A.S. degree-seekers see big payoff

Students taking the shorter route through college are finding surprisingly lucrative jobs.

Students taking the shorter route through college are finding surprisingly lucrative jobs.

Allison Olcsvay

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Stacey Schuler hasn’t even graduated yet, but she’s already landed a job as a paralegal – the first step of many on her road to becoming a lawyer. And that decision to take a two-year degree may pay off faster than many think, according to a recent release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That list of associate of science degrees showed more than 20 that put students into jobs paying more than $50,000 per year — which in many cases is more than some careers requiring bachelor’s degrees.

Schuler, a 39-year-old wife and mother of two, is set to graduate May 4 with her Associate of Science degree in paralegal studies at Seminole State College.

“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I was always the type of person who watched trials on television from beginning to end, I just couldn’t get enough.”

“It was a big surprise to my family when I went back to school, but I figured I’ve got to do it and I’ve got to do it now before it’s too late. It was definitely a leap of faith though,” she said.

The ‘S’ in A.S. degree can make a big difference, giving students a work-related specialty by the time they graduate, compared to A.A. degrees which typically require another two years of study for students to receive a bachelor of arts degree and then enter their career field.

Having that A.S. degree before transferring to the University of Central Florida to complete her studies will allow Schuler to work in her field while continuing her education, an option that would have been more difficult had she chosen to go straight into a bachelor’s degree program.

“This program is American Bar Association-approved, which gives me the credentials to work as a paralegal while I study to become a lawyer,” Shuler said. “Without the A.S., I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Many students like Schuler are using the A.S. degree program as a stepping stone to further education, with the main benefit that they can work their way through school as a professional in their chosen field.

“On my first day on the job as a paralegal, I sat down at my desk and I was prepared to do my job, thanks to my studies at Seminole State,” Schuler said.

According to Florida Department of Education statistics for 2010-2011, the most recent year available, about half of paralegal students in Central Florida go on to pursue higher education.

Both Seminole State College and Valencia College both have placement rates around 95 percent for their A.S. graduates, meaning the students either transferred to continue their education or took jobs in their field upon graduation.

Last year Seminole State offered 26 A.S. degree programs and A.S. graduates made up about 10 percent of the total graduating class.

At Valencia College, 34 A.S. degrees were offered, making up 12 percent of the graduating class.

According to Valencia College, students graduating with an A.S. degree in Central Florida can expect to make an average starting salary of around $38,000, with many in the health care fields starting closer to $50,000.

But for students like Schuler, it’s not so much about the money as it is the experience. She even got a glimpse of her dream, becoming part of the first ever mock trial team at the college.

“I think we shocked a lot of people for our first time out,” she said. “It was an amazing experience.”