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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio College Secures Federal Cybersecurity Grant

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San Antonio College will be the first solo community college to be awarded a federal grant intended to create more cybersecurity professionals in government.

The National Science Foundation gave SAC $568,000. The pilot program will allow five SAC students to attend school for free beginning in August. Those students commit to working in public service after college. Eligible students will have a Bachelor’s degree or have served in the armed service.

The CyberCorps Scholarship for Service Program was created 18 years ago to address the continuing shortage of cyber professionals in the federal workforce. Until now, the program was limited to four-year degree institutions.

"It says a lot about the demand that is out there for students in this field that they are willing to fund this and see if we can build up this cyber workforce with simply an associates degree," said Kim Muschalek SAC computer information systems coordinator and principal investigator on the grant.

The federal government continues to struggle to fill positions in cybersecurity. The Office of Personnel Management issued a memo earlier this year asking agencies to identify their biggest shortages by April 2019.

It isn’t just the federal government that has struggled to fill these positions. Globally, there will be 2 million cybersecurity jobs left vacant next year, according the nonprofit cyber security advocacy organization ISACA. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the field will grow 28 percent between 2016-2026.

“We have an unbelievable shortage of cybersecurity professionals on every level,” said Victor Piotrowski, a lead program director at NSF.

Degree seekers — under the grant — receive tuition, fees, and funds for professional development and travel, as well as a yearly stipend of $22,500. In return, students must commit to an equal amount of time in public service at the federal, state, local or tribal government level.

The university program started with just nine students but has grown to assist more than 3,300 students at 70 universities since then. Ninety-four percent of those students who graduated received security clearances, and worked for the government.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Defense are the top two employers. Between 2011 and 2015, the two hired 46 percent of the graduates of the program.

Congress told NSF to expand the program to community colleges late last year under the National Defense Authorization Act.

But because 80 percent of graduates go to the federal government, and historically it has been reluctant to take community college graduates in this field, Piotrowski said: “We were always a little hesitant.”

“If you take a student with a two-year degree and try to place them in cybersecurity position in government, it is very challenging,” he added.

Students receive assistance getting their job. In the new pilot, which NSF partners with the Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, students are given $6,000 to attend federal job fairs as well as professional development seminars and cybersecurity competitions.

Two other groups of colleges were included in the award from the NSF. Colleges across Washington State and California teamed up, so did community colleges in New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois.

But only SAC will implement the program alone, something Piotrowski attributes to San Antonio’s position in the cybersecurity landscape.

“San Antonio looks like the second or third epicenter in cybersecurity in the United States,” he said, referring to the NSA Air Force assets and small businesses. “There’s an entire ecosystem.”

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter @paulflahive