This article is specifically about associate degree programs at community colleges. If you need information on bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity, you can view our article here. We’ve also discussed the difficulty level you can expect when enrolling in a college cybersecurity program, and what to do if you’ve completed your degree but are having trouble finding a job. Some readers have asked how computer science degrees relate to cybersecurity careers, so we’ve covered that here.
We’ve discussed the advantages of college degrees for cybersecurity careers before, however, in this article, I’d like to talk about the unique advantages that associate degrees from community colleges and junior colleges provide for those starting their cybersecurity career journey.
Community colleges are a common higher education option in the United States. They are usually publicly funded, open-access institutions that provide career training and educational options that match the first two years of a standard college degree. Community colleges also provide shorter career training options as well, and they may provide training services for their local business community, however, their main focus almost always is the two year, or associate degree programs that they offer. There are over 1,000 community colleges in the United States alone, so the odds are good that one is near you.
Cybersecurity Options at Community Colleges
Community colleges that provide associate degree cybersecurity training programs are often the best bang for your buck when it comes to learning cybersecurity, especially if you’re just starting out. It’s worth the small investment of time to look into what cybersecurity associate degree options are available from colleges near you. From my years of experience working within a cybersecurity associate degree program, I can tell you that there are many advantages to these types of programs that you just won’t find anywhere else, especially when it comes to learning cybersecurity. Let’s take a look at some of these benefits now.
Benefit #1: Community Colleges are Ideal for Working Professionals
Perhaps one of the best advantages of community colleges is that these institutions are often very understanding of working professionals and older adults. These students are what the education industry often refers to as “non-traditional students”, and they understandably have needs and life and schedule challenges that other students may not have.
The term non-traditional students is really just an academic term that refers to someone who may be entering the classroom with more experience, either from the workforce or just life in general. Because of this experience, these students typically approach their education, decisions, and career path from a different perspective. They have a different view of the role of education, how it applies to their career, and often even the value and cost that education entails. In addition to this different view, these students often have additional life responsibilities that other students may not have.
One of the great things about community and junior colleges is that they tend to be rather aware of the needs of their student body, and specifically in-tune with their non-traditional student needs. They understand that their students may have other life obligations, such as supporting a family, caring for a parent or working a full-time job. During my tenure at a community college, I’ve known students that were changing careers while supporting a family as the sole family income, students with substantial learning challenges or medical issues, students now out of the military without a clear idea of what they wanted to do next, students with unexpected pregnancies, students caring for aging parents, and even students that were homeless. When you think about it, it’s really great that in all of these cases, these students found that the community college experience enabled them to continue pursuing their cybersecurity career goals.
Community colleges also understand that their students are on a shorter timeline to employment than may be the case in other college programs, so if you enroll in a community college cybersecurity program, you may find that your college provides additional services and benefits that will help you achieve your career goals faster.
For example, it is very common for community colleges to have a career development office, advisors dedicated specifically to cybersecurity or non-traditional students, job fairs, employer meet-and-greets, cybersecurity specific student clubs, and reliable connections to the business community. Perhaps most importantly, most community colleges will also provide flexible learning options, including programs that can be completed exclusively in the evenings or online, which is perfect for working professionals. Many larger universities and for-profit training providers simply are not designed to provide that same flexibility in scheduling, although some are certainly working hard to develop those kinds of educational options.
Benefit #2: Community Colleges Provide High-Quality Learning Support
It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this: Someone that is completely unfamiliar with community colleges assumes that because of the nature and size of a community college, or because they are not a residential college with dormitories, that they have inferior instruction, resources or equipment. I’ve been to many community colleges over the years, and I’ve never found that to be true. If you investigate, you may very well find that your local community or junior college has a high level of industry-standard or cutting edge equipment and technology available for you to use, perhaps far more than you had assumed, and in several cases that I’ve seen, far better than what is available to students at private four-year institutions.
This often surprises many people because they assume larger universities that have massive endowments and resources also have the funding to provide state-of-the-art technology in the classroom. Or they assume that private colleges and universities that charge a great deal in tuition funnel the bulk of that funding directly to the student experience. While that is true in some cases, keep in mind that community colleges hold an interesting advantage: Unlike private institutions that pull nearly exclusively from donors and tuition, community colleges are often tax-funded, at least in part, and therefore have the funding stream, as well as the mission from the taxpaying public, to provide solid educational opportunities, which include the necessary equipment and technology that is needed to support a cybersecurity program.
The point is this: Don’t assume that the community or junior colleges around you will not have the technology you need to learn cybersecurity successfully, especially if you’re just starting out. And keep in mind that because that equipment is paid for in large part by tax dollars, students like you don’t have the bear the burden of covering the costs to operate the college and buy that equipment, and therefore the college can often keep the tuition costs lower for you. The best option for you is to investigate by asking to take a tour of the college or even just a tour of the technology labs. Even though you may not be familiar with the equipment you see, you’ll still be able to get a good feel for the emphasis on technology that the college has when it comes to building their labs and supporting the student experience.
Benefit #3: Community Colleges are Cost-Effective
Let’s expand on the discussion of costs a little. It’s important to point out that community colleges often provide great cost-benefit for students because of their financial structure and the tax support that they receive. I have seen several for-profit training companies that will charge in the tens of thousands for a single cybersecurity training course, and they may even require a student to sign up for that entire cost upfront when entering the program. Even boot camp programs offered by many of these organizations can be many thousands of dollars for only a week’s worth of training.
