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Cyber help wanted

Nineteen thousand four hundred thirteen.

Focus on that number. Like so many numbers in news articles, you might easily have skipped over 19,413. But this is an important number for what is happening in Maryland higher education.

According to the Cyber Security Jobs Report issued this month, this is the number of job openings in Maryland, as of October 2012, for qualified cybersecurity professionals.

These are good, high-paying jobs. They are in such demand that the unemployment rate for people who qualify for them must be nearly zero. With 13,000 of these jobs available in Baltimore alone, the city ranks behind only Palo Alto, Calif., and San Francisco in available cybersecurity jobs.

Maryland is home to the National Security Agency, the U.S. Cyber Command, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, C4ISR and other federal agencies with cybersecurity missions, notes the report, sponsored by Baltimore's Abell Foundation.

Surrounding them are many defense contractors, start-ups and established cybersecurity companies.

The demand is not just with government and defense but also with every private company and organization that has sensitive, valuable information that it must protect from hackers and thieves who constantly probe for weak spots in computer security.

So what does this have to do with the state of higher education?

Colleges and universities are now facing a revolution that will profoundly change how students are educated. This revolution is caused by a confluence of events creating a perfect storm — rapid technological changes, enrollments leveling off or falling, state support threatened, tuition in many states rising faster than inflation, a greater percentage of students coming from low-income families, and the amount of student loans now exceeding credit card debt.

Maryland has done more than any other state to hold down tuition increases. Still, too many discouraged students are dropping out of college with no degree but mired in debt. At the same time, many graduates in these economic hard times are having such difficulty finding jobs that fit the skills they paid so much and worked so hard to achieve that they wonder if a college education is worth the cost.

Yet here are 19,413 high-paying, rewarding cybersecurity jobs going begging in Maryland for lack of trained professionals. These are jobs that can support families, increase the tax base and provide a critical service to the economy and national defense.

And it's a profession that hardly existed a decade ago.

The challenge for higher education in this time of revolution is to be alert to these changes in the job market, create new curricula matching industry needs and taught by qualified professors, and deliver education to the students in convenient ways and at affordable costs.

Higher education must be willing to take risks — difficult for a traditionally risk-averse profession. And it must innovate to find ways to teach so that more students can succeed and qualify to do the work.

Maryland has not been asleep to this opportunity. To their credit, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan and the USM Board of Regents have made innovation and academic transformation top priorities. Already, the National Security Agency has designated 15 Maryland colleges and universities, including University of Maryland University College (UMUC), as Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance. That's more than any other state. We should be proud of that.

At UMUC alone, interest in cybersecurity programs — certificate, bachelor's and master's — has been overwhelming since they were launched in 2010 in partnership with industry leaders. Today, 5,200 students are enrolled in these programs. Another 192 already have graduated.

And there are still those 19,413 job openings. That means much more can and should be done to find students and expand academic programs to reach them.

How we respond to this educational need is a test for higher education. Can we offer relevant curricula that prepare students for new openings in the job market? Can we transform courses with new teaching methods and technology so that a greater percentage of students succeed? Can we do it at a cost that won't send these students into a lifetime of debt?

It's not just cybersecurity training. All of higher education needs this transformation: high standards, innovative teaching techniques, lower cost. When those 19,413 jobs are filled, we will know that at least in Maryland, the transformation is beginning to work.

Javier Miyares is the president of University of Maryland University College. His email is javier.miyares@umuc.edu.

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