The changing definition of a bachelor’s degree

Schools are learning it’s no longer enough to just learn the technical side of science.

The changing definition of a bachelor’s degree

Rebecca Harrington


The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign boasts one of the best engineering programs in the Big Ten and even the world.

But school officials say it’ll soon change its curriculum to reflect a growing trend in higher education — one that the University of Minnesota has long been part of: offering hard science degrees as both Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts.

According to university officials across the Big Ten, it’s no longer enough to just learn the technical side of a science. They said they’ve added flexibility to degree options to produce more well-rounded students.

At the University, students can pursue 15 degrees — including eight in sciences like chemistry, physics and computer science — as either a B.S. or B.A., which is typical of schools across the Big 10.

“I like the flexibility we have here,” said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “I think if a student within the College of Liberal Arts develops this interest and wants to be able to study chemistry in an arts framework, that’s to their advantage.”

McMaster said the College of Science and Engineering, the College of Biological Sciences and the Carlson School of Management are competitive to get into, and the B.A. degrees are a good alternative for students when there’s not enough space in those colleges.

“They had this intense pressure on their curriculum,” he said, “and so they aren’t able to take all the students from CLA and parts of the University … so that would enable that CLA student to get that degree without having to formally cross over that boundary.”

Purdue University doesn’t offer any of these dual-degree options and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign offers a few. The two are the best engineering schools in the Big 10, according to U.S. News and World Reports.

Key differences

B.S. degrees, in general, are more technical and require more math and science courses. Those offered through CSE are technically engineering degrees, and are referred to as “B.S. in physics,” for example.

The B.S. in computer science requires five more upper division credits and two additional lower division courses, including physics. Students follow an upper division track to specialize in a field like graphics and visualization or robotics.

The eight science B.A. degrees offered throughCLA all require students to complete four semesters of a foreign language.

Senior Alina Moua said she originally applied to the computer science B.S. through CSE but didn’t get in, so she decided to pursue the B.A.

“The B.A. is a little bit more flexible with your schedule,” she said. “You get to pick your classes. You don’t have to follow a [track].”

Moua is also seeking a minor in Asian-American studies, which she said she wouldn’t have been able to do if she were a B.S. student.

McMaster said CBS decided not to offer a B.A. degree in biology about 10 years ago. As a result, CLA created the biology, society and environment B.A. degree.

Many students who pursue the B.S.E. degree want to go to medical school, McMaster said.

Junior Jia Nocon tried a few different degrees — and even transferred to CBS for a semester — before deciding on B.S.E. She said she thought the B.S.E degree was a good option for people who have many different interests.

“[CBS students] know what they’re going to do with their lives,” she said. “People in B.S.E just want to try things, figure things out.”

McMaster said this flexibility is an advantage of applying to CLA as an undecided student because the college also offers these B.A. degrees in sciences.

Making the decision

When potential students are trying to decide which college to apply to, admissions director Rachelle Hernandez said they are encouraged to consider three things: what they’re interested in studying, what classes they enjoyed in high school and what careers they’re interested in pursuing.

As long as students are “admissible” to both B.A.- and B.S.-offering colleges, she said, the admissions office tries to give students the best idea of both colleges.

Typically, admissions will encourage potential students to speak with advisers and faculty members from the colleges and visit campus, she said.

The greater trend

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign doesn’t offer a B.A. in computer science — yet.

But Charles Tucker III, associate dean of its College of Engineering, said it is going to start offering one because there is new demand in the industry for computer science majors with liberal arts skills.

“There are lots of interesting things happening at the intersection of information technology and the humanities,” he said.

The switch for Illinois — a school known for its technical, science-heavy curriculum — represents a revolution in higher education, Tucker said.

“We’re working hard to add more of this other dimension so that, in addition to producing the people who can solve the technical problems, we produce more of the people who come up with creative solutions,” he said.

The University of Minnesota’s Faculty Senate Committee on Educational Policy is looking at the difference between B.A. and B.S. degrees and trying to find a definition that fits. McMaster said faculty members have proposed a few arts degrees in colleges outside of CLA to encourage more of this interdisciplinary learning.

These new degrees won’t be offered anytime soon, and McMaster said he wasn’t sure when they would be.

“The curriculum evolves all the time,” assistant vice provost of undergraduate education Suzanne Bardouche said. “New fields come up, the curriculum evolves and new areas replace other areas. We don’t have a crystal ball for that.”