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Foreign adversaries and cybercriminals are getting more aggressive and advanced, and cyberthreats have become an economic and security threat. However, the cybersecurity workforce shortage is reaching crisis levels. One estimate from Cybersecurity Ventures says the shortage will reach 3.5 million open cybersecurity positions worldwide by 2021.

The defensive and espionage missions undertaken by the NSA in the US require efforts from some of the top tech operators in the world, capable of performing some of the most complex cybersecurity operations to defend and infiltrate adversarial networks.

The NSA has spent the last 20 years cultivating an interwoven network of universities and community colleges across the country capable of educating students in rigorous cybersecurity programs that are tailored to the needs of the agency.

One of them is Dakota State University, a small institution with enrollment just over 3,200. Despite its small class size and rural location, DSU has built a curriculum that has made the school one of the most successful in funneling cybersecurity professionals into the National Security Agency’s talent pipeline.

The NSA’s partner institutions — called Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE) — have grown from seven institutions in five states to 312 across 48 states, adding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a partner in 2004.

Institutions of higher education can receive the CAE designation in three different areas: cyber defense, cyber defense research and cyber operations. 

Diane Janosek, the commandant of the NSA’s National Cryptologic School, has set a goal for students to “learn cybersecurity education that can be applied to more than just the defense and intelligence sector. It could be applied to the banking industry, the finance industry, the healthcare industry, manufacturing.”

To ensure that these sectors are matched with adequately prepared talent, the participating institutions must meet rigorous curriculum standards that evolve with the threat landscape. Every few years, universities must be redesignated as CAEs. Cyber operations remains one of the most exclusive designations, held today by only 21 schools.

The process to receive the NSA’s approval stamp is very difficult. “We now can recruit in very key areas from the schools that we know have the caliber of the curriculum that we’re looking for,” Janosek told federaltimes.com.

The web of universities and community colleges across the country established a communication network that fosters real cooperation between the designated schools. T 

The partnerships with universities across the country also expand facility access for the NSA. For example, DSU is developing a secure research facility for the government, called Madison Cyber Labs.

Students who graduate from programs, if they don’t work for the government, often end up working for local hospitals or school districts, sectors that have been devastated by the ransomware epidemic that has closed schools and hospitals. And with military installations across the country, there are also benefits from the program for the government, even if they don’t send students directly to work for agencies in Washington.

Although no funding goes to the designated universities, there are grant opportunities for the schools to apply for and scholarships available to students. Given the lack of funding, the incentive is that degrees with the NSA’s CAE stamp made schools more competitive and set their students apart when applying for jobs.