduction to Number Theory, Matrix Algebra and its Applications and Introduction to Computer Programming. Students round out their major coursework with 18 hours of math courses at the 300 level or above and take 14 hours of 300-level courses in subjects like statistics, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, computer science and economics. The difference is in non-major college requirements. BA math students must take additional coursework in social science, natural science and humanities to meet their college requirements.
At other colleges, the curriculum differences between BS and BA math programs may be different. For example, at Drexel University, students pursuing the BS degree have more opportunities to study computing and learn how to use mathematical software programs like Statistical Analysis Software (SAS) and MATLAB. BA in math students at Drexel must take one class in either abstract algebra or the elements of modern analysis, but BS in math students take two levels of courses in both of these subjects. As a result, the major curriculum is more math-comprehensive for BS students at this school than for BA students.
Because the differences in BA vs. BS curricula vary from one school to another, it’s important to review the degree requirements and learning outcomes for the school you’re considering. You might also consider discussing your career and academic options with an advisor or admissions officer to help you decide which program is right for you.
The Emphasis on Applied Practice vs. Preparation for Graduate School in Mathematics BA vs. BS Programs
Another difference between BA and BS in math degrees is what opportunities the educational path prepares students to enter. If you’re looking to get started in an entry-level math role or use your college education in a way that isn’t specific to mathematics, either bachelor’s degree in math will likely be acceptable. Certain employers may look for specific skills – such as software skills that a graduate from a BS program is more likely to have or foreign language proficiency that a BA student is more likely to possess – but other employers will be willing to train recent graduates in the software programs they use.
The BS vs. BA in mathematics distinction becomes a bigger deal if you’re preparing to go to graduate school. Generally, master’s degree programs in mathematics are intended for students with a BS degree rather than a BA degree. This is because, in general, BS degrees tend to focus more narrowly on preparing students for graduate programs in mathematics by emphasizing mathematical proofs. BA in math programs tend to devote less of the curriculum to proofs, instead emphasizing practical application of mathematical reasoning, calculations and data analysis methods.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that graduate school is out of the question if your undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Arts. You can still go to graduate school with a BA in mathematics, but this degree is a better choice for students who plan to go to graduate school in a field such as education, business or engineering. Prospective lawyers sometimes pursue a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics as undergraduates to develop their logic and reasoning skills while also gaining the benefits of a liberal arts education.
Ultimately, whether you go to graduate school and what you study there will affect your career path. A BA in math might be an excellent undergraduate academic path if you are an aspiring math teacher or want to work in a field like finance or economics. These roles don’t involve abstract mathematical research but instead prepare you to work in a professional capacity. Mathematicians working in certain scientific research and development or in other mathematician industry roles might benefit more from having a BS degree.
Most mathematician jobs do require a master’s degree, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. The opportunities available with a bachelor’s degree include government mathematician and statistician roles.
Which Type of Bachelor’s in Mathematics Degree Is Better?
The upside of a Bachelor of Science degree’s emphasis on science and technology is the opportunity to gain more extensive and advanced technical skills and experience in scientific research. However, science classes aren’t traditionally known for helping students develop soft skills in learning, thinking and communicating to the same degree as liberal arts coursework does. Whichever set of skills you choose to prioritize, you will still be making a tradeoff.
Students pursuing a BS in mathematics might have fewer electives, especially outside of their major. This, unfortunately, means that their curriculum often offers less flexibility to take courses unrelated to their major simply because they are interesting. Fewer electives also mean less of an opportunity to become educated in a niche area in which the student might eventually want to work.
BA programs in mathematics are more likely than BS programs to have more extensive foreign language requirements. The studies in the humanities and social science that you must complete in a BA degree program may seem easy to some math majors but to others are difficult in their own way, often due to their subjectivity and reliance on written work. As a result, the question of which type of undergraduate math degree is better – or even which one is easier – is a tough question to answer.
The critical thinking and communication skills students learn in a liberal arts program are often valuable later in life, not only in their mathematics careers but also in developing an educated and well-rounded view of the world and historical and current events.
Similarities Between BA and BS in Math Degrees
Despite these distinctions, BA in math degrees and BS in math degrees have more similarities than differences. Regardless of which type of bachelor’s degree you earn, you will complete math classes in algebra, calculus and differential equations, according to the BLS. Often, students take some coursework in statistics, physics and computer science, as well.
While there are some subjects of study in which a technical, science-based degree like a BS might be preferable to a liberal arts BA degree, math is not one of them. In most industries, employers of mathematicians typically don’t give preference to job candidates based on whether they have a BA or a BS in mathematics. Generally, many of the same jobs are available to students regardless of which kind of undergraduate math degree they attained.
If your school offers both a BA and a BS in math, you should look at the curricula for both degree programs and decide which option appeals to your interests, strengths and goals. Some students want to dive into advanced math courses, while others enjoy humanities courses.