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University of Maryland University College (UMUC) is taking steps to accelerate the process through which it grants prior-learning credit to servicemembers and veterans who wish to study cybersecurity. The effort is part of a pilot program that leverages three of UMUC’s strengths—an exceptional undergraduate cybersecurity program, a 70-year-long educational partnership with the military, and relationships with key cybersecurity employers—to expand career opportunities for military students.

“We are examining our existing processes … and looking for ways to better meet the needs of students who come into UMUC with prior learning,” said Keith Hauk, UMUC’s associate vice president for the Veterans Initiatives Department of Stateside Military Operations. “We recognize and award credit for what a student has already done,” Hauk said. But, he added, drafting content for the extensive written portfolio they must submit to receive prior-learning credit is one thing that students coming out of the military find challenging.

Hauk said the university will not change the rigor applied to prior-learning evaluations, but the process might be modified, for example, to allow students to do problem-solving or lab work to demonstrate their technical skills, especially in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) areas.

The pilot program will focus on the undergraduate cybersecurity program, although any new processes could later be applied across the university.

Hauk said the pilot project is also looking at academic requirements for the fast-changing world of cybersecurity. “Most of the cybersecurity courses at the 200, 300 and 400 levels involve lab work. One of the things the academic side is reviewing is which lab components are needed to demonstrate mastery,” he said. “There are 50 different lab requirements. Do students need to show mastery in all 50 or would 25, for example, be enough?”

UMUC officials said an accelerated prior-credit process could be in place as early as the fall term. The goal is to more quickly move servicemembers and veterans into the pipeline for cybersecurity jobs. Employment in the field ranges from computer network specialists and IT analysts to network administrators and network engineers.

“A large population of veterans in Maryland—something like 65 percent—do not have a bachelor’s degree. A lot of these folks have the experience and training they need for cybersecurity,” said Matthew Prineas, vice provost and dean of The Undergraduate School at UMUC. “We want to help them make a connection between experience and knowledge and the requirements of a degree.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that STEM industries will add a million jobs by 2022 and, on average, those positions will offer higher salaries than non-STEM work. Prineas said only 18 percent of the 224,655 veterans in Maryland’s labor force currently have STEM-related jobs. The Washington, D.C., area is one of the nation’s top markets for cybersecurity employment.

“By accelerating our students along a path to degree completion, we can better connect them to employers,” said Prineas. “In working closely with employers, we learn what skills are in demand, and we can refresh and revise so our programs ultimately benefit from that relationship.”

Nikolas Roby served eight years in the army. He built on his military cybersecurity experience by pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity from UMUC in 2016. Today he works in cybersecurity in the private sector.

“Cybersecurity is a really hot career field right now,” he said. “There are a million people out there doing bad things. Cybersecurity is all about solving puzzles.”

Roby had considered pursuing his degree at Johns Hopkins University but liked the way UMUC courses accommodated his work schedule. He also was drawn to UMUC because of the Cyber Padawans, the university’s award-winning cybersecurity competition team made up of students, faculty and alumni.

“Sometimes I learned more useful and interesting things doing these competitions than even in class,” he said of the group, which meets every Monday. “And it’s a huge networking opportunity. We share private job postings.”

Among degree programs, cybersecurity has UMUC’s largest enrollment. It is also one of the university’s fastest-growing programs. S.K. Bhaskar, vice dean of the Computer and Information Systems and Technology Department, which offers three undergraduate cybersecurity-related programs, said UMUC has strong connections to key STEM-industry companies committed to hiring veterans and active-duty servicemembers transitioning to the civilian workforce.

Bhaskar said servicemembers and veterans bring key qualifications sought by employers. They have cybersecurity or IT systems experience, they are disciplined and focused and, importantly, they already have a security clearance or can more easily obtain it.

UMUC’s reassessment of its prior-learning process is supported by a grant from the Council for Adult and Experience Learning (CAEL) in Chicago. CAEL works to open opportunities for adult learners, including student veterans. It selected UMUC and South Seattle College in Washington state as university partners in a program to widen the pathway for servicemembers and veterans seeking degrees in STEM fields. South Seattle College is establishing a career pathway for military veterans in sustainable building sciences.

“There is a strong military community at UMUC, and its work in cybersecurity meets an important demand in the region,” said Amy Sherman, vice president of innovation and policy at CAEL. “We have always valued our collaboration with UMUC over the years.”

Bhaskar said UMUC’s current prior-learning assessment captures a “snapshot” of a student’s knowledge. “But a student’s career should be a continuous video,” he said. “We need to change the process for assessing prior learning to see this continuously moving video.”