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Cybersecurity Studies Increasingly Popular at US Colleges

Following a record-breaking year for cyber attacks, American institutions are devoting more resources to cybersecurity degree programs in an effort to meet growing demand for qualified professionals in the field.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in information security are projected to grow by 31 percent by 2029 as demand for IT talent increases in both the public and private sectors. However, research from the nonprofit Center for Cyber Safety and Education predicts the gap between qualified cybersecurity professionals and unfilled positions will reach 1.8 million by 2022, indicating a growing need for cybersecurity career development programs in higher education.

IBM General Manager of Government and Education Courtney Bromley pointed out that cyber criminals cost the global economy about $600 billion a year, with no signs of slowing down in the U.S. following a record-breaking year for cyber attacks against schools, workplaces and government entities in 2020. And as workforce gaps grow, Bromley said, “cyber crime is big business.”

“Cybersecurity is one of the most in-demand skills across all industries,” Bromley said. “There’s a huge gap that exists between the continued high demand for cybersecurity professionals and the ongoing shortage of talent.”

With this in mind, the tech giant has promoted several technical-education initiatives geared toward IT career development, such as its IBM Skills Academy, which helps to provide over 300 IT skill-building courses to schools including the Miami-Dade College, San Jose State University and about 40 historically Black colleges and universities. Bromley said one goal of such programs is to build skills among groups underrepresented in tech jobs.

Meanwhile, higher ed institutions big and small have used internal and external funds to create new cybersecurity and IT career programs to produce the professionals needed in today’s digital workforce. In the past two months alone, the University of Hawaii announced new cybersecurity internships, Benedict College in South Carolina added a master's degree extension of its cybersecurity program, Maryland's Frostburg State University received grant money for cybersecurity workforce training and New York's LaGuardia Community College announced accelerated education courses in cybersecurity.

Guy Walsh, executive director of the National Security Collaboration Center at the University of Texas - San Antonio (UTSA), said there’s a bigger geopolitical picture to consider when it comes to the need for higher ed cybersecurity career development. According to Walsh, much of the recent, increased focus on cybersecurity in the U.S. involves a growing need to protect tech innovations and intellectual property from cyber criminals and from global adversaries – which he said is easier said than done in today’s increasingly interconnected digital landscape.

“A lot of our success [as a nation] is about research and innovation,” he added. “If those are just taken by countries like North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, you can see that it’s very difficult to compete.”

To help, UTSA has developed IT education and research partnerships with the U.S. military and federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and National Security Agency, with much of the focus being geared toward cyber defense. At the same time, other institutions have stepped up and joined UTSA in the Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity, an NSA-sponsored initiative that recognizes institutions that have expanded academic programs centered on cybersecurity.

Tony Coulson, executive director of the California State University - San Bernardino Cybersecurity Center, said the program has doubled its membership to 335 institutions since 2016 due largely to a growing interest in cyber defense. While there’s much progress to be made, Coulson said others are now following the example of UTSA and CSUSB, selected last year for a $10.5 million grant to help lead the initiative.

Coulson noted that the increase in telework and virtual schooling during COVID-19 has led many in education and government to view digital security and cyber defense as an “all hands on deck” problem. This awakening, he said, has catalyzed the establishment of IT security courses across higher education.

“Here you have this domain that changes. It’s not like land, sea, air and space where there are physical limits to what you can and can’t do. With cyberspace, there are all sorts of things that happen that are man-made, and it changes every day," he said. "So how do you future-proof and provide the education to protect the nation when you’re already in a half-a-million person deficit?"

Despite a recent emphasis on the need for tech professionals, Walsh believes the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do. While the establishment of Silicon Valley placed the U.S. as a global tech leader decades ago, Walsh said the nation still lags behind when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in general.

“How do we gain the competitive edge that we had in, say, the ‘60s or ‘70s?” he said. “If you look at the global competition, the countries that are doing extremely well – India and China, and some of our European countries – it’s because they have placed an increased emphasis on STEM areas in education. We’ve done the exact opposite in the U.S.”

Walsh said higher education officials and educators, both at UTSA and elsewhere, are now starting to view the need for digital security as an interdisciplinary concern, which he believes will help the U.S. compete on the global stage.

“In many universities, if you’re in a business program, you won’t have anybody that’s in the data science area. What we’ve done [at UTSA] is brought those together, because you can’t be successful today in business, logistics or entrepreneurship unless you understand the importance of data science, data analytics,” he said. “We have a responsibility to our next generation, to our students, to our kids, to give them the opportunity for good-paying jobs, for challenging and rewarding careers ... That all comes in that digital economy in which the cybersecurity aspect is a major portion.”

The San Antonio university continues to invest in cyber education, despite sitting comfortably among the nation's top cybersecurity schools.

Earlier this year, UTSA officials broke ground on a new $90 million School of Data Science and National Security Collaboration Center, funded through $75 million from the University of Texas System’s Permanent University Fund and a $15 million donation from former Rackspace Founder and CEO Graham Weston. University officials say the center will serve as a hub for cybersecurity education and research with government, university and industry partners in San Antonio once completed next year.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.