Cyber Security

Community colleges on track for $100 million to improve cybersecurity

Community colleges on track for 0 million to improve cybersecurity
Written by ga_dahmani
Community colleges on track for 0 million to improve cybersecurity

The Sacramento-based Los Rios Community College District identified at least 1,500 cases of suspected financial aid fraud.

In an effort to block online financial aid theft at California’s 116 community colleges, campuses may soon receive about $100 million in total to beef up their cybersecurity.

The $100 million funding plan was presented to lawmakers as a briefing item Tuesday during a hearing by the Assembly budget subcommittee on education funding. The spending, initially proposed in January by Gov. Gavin Newsom, was backed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan office that provides fiscal and policy advice to the Legislature. Subcommittee staff also expressed support.

“Our system needs a strong investment in technological resources, especially in cybersecurity. The severity of our needs continues to increase,” Lizette Navarette, executive vice chancellor for the community college system, said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Lawmakers did not vote on the proposal, but none expressed disagreement. Lawmakers and Newsom must agree on the budget for this summer.

The 116 universities in the system have been dealing with security breaches since last year and have reported tens of thousands of attempts by scammers to apply and enroll. An EdSource survey of colleges last year found that scammers lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, though the true figure could be much higher. Attacks have often targeted a portion of the $1.6 billion the federal government has allocated to California community colleges for emergency financial aid as part of Covid-19 relief packages.

Navarette said during Tuesday’s hearing that one of the state’s 73 community college districts experienced a breach last month, though he did not specify which district.

Under Newsom’s proposal, $25 million would be ongoing funding that universities would receive annually, primarily to increase cybersecurity staffing at universities. The remaining $75 million would be one-time support for universities and pay for upgrades, such as anti-fraud technology and new security software.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office sees “a lot of merit” in Newsom’s proposal, said Paul Steenhausen, a policy analyst who focuses on community colleges for the LAO. “Maintaining information security and preventing fraud is really critical,” Steenhausen added during the hearing.

Legislators’ staff on the committee agreed with the LAO’s assessment. “More spending and more cybersecurity-related positions appear warranted, given recent attempts to defraud the system to gain access to federal and state financial aid,” they wrote in an item on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

The LAO has suggested that the Legislature give the system $23 million as a starting point to hire cybersecurity staff at all universities. The LAO estimates that would be enough to cover at least one full-time cybersecurity person at each of the universities, though in Tuesday’s meeting agenda, the LAO added that districts with more than one university may eventually justify more funds.

For technology and security upgrades at universities, LAO recommends lawmakers give the system $69 million and direct the chancellor’s office to allocate the funds based on each specific university need, not just enrollment . Universities that are less prepared to combat hackers, for example, would receive more funding than universities of the same size that are more prepared.

“So trying to bring all universities up to a minimum level of cybersecurity, since the case now is that there are quite different levels of readiness,” Steenhausen said.

calbright

During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers also reiterated their desire to close Calbright, the state’s online-only community college that focuses on job training. Under Assembly Bill 2820the university would cease operations in 2024 and Calbright’s money would be reallocated to fund basic needs centers and student housing at the other 115 colleges in the state.

Calbright opened in 2019 and was designed as an alternative to traditional colleges, with the goal of serving adult learners seeking job training rather than associate’s degrees.

Ajita Talwalker Menon, the university’s executive director, testified Tuesday that Calbright should remain open, saying the university has doubled its enrollment since July and “achieved all the milestones” outlined in its founding legislation.

“It is important to remember that we are still quite early in our seven-year start-up period,” he said.

Lawmakers seemed unimpressed, pointing to low completion rates. By the end of 2021, only 70 students had completed a certificate out of 748 who were enrolled.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chairman of the subcommittee that met Tuesday, argued that changes in instruction during the pandemic showed Calbright isn’t necessary. He noted that universities across the state moved their instruction completely online at the start of the pandemic and continue to offer many courses that way.

“So if we have thriving universities and their professors are learning how to do Zoom education, why do we need this experiment? It seems like it was an experiment and it’s not working,” she said.

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