Don’t get me wrong here: There are many training programs that are very expensive, yet very worth it. And at some point in your cybersecurity career, especially when you get to the higher levels, you’ll need to pay for training like this. However, while there are many expensive training programs that are well worth the cost, community and junior colleges just have an advantage for those just starting out, since they allow you to pay for the courses only as you take them, and they often have scholarships, loans, and grants that you may not have access to elsewhere.
What this means for you is that your initial financial commitment may be only a few hundred dollars at a community or junior college, instead of several thousand dollars or more elsewhere. This is great news for anyone that wants to try out cybersecurity without the large up-front financial commitment. With this in mind, through a community college, you have the option to try out a class or two to see if you like cybersecurity and decide if you want to pursue the career field. You may find out after a class or two that cybersecurity isn’t for you, and in this case, at least you didn’t invest thousands to find out.
Benefit #4: Community Colleges Hire Instructors from the Industry
There’s also another benefit that you may not have considered. Community college cybersecurity programs are usually structured in such a way that many of their classes are instructed by part-time faculty members. Community colleges will often have a few full-time faculty members to teach classes and provide student advising, but will also hire a large portion of their faculty part-time. The great this is that these part-timers are often hired directly from the industry. In essence, the college is hiring actual cybersecurity professionals that are working directly in the field.
From my experience, it’s very easy at the four-year college or university level to complete a program of study which is instructed exclusively by professors that are full-time and tenured, but have not been in the workforce actually applying those skills for many years. In fact, some may have started their careers directly in education, or have focused on research, and therefore they may not have ever worked directly in cybersecurity. In a situation like that, you would be learning from someone who is telling you what they’ve heard, not what they’ve done. That can be a big difference.
Community and junior colleges often can’t afford to hire long term, tenured faculty, and as a result, they tend to rely on part-timers to fill in the gaps. And that’s where the benefit lies. Understand that these instructors can bring with them years of full-time experience doing a job that is in your future, and a wealth of experience to draw from, which they can apply to the classroom. It’s really interesting from a learning perspective when part-time or adjunct instructors share the technology that they are working on at their jobs or memorable stories from their careers that you just can’t get from a book. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an instructor with field experience to disagree with a textbook because he or she can draw from more experience than what can be written and documented in a textbook.
From my experience, I’ve seen a cybersecurity instructor that was working at a major cell phone company share new technology that wasn’t released to the public yet, an instructor share network topologies used at real organizations, and even pen-testing instructors share information about hacking tools that they’ve used. How interesting is that?
There’s also another benefit of taking classes from these part-time faculty members. These instructors can often serve as mentors and networking contacts for you, which means they can provide you with advice, help you get connected to hiring managers, and serve as references. Students that have instructors working in the field should ask those instructors if connecting with them on LinkedIn would be agreeable and appropriate. Many instructors are okay with maintaining a professional association with students after a course is over.
Benefit #5: Community Colleges Often Use the Cohort Model
I mentioned the opportunity to network with your instructors, but community and junior colleges are also a great opportunity to network with your fellow students. Before you enroll in college, you may assume that you’ll be on your own and meet a few other students that you’ll see occasionally. But more and more, community colleges build their cybersecurity programs on the cohort model, meaning that students progress through the program as a group. And now that everyone has email, Facebook and a cell phone for texting, I have noticed that students tend to be very good at keeping in touch with each other, forming study groups and sharing job leads.
The cohort model works really well in the community college environment because, unlike a large university where people are from all parts of the country, or even the world, community colleges draw from their own communities. What this means for you is that the students that are in class with you are also from your own community. They know the area and its employers just like you. And when they graduate, they’ll probably be staying in the same area as you, instead of possibly heading back to where they came from. Think about the benefits of this. As you’re working through your community college cybersecurity education and meeting other students, those students’ connections that they make with employers can also become your connections as well.
I have seen many examples of a student getting hired by a local cybersecurity or IT company, and then end up referring other students to the same company when additional job openings come up. This may surprise you, but it is not unheard of for a single company to have hired four or five students from the exact same class. In a scenario like this, you are leveraging the success that the other students in your class are achieving. This is possible because of a community college cohort model, and the fact that all students are generally from the same area. It’s a great way to help get your cybersecurity career started.
Benefit #6: Credit for Prior Learning
Nearly all colleges at every level provide this option, but it’s such a benefit that I want to bring it up here, especially since it is often overlooked by students. What I’m referring to is the option to earn credit for prior learning. Take the time to check into whether your experience on the job, or a certification you’ve already earned, or even just your experience in life, can qualify you to receive credits toward your cybersecurity degree.
What this means is that colleges recognize the education and knowledge a student may have already gained from their experience and in turn award credit for that experience. In some cases, this can be applied to entrance exams as well. What this means for you is that if you are awarded credit for the skills or experience you’ve already gained, your program will be shorter, cheaper, and you’ll be able to springboard past refresher classes and get right into the classes that will provide you with new knowledge. Don’t forget to look into this option.
Benefit #7: Just the Right Timeline.
Most associate degree programs are designed to be two years in length to complete if you’re enrolled full-time. If you’re taking less than 12 credits per semester, than it may take you longer, unless you pick up other classes online, during the summer or during a winter term. This two-years-or-so timeline is really a good thing, though. It’s long enough for serious learning but short enough to see the end of the road and the end goal. Think about it: You’re probably not going to learn everything you need to know to get into cybersecurity within a few months, but you also may not want to devote four years either. Community college programs are designed for career placement within two years, which is very doable.
When you’re starting on your cybersecurity career journey, it’s probably worth your time to look into the community college programs in your area, and compare them to other learning opportunities that you find elsewhere. With the ability to keep costs down, while providing hands-on experience and a degree with transferability options later, community college cybersecurity programs are often the deal that is hard to beat.