DHS and NSA Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense State College Guide

What is a Center of Academic Excellence (CAE)?

The demand for cyber security professionals is strong, and only expected to increase as the nation battles to protect its information infrastructure. The government has a vital need to protect this infrastructure, and this need produced the National Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE). CAE programs are required to meet specific academic and program requirements, improving the depth of cyber operation programs at undergraduate and graduate levels. Because the field is evolving so rapidly, requirements are reviewed each year and strengthened as necessary.

National Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE)

The NSA and DHS are joint sponsors of the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) program, which promotes higher education in cyber defense, as well as research. The NSA and DHS designed the program to provide cyber defense professionals with the greatest possible expertise when government agencies realized they were falling behind in cyber defense because American universities were not providing high-level programs on the subject. While qualifying institutions receive formal US government recognition, there is no funding for these schools from NSA and DHS, but other funding sources are available.

Overview of How Programs Get Certified

CAE certification rules are stringent. Applicants are required to meet a particular set of academic requirements, which are subject to annual review and upgraded as the institution’s program matures and technology advances. Such applications must demonstrate how programs meet these requirements and criteria in order for them to receive designation.

Knowledge units (KUs) are “mandatory topics and associated objectives” required for inclusion in the school’s degree or certificate program. The applicant must provide proof that each topic and KU objective is addressed via a process known as mapping. Although approximately 70 KUs exist, less than 24 are required for four-year institutions, and fewer than 12 are required for community colleges to reach mapping requirements.

KUs fall into three categories:

  • Two-Year Institutions
  • Four-Year Institutions
  • Optional Knowledge Units

At least two faculty members must actively teach cyber security courses. Schools must produce evidence that cyber security courses are currently maintained and offered on a regular basis or at least every 18 months. Cyber operations should be a focus area or specialization for the institution, and the school must provide evidence of cyber-related faculty grants, published papers, and conference presentations. Once the school is accepted for CAE certification, renewals must include at least three faculty members and eight students over the five-year designation time period.

Sample Courses in Approved Cyber Security Programs

  • Applied Cryptography
    Cryptography is the science of data encryption, and applied cryptography focuses on practical methods of securing computer data privacy.
  • Network Security
    This course concentrates on various aspects of maintaining secure networks including detecting intrusions, network auditing, collecting evidence, and developing contingency plans in case of an attack.
  • Application Security
    In this course, students learn about malicious or harmful computer codes, and how to identify such activity and protect a company or organization from attacks.
  • Mobile Security
    In this class, students learn how to protect data on devices ranging from smartphone to tablets.
  • Information, Security and Privacy
    Students in this course are exposed to various methods used to threaten cyber security and privacy including phishing, pharming, ransomware, malware, and social engineering, along with best practices for preventing cyber risks.
  • Vulnerability Analysis and Penetration Testing
    In this course, students learn how to find the vulnerabilities in a system, prioritizing them by critical importance, and then try to hack into the system via penetration testing. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they refer to two different procedures.

Designation Program Options from the Centers of Academic Excellence

CAE-2Y

Center for Academic Excellence 2Y is a two-year program offered to eligible community colleges. To qualify, such schools must have a strong Information Assurance (IA) program and their security courses must meet two of the Committee on National Security Systems training standards, that of CNSS 4011 and one other.

CAE-CDE

The formal name is NSA/DHS National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education. A CAE in CD Education is awarded in associate, bachelor, masters, and doctoral programs. All regionally accredited two-year, four-year, and graduate level institutions in the US may apply for this designation, but the criteria is strict. Such a designation means the institution is “helping reduce threats to our national infrastructure by promoting higher education and research in cyber defense as well as providing the nation with a pipeline of qualified cybersecurity professionals, as per the CAE.”

CAE-R

To receive a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research, institutions must either be a Department of Defense school, a military academy producing PhDs, or a regionally accredited college or university granting PhDs. Such institutions must qualify under the Carnegie Foundation Basic Classification system as either a Doctoral University – Highest Research Activity (R1), Doctoral University – Higher Research Activity (R2), or Doctoral University – Moderate Research Activity (R3).

CAE-CO

This acronym stands for Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations. This program is extremely technical as well as inter-disciplinary. It focuses on computer science and computer engineering, along with electrical engineering. It complements the CAE-CD program, emphasizing cyber operation techniques such as collection, exploitation, and response.

How Much of a Priority is CAE Program Approval in Cyber Security?

The CAE designation assures that you are learning what has been deemed the most important, up-to-date information by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). Since these two departments are some of the largest employers of cyber security professionals in the United States, and their need for new employees is increasing all the time, attending a CAE accredited institution is the best way to ensure that you have the best possible job prospects when you graduate.

However, that doesn’t mean that you HAVE to attend a CAE accredited school by any means. Small companies, large companies, and even city governments are in need of cyber security professionals and continue to hire those who have completed degrees at non-CAE universities, or even those who are self-taught in some cases, though self-taught individuals will likely need to obtain certification before they are truly trusted in their profession. Therefore, CAE accreditation is helpful but not necessary to get you into cyber security.

Approved CAE Cyber Defense Colleges

Currently, there are approximately 270 colleges and universities designated as CAEs in cyber defense across the country. To maintain CAE designation, the program or institution must apply for re-evaluation every five years.

These institutions of higher learning include:

  • University of Arizona in Sierra Vista, AZ offers a bachelor of science (BS) in cyber operations.
  • Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, offers a BS degree in Computer Network and System Administration, a minor in cybersecurity and a master’s degree in cybersecurity.
  • New York University Tandon School of Engineering in New York, New York, offers a master’s degree in cybersecurity, along with a cyber security specialization.
  • Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a major technology hub, offers a master of science in information security.
  • Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, offers a BS in computer science or computer engineering, along with a minor in cybersecurity.
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