Cybersecurity professionals are needed—how one NSA-recognized university is addressing the demand

BY Meghan MalasJuly 08, 2022, 12:52 PM
Early voting at Nova Southeastern University, as seen in October 2018. (Susan Stocker—Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

In 2005, a university in Fort Lauderdale, Florida received a designation by the National Security Agency as a leader in cybersecurity defense—the beginning of nearly two decades of holding and re-earning this recognition. In that same time, the demand for cybersecurity professionals has rapidly increased, and this long-time NSA-designated school hopes to meet that demand. 

Nova Southeastern University is admittedly not on the short-list of the world’s top, elite schools for technology, yet it finds itself positioned to contribute significantly to the cybersecurity space. Its most-recent designation by the NSA came in 2021 and will be in effect until the university is re-evaluated again in 2028. The school was ranked No. 15 among the best online master’s in cybersecurity degree programs by Fortune.

Trying to meet the demand for cybersecurity professionals is no small task, considering the demand for cybersecurity experts is steep; the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 33% growth in jobs for information security analysts from 2020 to 2030. And Florida has one of the highest demands for these workers in the country. The state has 36,612 cybersecurity jobs open as of April 2022, according to Cyberseek.

“We’re very agile here and we’re evolving our curriculum, our center, and our research to dovetail with what’s going on in the industry and other academic institutions,” says Greg Simco, chair and professor of computer science at Nova Southeastern University. “I think I see this more of a cooperative effort amongst the government and academic institutions on this than almost any other thing that I’ve been involved in during my 26 years here.”

To learn how the school remains a main player in the cybersecurity space, Fortune spoke with Simco and Meline Kevorkian, the dean of the College of Computing at the university. 

What is an NSA designation? 

A National Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C) is a school that passes rigorous program and curriculum requirements set by the NSA. Three different types of designations exist: Cyber Research (CAE-R), Cyber Operations (CAE-CO), and Cyber Defense (CAE-CD)—which Nova Southeastern University holds.

The designation program is co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and exists to ultimately increase the number of savvy cybersecurity professionals with degrees, enabling better cyber protection of the U.S. infrastructure. 

To meet the demand for cybersecurity professionals, Nova Southeastern focuses on early intervention

It’s no secret that cybersecurity is a career field on the rise—especially given the high salaries associated with the industry. The median pay for an information security analyst is $102,600 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Amid this heightened demand, Simco and Kevorkian say there’s greater interest among undergraduates and K-12 students in pursuing an occupation in cybersecurity. However, there are other barriers to entry that must be addressed to fully actualize this interest. As a result, Nova Southeastern has taken a direct approach to prepare the next generation of cybersecurity students by working with faculty and K-12 students in Florida schools.

“Degrees in these areas require a certain mathematical maturity,” Kevorkian says. “If a student struggles in algebra or precalculus, they’re certainly not going to be able to easily do a curriculum with calculus 2 and linear algebra.”

Computer science undergraduate programs don’t have the best retention rate nationally, Kevorkian points out. This is why Nova Southeastern interacts with potential cybersecurity students early, to get them to understand why they need to pay attention and embrace their math classes.

Once students matriculate at the undergraduate level at Nova Southeastern, they will be a minority of the school’s academic make-up—a significant advantage according to Kevorkian and Simco. The private school is graduate-dominant, accounting for approximately 70% of its student body. The graduate student enrollment was 14,574 students in Fall 2020, more-than double the enrollment of 6,314 undergraduates, according to IPEDS. 

“Most universities don’t have enough space for the undergraduates to get involved in research and other types of activities, and because we are top-heavy in the graduate area, it makes for a rich experience,” Kevorkian says. Because many graduate students are working professionals, flexibility is also a top priority. 

Intervening early also grants the school the opportunity to show students all the different facets of the burgeoning industry. 

“That’s the nice part about us being graduate-dominant—we have a strong health professions division and legal division,” Kevorkian says. “Whether students want to work in the environment, or the medical aspects, we can expose students early on to a lot of areas of the field.”‘

In addition to students looking to switch career paths, many master’s in cybersecurity students at Nova Southeastern are there to update their existing computer science and protection skillset as the field evolves.

“They see the future—and are really coming here to make sure that they can meet the demands of what their job is going to be,” Kevorkian says.

The university works alongside other schools to boost cybersecurity programming

A focal goal of the NSA-designated school is to help other schools earn their designation, as well. Nova Southeastern University routinely works with other schools to help foster successful cybersecurity student cohorts. The university has partnered and worked with other Florida schools like Broward College, Miami Dade College, Florida International University, and Florida Atlantic University. Nova Southeastern recently began a partnership with the University of Puerto Rico, as well.

“From the standpoint of the Centers of Academic Excellence, you’re partnering with all the other universities in the constituency to build better programs and feedback,” Simco says. This includes coordinated training and research-oriented events for students with schools like the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and the University of Miami.

How does Nova Southeastern plan to evolve as the cybersecurity space evolves?

The field of cybersecurity has changed since Nova Southeastern University first received NSA designation 17 years ago—and the approaches to cybersecurity have also changed. What was once an addendum to computer science programs is now largely considered its own domain. 

At the same time, it’s become clear that information security is more than just engineers saying, ‘Here’s your protection,’ and then managers are good to go, Simco explains. That’s why cybersecurity management has evolved, and why it is a crucial focus of Nova Southeastern’s master’s degree program in cybersecurity. Solutions today require cybersecurity literacy from more than just the designated cybersecurity experts, he says. 

Understanding where all the pieces of a good security system fit together is the trick. Balancing the management of people with technical aspects like cryptography is the concentration of Nova Southeastern’s graduate programming in the space. In short, the future of cybersecurity in companies, organizations, and governments is an emphasis on communication and management. 

“It’s not that people have to be experts in every component, but none of it should be a black box to them,” Simco says. “Everybody needs to know what everybody else is doing, otherwise, you end up with those silos—and that’s why we have so many vulnerabilities in systems because somebody’s just looking at what they know, not their periphery, and not behind them.”

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