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There's an ongoing national conversation encouraging people to pursue at least an associate degree. But at one Florida college, some students are finding it's in their best interest to pursue more than one two-year degree.

Valencia College, in Central Florida, has witnessed students pairing associate of arts and associate of science degrees as a way to get a leg up in their careers postgraduation or to find better acceptance in programs after transferring to universities.

Within the last five years, more than 1,300 Valencia graduates have walked away with both an associate of arts and an associate of science degree, said Sandy Shugart, president of the college, adding that students don't have to retake a course they've completed to achieve this.

“These decisions happen deep in the organization between the student and the career programmer (or adviser) and each student is unique and getting unique advice,” Shugart said.

Students can seek A.A. and A.S. degrees without jeopardizing their federal financial aid, as long as they don't exceed 150 percent of their program length for aid, said Christen Christensen, a Valencia financial aid director.

And there are a number of reasons why students would want to pursue both degrees at the same time. One reason would be to enhance their transfer ability if they're thinking about pursuing a similar bachelor's degree, he said.

That was the rationale behind Dolores Petropulos’s decision to receive both an A.S. and an A.A. in computer science from Valencia in 2012. The retired police officer is now studying computer science at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and credits having both degrees as the key to her ability to pursue a four-year degree, as well as multiple summer internships with NASA.

“It's hard making it into the computer science program, especially if you don't have any experience behind you. There's no way I would have made it without picking those courses at Valencia,” Petropulos said.

She knew she didn't have any programming skills, but would need them if she wanted to succeed after transferring. She also learned that courses like biology and calculus were needed as well. So Petropulos focused on the A.A. degree to complete the science and math courses and the A.S. degree to complete courses in hardware, software and database design. She walked away with both degrees after three years.

“It made no sense for me to just take that one degree,” she said.

Another reason students may pursue both degrees is because they may make them more employable, Shugart said.

Peter Sewall, a Valencia graduate, earned an A.A. degree and an A.S. degree in five specialties in the business administration major. Along the way he also achieved seven technical certifications. The U.S. Army veteran had already had a career owning his own business and in hospitality management at a number of Orlando-area resorts, but prior to joining the military he had dropped out of college. A husband and father of four, Sewall managed to work full time as a senior business analyst and consultant at a tax and accounting company while attending classes.

“If I can say I have a degree in marketing, or small business management, at least I can say the advice I'm giving you is legitimate and here's my education,” Sewall said, adding that he felt pursuing the degrees and credentials validated his career. Even with 20 years of business experience, he felt without a college degree it would be more difficult to advance in his career. He's currently pursuing a business degree from the University of Florida and plans to eventually pursue a master's in business administration.

As in Petropulos's case, the idea to pursue the multiple degrees came from Sewall's counselor at Valencia, who helped map out the degree path. His tuition was partially covered due to a veterans’ retraining program and because of the similarity between courses and degrees it wasn't a problem for him to take an additional couple of classes each semester to pursue each specialty. Those specialties were in fields such as real estate, marketing and small business management.

That similarity across courses is what makes completing both degrees within a short period of time important. Some programs complement one another despite being on different degree paths. For instance, a student might find herself on a waiting list or needing to complete prerequisites for pursuing an associate of science in allied health. So she might choose to complete the prerequisites by achieving an A.A. degree first while awaiting acceptance into the former degree program, especially if she is looking to eventually earn a bachelor of science in nursing, Shugart said.

It's also common for students to major in architecture and pursue an A.A. as well as an A.S. in construction management, he said, adding that it makes them more attractive hires.

Josh Wyner, vice president and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, called pairing A.S. and A.A. degrees a good tactic that brings together the best of both worlds, although pursuing both degrees alone without considering transferring for a four-year degree would have to be considered on a field-by-field basis, he said.

“It's an intriguing idea and especially if students want to get all that they need at the affordable rate the community colleges offer and if those credentials confer as much value as a bachelor's degree and if students don't want to go on to a graduate program,” he said.

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