When Ben McInnis got out of the Marine Corps four years ago, he was looking for a career with job security, opportunities for growth and better pay than the $10 per hour he made washing cars.

Then came news about the infamous Target data breach affecting millions of customers in 2013 and, a year later, a similar story about Home Depot. So he thought he’d try his hand at a new career working with computers.

“Technology is getting more involved in everyone’s life,” the 29-year-old Georgia native said in a recent interview. “Being able to secure that information, I thought, would be a good bet as far as job security.”

Now armed with a bachelor’s degree in information security and assurance from Kennesaw State University, McInnis, a 2017 graduate, works in Atlanta as a technical support engineer at Cisco Systems, one of the largest technology companies in the world.

His alma mater is listed among the top 10 schools in Military Times’ latest batch of rankings of the best cybersecurity programs for veteran and military-connected students, released Monday.

The top 10

  • Syracuse University
  • The University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Dakota State University
  • University of Maryland University College
  • University of South Florida
  • Kennesaw State University
  • Lewis University
  • Armstrong State University
  • University of Southern California
  • Texas A&M University
Ben McInnis, left, pictured in 2012 before a foot patrol with his IED detection dog, AACE, and fellow Marine, Duff Law, in Afghanistan's Helmand province. McInnis graduated with an information security and assurance degree from Kennesaw State University in 2017 and said the leadership skills he learned in the Marines have helped him in his new job with global technology company Cisco Systems. (Provided by Ben McInnis)
Ben McInnis, left, pictured in 2012 before a foot patrol with his IED detection dog, AACE, and fellow Marine, Duff Law, in Afghanistan's Helmand province. McInnis graduated with an information security and assurance degree from Kennesaw State University in 2017 and said the leadership skills he learned in the Marines have helped him in his new job with global technology company Cisco Systems. (Provided by Ben McInnis)

To make the list, our second annual ranking of cybersecurity programs, schools first had to participate in our recent survey of colleges used to compile our 2018 Military Times Best: Colleges rankings last fall. How schools fared in those rankings accounted for half of their performance on the cybersecurity list.

We also factored in distinctions schools earned from the National Security Agency, or NSA, in cyber defense and information assurance education, as well accreditations in computer science from global accreditor ABET. In addition, the rankings consider the proportion of a school’s degrees related to cybersecurity.

High pay, high demand

Student veterans interviewed by Military Times for this story gave a variety of reasons for choosing their respective schools — everything from small class sizes at Dakota State University to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s connections to three-letter federal agencies that could help them get jobs.

And when asked why they chose their specific degree program, McInnis wasn’t the only one to mention growth opportunities, job security and higher pay.

Before going to the University of Nebraska at Omaha, former Army infantryman Ian Larkin, 27, researched potential careers and heard from a friend who works in cybersecurity that the field was pretty lucrative.

“Any IT field, and specifically cybersecurity — it’s just booming right now because there’s always a demand for it,” said Larkin, who is majoring in cybersecurity.

He’s right. According to a recent analysis by the jobs site Indeed, average entry-level salaries in the cybersecurity field range from $51,212 to $113,454. And research by Burning Glass Technologies, a company that specializes in job market analytics, shows the number of cybersecurity job postings grew by 74 percent from 2007 to 2013, more than double the rate for all IT jobs.

Syracuse Professor Shiu-Kai Chin said all kinds of industries depend on cybersecurity skills — the Defense Department and other government agencies, of course, but also companies that work in financial services and critical infrastructures like power and water.

When these systems break down, “many people are at least inconvenienced and many times put in jeopardy,” he said.

Professor Shiu-Kai Chin teaches courses related to cybersecurity at Syracuse University. Syracuse topped the Military Times 2018 ranking of the best cybersecurity programs for veterans and military students for the second year in a row. (Provided by Syracuse University)
Professor Shiu-Kai Chin teaches courses related to cybersecurity at Syracuse University. Syracuse topped the Military Times 2018 ranking of the best cybersecurity programs for veterans and military students for the second year in a row. (Provided by Syracuse University)

Going virtual

In an effort to meet the demand in the state of Georgia and beyond, Kennesaw State recently started an online Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity degree, in addition to its Bachelor of Business Administration in information security and assurance that’s been offered since 2005.

The latter is part business training and offers a more managerial-focused track, while the new cybersecurity degree focuses more on technical skills, said Professor Herb Mattord, assistant chair of the university’s Department of Information Systems.

Syracuse, too, has recently boosted its cybersecurity offerings for online students. In the last year, its master’s program in cybersecurity went online with identical academic content to what’s offered on campus.

At Dakota State, the smallest school on our list, all of its cybersecurity offerings from certificate to doctorate can be taken online, and 80 percent of its military-affiliated students in the program choose that route, said Professor Josh Pauli.

Dakota State ranked in the top 25 schools in the nation for the percentage of computer science and security degrees granted in 2016, according to our analysis of federal Education Department data.

Its online program was one of the main reasons Elizabeth Ruddy, a former Air Force cryptologic language analyst who lives in upstate New York, chose to attend the South Dakota school. The military made her fall in love with moving around, and she didn’t want to feel tied to a specific location while she pursued her degree.

Ruddy, 29, also didn’t want to feel like a “student waving the hand in the grandstands and the teacher can’t even see me because there’s so many students,” an experience she’d had at the first school she attended post-military.

“I really like the small class sizes, and I also liked that you can get the whole degree online,” she said. “(I) wouldn’t be sitting in a class like I was 18 years old still.”

Skills that translate

At Kennesaw State, Mattord said he’s noticed that student veterans often do well in his classes. It could be their familiarity with a hierarchical structure, phase of life and general understanding that security is an important concept, he speculated.

“They will have been regimented to some degree by their experiences and probably have more of an eventual fit with the career requirement of a security-related job,” he said.

Dakota State University students taking a cybersecurity course pose in the school's academic server classroom. Pictured, from left, are Army National Guardsman Brodie Frederiksen, Army veteran Logan Sampson, Army veteran Jazmin Bautista, Marine veteran Jacob Schaefers, and South Dakota National Guardsman John Patterson. (Provided by Dakota State University)
Dakota State University students taking a cybersecurity course pose in the school's academic server classroom. Pictured, from left, are Army National Guardsman Brodie Frederiksen, Army veteran Logan Sampson, Army veteran Jazmin Bautista, Marine veteran Jacob Schaefers, and South Dakota National Guardsman John Patterson. (Provided by Dakota State University)

For veterans like Ruddy, the cybersecurity field directly correlates with their military occupational specialties. For others, the connection between their past and future careers is less obvious, yet still there.

As is true with military service, cybersecurity work requires you to think on your feet, said Michael Galde, a master’s degree student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Plus, the military trains you to work on a team, which is a necessary skill in order to be effective in the cybersecurity field, he added.

McInnis, who works with Cisco’s Stealthwatch product on a team of 20 with six other veterans, said his leadership experience in the Marines has helped him, too.

“You need to react in similar ways to make sure a threat is both identified early, verified and remediated correctly,” he said.

McInnis said he would “absolutely recommend” Kennesaw State’s degree program to anyone looking to get into his field.

“It really kind of changed my life.”