After 22 years of working in the hotel business and becoming a food and beverage manager, 42-year-old Marc McCarthy came to the realization that “very few opportunities for advancement existed,” he says. “Basically, I had to find something economically feasible to pursue a higher education.” He decided to enroll in classes nearby at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), where he began studying in three different fields: databases, web design and programming. Then he took an introductory cybersecurity course and made what he calls “a dynamic pivot in my education direction,” ultimately earning an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree in cybersecurity.
The married, current stay-at-home dad of twin baby boys graduated summa cum laude from the NOVA program in 2014 and was awarded a scholarship into George Washington University’s (GWU) bachelor’s program in Integrated Information, Science and Technology, designed for community college graduates. Set to graduate this May, he has already accepted a paid summer internship with a multinational data analytics company. His starting hourly internship wage is 30 percent higher than his ending hourly wage as a food and beverage manager. The internship, he says, “encompasses cybersecurity, information science, statistics, analytics, communication and technical writing. It is my dream job.”
For an effective, affordable and flexible educational pathway into a cybersecurity job, students of all ages and backgrounds are increasingly enrolling in community college degree and certificate cybersecurity programs across the country. Many of these programs got their start through the developmental support offered through five security technology centers and projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technology Education (ATE) initiative.
Community Colleges as Launchpads
Opportunities for gainful employment in cybersecurity, also known as “information security,” have consistently grown in numbers alongside the growth of our digital age. A July 2015 annual report by Burning Glass Technologies points out that in addition to plenty of cyber jobs typically available at government agencies, “hiring has boomed in industries handling consumer data like finance (up 137 percent in the past five years), health care (up 121 percent) and retail (up 89 percent).” The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an 18 percent growth rate for information security analyst jobs from 2014 to 2024—that’s 11 percent more than the average growth rate for all occupations.
Since the early 2000s, Corby Hovis, NSF program director, has led ATE efforts to grow cybersecurity education opportunities at community colleges. “A lot of cybersecurity jobs—the front-line, foot-soldier [entry-level] positions that protect information systems, can be filled by people with two-year degrees,” Hovis says. “So it was important to recognize the role that two-year colleges can play in cybersecurity and help them develop curricula and faculty to address that need.”
Explosive Growth in Demand for Cybersecurity Degree and Certificate Programs
The National CyberWatch Center, headquartered at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md., is the largest ATE security technology center. The Center is a consortium of more than 100 community colleges, along with four-year colleges and universities, businesses and government agencies, all working collaboratively to “advance cybersecurity education and strengthen the national cybersecurity workforce.”
Director and Principal Investigator of the CyberWatch Center Casey O'Brien explains how this nonprofit organization helps college presidents, academic officers, faculty and staff understand how information security could fit into course, degree and certificate program development. “Information security has applicability across all academic domains,” he says. “It might be one module in an automotive program, or something for a psychology class about motivations of Internet attackers. . . They may want to get these concepts socialized across various disciplines, and maybe extend them to develop a full-on degree or certificate program.”
NOVA’s Cybersecurity Center and the Community College of Baltimore County’s (CCBC) Institute for Cyber Security are prominent CyberWatch members that have produced cybersecurity associate degree and certificate programs with knowledgeable faculty and strong curricula that are attracting a growing number of enrollments. Both are located in the Washington, D.C region, the country’s largest hotbed of federal contractor cybersecurity jobs.
“We were one of the first schools in the country to have a cybersecurity certificate program [since 2000],” NOVA Cybersecurity Professor Margaret Leary says. “It wasn’t until we provided an AAS in cybersecurity that we saw explosive growth in which we went from 49 students at the end of Fall 2014 to 746 students and still growing.”
Enrollment in CCBC’s Network Technology and Information Systems Security certificate and degree programs has followed a similar trajectory, growing from 30 to 60 students in 2008, to about 700 today, says Noell Damron, program chair of CCBC’s Network Technology/Cyber Security division.
Cyber Programs Attract Diverse Students
Both NOVA and CCBC say they attract a diverse body of traditional and nontraditional students. “We have students who are coming to us from high school,” Damron explains. “We have a number of people who need to be retrained and recertified who are already in the industry, and then we have people who are making career changes as part of the program. We have people who are coming out of the military and are looking for new positions—it has been quite a mix.”
In the NOVA AAS program, 31 percent of students program are 18 to 21 years old; 36 percent are between 22 and 29 years old; and 33 percent are age 30 and older, according to Leary.
The 26-year-old Anthony Pena graduated from high school in 2008, meandered between jobs and various college courses part-time, joined the Army Reserves and completed boot camp prior to enrolling in NOVA’s AAS program in spring of 2015. He currently works full-time as a bilingual administrative assistant for a temporary employment agency. Pena likes the hands-on software instruction in some of the introductory classes he has thus far completed, learning how to operate such programs as Wireshark (a network protocol analyzer) and Packet Filter for building firewalls. After graduating, he plans on applying for an entry-level job, possibly with the Securities and Exchange Commission, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree and subsequently moving up the cybersecurity career ladder. “NOVA is affordable and the courses are flexible, offered either before or after work” he says. “They have great professors. I love the program and would not consider going anywhere else.”