This Southern school has the best cybersecurity master’s program in the country—here’s why

BY Sydney LakeJanuary 23, 2023, 4:31 PM
University Hall at the University of Alabama—Birmingham. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama—Birmingham)

One might immediately associate cybersecurity with jobs and research in Silicon Valley and the Washington, D.C. area—both of which are major tech and defense hubs, respectively. However, the best in-person cybersecurity master’s program in the country, as ranked by Fortune, sits down south at the University of Alabama—Birmingham (UAB).

UAB has a strong focus on and deep connection to the cybersecurity industry and digital forensics, which makes it a standout in-person program. Rather than specializing solely in tech-focused domains of cybersecurity, UAB’s program provides a full-picture look at the industry—which has helped the university emerge as a leader in cybersecurity education, and particularly for in-person programs. Plus, UAB’s in-person cybersecurity master’s program has an interdisciplinary approach, and often attracts students with criminal justice backgrounds.

“Security is not just a technical problem—it is a human problem requiring knowledge of social dynamics, criminal laws and policies, and the ability to work as a team,” Ragib Hasan, associate professor of computer science and director of UAB’s SECRETLab, tells Fortune. “In an in-person course, students get the opportunity to work as a part of a team, collaborate and learn from each other, and have a better experience in real-time learning and discussions with the instructors.”

University of Alabama—Birmingham’s focus on cybersecurity

In ranking in-person cybersecurity programs, Fortune weighs the selectivity of the school, graduation and retention rates, as well as graduating class size. The University of Alabama—Birmingham has a 61% acceptance rate, a 90% retention rate, and graduated 29 students in 2022. The school doesn’t require applicants to submit a GRE score, and accepted students have an average undergraduate GPA of 3.56.

While there are a plethora of options to earn a master’s degree in cybersecurity online, UAB enrolls more than 100 students on its Birmingham campus. That may not seem like a lot compared to other in-person graduate programs like an MBA, where hundreds of students enroll, but cybersecurity master’s programs are much smaller. Many of the other top in-person cybersecurity programs enroll fewer than 50—and, in some cases, fewer than 20—students.

UAB has numerous opportunities for cybersecurity students to learn both inside and outside the classroom, which begins with the computer science department’s core research focus on cybersecurity. The department is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Homeland Security, Google, Facebook, and Amazon

The UAB Digital Forensics Lab, which focuses on studying the concept of cybercrime, is also a big attraction for cybersecurity students. The computer science department also works closely with UAB’s J. Frank Barefield, Jr. Department of Criminal Justice, which has strong ties with law enforcement agencies. That way, students “will get not only a quality educational experience in cybersecurity, but also they will have exposure to cutting-edge real-life cybersecurity, AI, machine learning, data science, and digital forensics projects,” Hasan says.

Consequently, UAB’s cybersecurity program is interdisciplinary, and often sees criminial justice students join the program. 

“This is because cybersecurity itself is an interdisciplinary field, requiring close collaboration of computer science professionals and legal/law enforcement professionals,” Hasan explains. “Many of our students come from criminal justice backgrounds. I believe that this flexibility is our strength and the fusion of students with diverse educational and professional backgrounds makes our program unique among other such programs.”

Cybersecurity students also can take courses in data science, machine learning (ML), and artificial intelligence (AI), all of which are becoming increasingly significant in the industry, Hasan notes. In turn, that interdisciplinary approach can boost the employment prospects for graduating students, he adds.

Lastly, Birmingham is actually a hub for tech jobs. Large companies including Shipt—which was acquired by Target in 2018 for $550 million—is headquartered in the city. PNC Financial Services Group also has a major presence in Birmingham, and the company is currently hiring many cybersecurity- and tech-focused roles including developers, engineers, and data analysts, according to job board BuiltIn.

“The tech industry in Birmingham is booming and many of our graduates find employment locally,” Hasan says. “There are hands-on internship opportunities available in the area.” The mean base salary for 2022 UAB cybersecurity graduates was roughly $80,000, which is about 44% higher than the average salary in Alabama, according to ZipRecruiter.

Why choose an in-person cybersecurity master’s program

While cybersecurity is highly focused on protecting digital assets, it’s a subject that can effectively be taught in person. Because the concept of security is not just a technical problem—as Hasan puts it—students can benefit from working in teams to learn more about social dynamics, laws, and policies related to cybersecurity.

“Active learning” is core to UAB’s in-person cybersecurity master’s curriculum. This means courses are designed to combine theory and practice together, Hasan explains. One example he gives is UAB’s course on investigating online crimes, which involves students working on hands-on projects about a cybercrime investigation and preparing reports using industry-standard tools that real-life cybersecurity professionals would use.

“In real-life job environments, cybersecurity professionals need to work together in teams and our emphasis on team-based learning helps prepare our students for their future careers,” he says.

How to get into University of Alabama—Birmingham’s master’s in cybersecurity program

UAB accepts students with a variety of academic backgrounds including criminal justice, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, information technology, business, accounting, as well as social science-focused degrees. Prospective students must have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA. A GRE score isn’t required to apply. 

Students who haven’t studied computer science can be admitted if they complete a set of prerequisite courses that are focused on computer science, programming languages, and criminal justice. Applicants who don’t have the prereqs can be admitted on a conditional basis.

Aside from the admissions process, UAB offers a comparatively low-cost degree at $468 per credit hour. The program requires 30 credits in order to graduate, bringing its total tuition cost to just over $14,000. 

The National Science Foundation also funds UAB’s CyberCorps: Scholarship for Services (SFS) program, which provides a full scholarship and stipend for 24 cybersecurity master’s students. These scholarship recipients go on to work for national- and state-level cybersecurity agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, MITRE, Government Accountability Office, U.S. Air Force, Social Security Administration, Department of Defense, Marshall Space Flight Center, FDIC, Sandia National Labs, and the Department of Justice.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.