When Kevin Sefcovic got out of the Navy in 2014, he chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska Omaha for its veteran-friendly reputation and the school’s proximity to his last duty station. He had always been interested in working with computers, but after seven years in military law enforcement he was unsure whether his math and coding skills would be up to par. So he instead opted to major in general studies.
Then Sefcovic, 29, took an introductory course in information assurance, where he learned that the university had recently been named to the National Security Agency’s list of National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education.
"As soon as I heard the NSA said that UNO was great, I thought: ‘If I want to work for the government … what better way is there to go about this?’ " he said, adding that if he was lucky enough to be at an NSA-recognized institution, he’d better not miss his opportunity.
Soon after, Sefcovic changed his major to information assurance, joining a growing number of students with military experience who are pursuing degrees in cybersecurity and related fields at UNO.
UNO is one of 10 universities listed in our new ranking of the best college cybersecurity programs, coming in second behind Syracuse University. Rounding out the top five are Drexel University, Bellevue University and University of Maryland University College.
We considered the NSA’s distinctions in cyber defense and information assurance education, as well as program accreditation through global accreditor ABET. In addition, the new rankings consider the proportion of a school’s degrees that the cybersecurity and computer science fields make up, as well as the results of our 2017 "Best for Vets: Colleges" review.
"You really have to look no further than the news to see that cybersecurity skills are in great need across the nation," said Douglas Rausch, cybersecurity program director at fourth-ranked Bellevue, which offers certificates and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field. "It doesn't matter if you are in a small, medium, large business or working in some level of government — our nation needs professionals skilled in cybersecurity."
Syracuse professor Shiu-Kai Chin likened the cybersecurity profession to auditing — reading balance sheets and checking for alignment and vulnerabilities to ensure a healthy business.
"It’s the notion that everything you do has to be authenticated and has to be authorized," he said.
For students with a military background, cybersecurity programs can be a natural fit.
For one thing, many of these students already have security clearances, which can be a major boost to their job prospects in the field, said Jesse Varsalone, an associate professor at the University of Maryland University College, or UMUC, and coach of its competitive Cyber Padawans team.
"Pretty much all the jobs with the government and Department of Defense require some minimal level of security clearance. People in the military have that advantage," he said.
Sefcovic, whose military experience was not related to cybersecurity, can see where his background in the Navy has helped him on his new career path. He’s still dealing with people who push boundaries, but in a different way.
Besides that, "military members are good at thinking on the spot, coming up with an answer to a problem and running with it," he said.
The attraction for military students
Francis Obiagwu, 26, was initially drawn to Drexel’s Master of Science program for cybersecurity because of the faculty and curriculum.
"In cybersecurity, for instance, (there are) so many areas you can specialize, so many courses you can take from many different departments," he said. "That was the experience I really wanted. You can become a jack of all trades."
Another big attraction was that the program is offered online, so Obiagwu can choose to attend classes or tune in from his home in New Jersey. That has made it possible to juggle his schoolwork with a full-time job as a contractor for Comcast, as well as his position as an E-4 specialist in an information technology unit in the Army National Guard.
Online capabilities were also important to Florida State University computer science major Matthew Bradley, who transferred to the school after transitioning out of the National Guard because the school offered the degree online. But it’s no cakewalk; the program, which we ranked in sixth place, is accredited by ABET, and courses are rigorous, he said.
"You definitely have to sit down and learn the material instead of just go through the motions," Bradley said.
Online courses are also popular at UMUC, where federal records show that more than 1 in 10 degrees awarded in the 2014-15 school year were for computer security or information systems assurance. Students can choose from three undergraduate majors in cybersecurity related to computer networks — software development, or management and policy — and three graduate degrees. About 90 percent choose to pursue their degrees online, said Varsalone. The program also offers eight-week hybrid courses that students can attend in person.
"We’re really geared towards working adults," he said, noting that UMUC has students on military bases all over the world. "We’re really geared toward a specific audience, and that’s part of what’s made us really successful."
Recent UMUC graduate and Army veteran Kenny Wallace, 37, agreed. He also praised the school’s competitive cybersecurity club, Varsalone’s award-winning Cyber Padawans, for giving him real-world experience that he could put on his résumé.
Getting more vets in the field
Many of the schools on the top 10 list cited military student recruitment as a priority for their cybersecurity programs.
At the UNO, the newly opened Nebraska Applied Research Institute is working with a Defense Department affiliate and private funders to roll out an initiative to recruit veteran students for cybersecurity research and training at the institute.
Drexel recently received a grant from the U.S. Army Reserve and the NSA to increase its course offerings and facilities related to cybersecurity education with the hope of making the university more attractive to active-duty service members, reservists and veterans and to grow its military student base. Drexel, Florida State and others have also focused recruitment efforts at their campus’ student veterans centers.
As part of Syracuse’s cybersecurity program, the school offers a Cyber Engineering Semester in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory to immerse students in cybersecurity training. About half of the students are ROTC cadets.
"Those are the future leaders," said Syracuse’s Chin. "The idea is to grow the people we need who understand the potential revolution in military affairs that adding cyber as a domain creates in the conduct of war. You need people who understand and study war and who understand this new domain."