Howard Community College has received a national certification that not only highlights its information and cybersecurity programs but will also help provide its students an inside track for careers in the field, according to school officials.
Two-year and four-year schools throughout the country received the certification last week, called the National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance 2-Year Education. It was established by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the NSA website, the agencies certify programs that reduce vulnerability in the nation's infrastructure. Such programs, the website says, help produce workers with expertise in information and security. Schools such as HCC are certified for three years, beginning this year.
HCC began offering network security programs in 2006 with associate degrees and certificates of proficiency. The school now offers courses that cover firewalls, network infrastructure, encryption and protecting virtual offices.
"The essence of the courses is to teach students how to hack so that they know how to prevent hacking from happening," said Betty Noble, chair of HCC's business and computer systems division. "The methodology is pretty much hands-on, in labs, doing that kind of work all the time.
"As the need in the marketplace became more visible, our program continued to grow," Noble said.
Recently, Noble said, HCC identified cybersecurity as an area of focus during its Commission on the Future, an initiative involving HCC officials and the local business community that examines the school's strategic plans. She said the commission suggested that the school become a cyber-STEM pathway into four-year schools and the workforce.
"They want us to focus on it immediately because of the needs in the workforce at that level," Noble said. "Because this Commission on the Future combines people from the business community with people from the college, it was very clear strategically that we need to position ourselves to be able to service the employer community."
Scott Stefanoski, HCC information assurance lab manager, said that in addition to having a strong information systems curriculum, the school implements information security practices throughout the campus.
"We talk about different aspects of information assurance in the different schools on campus. We talk to students in our medical program, who learn about patient privacy," Stefanoski said. "Our [information systems] students are learning the nuts and bolts behind information network security."
HCC has partnerships in cybersecurity with local high schools as well as with the business community. School officials say the certification gives the security programs more recognition and exposure, and gives students more chances at job placement as well as school transfer opportunities.
Some HCC students experienced the program's benefits before its certification.
Michael Tano of Ellicott City has pursued interests in cybersecurity after initially enrolling with hopes of gaining work in information technology. His decision paid off in 2009 when he accepted a job offer at Magellan Health Services after completing an internship.
"I definitely took what I had learned at HCC and had a chance to apply it," said Tano, who is working full time in information security for Magellan while attending HCC part time. "It is a very up-and-coming field."