Northrop Grumman is funneling $1.1 million into an undergraduate program slated to begin this fall at the University of Maryland in hopes of providing the government contracting giant and other tech firms with an annual crop of graduates schooled in cybersecurity.
The joint program is one example of many efforts in Washington and around the country aimed at bridging the vast divide between the technical skills taught in college classrooms and those needed by modern industry.
It comes as more corporations are choosing to engage directly with institutions of higher education through donations and partnerships. Universities are eager for the contributions because they are increasingly finding themselves under pressure to justify soaring tuition rates by producing marketable graduates.
“The way the program is designed brings industry into the education process,” said Wes Bush, Northrop Grumman’s chief executive. “Our view is, to the extent we increase not only the size of the pool of technical talent but quality and readiness of that technical talent, we’re going to be better off.”
The Falls Church-based company plans to also offer up staff members as guest speakers and mentors and accept the students into its internship program. The program, called the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students, aims to enroll roughly 45 freshmen each year.
Patrick O’Shea, the university’s vice president for research, said the program will consist of about six courses and serve as an honors-level supplement for students with primary fields of study as varied as business, engineering and psychology.
The students will be housed together in a newly constructed dorm that includes a specially designed computer lab and they will complete an in-depth research project during their fourth year, O’Shea said. It’s modeled in part off a teaching hospital.
“Cybersecurity in some respects is calling out for something like that because it’s something that’s rapidly evolving,” O’Shea said. “It’s not something that you can deal with in the standard classroom setting like you’re used to when you’re a student.
The program is not without precedent. The University of Maryland Baltimore County has debuted a master’s-level degree in cybersecurity and a start-up incubator program in recent years. They, too, were developed with input from Northrop Grumman, among other firms.
“Already we are seeing benefits” of academic partnerships, Bush said. “We can count among our employee population members of the programs. That’s a big part of it.”
The Business-Higher Education Forum, an association of corporate executives and university leaders, facilitated the partnership between Maryland and Northrop. It’s the first of 12 similar programs the group hopes to organize nationwide.
“We proceed from the notion that higher-education institutions and companies are identifying workforce needs in their region and building undergraduate programs to address those workforce needs,” said Steve Barkanic, the forum’s senior director of science, technology, engineering and mathematics policy and programs.
Creating hands-on academic programs that engage students in their earliest years in college is critical to encouraging them not just to major in science and technology fields but also to pursue careers in them after graduation, Barkanic said.
“The economic sustainability of a state’s workforce is really depending on a much tighter alignment of jobs and skills than currently exists in many places,” said Brian Fitzgerald, the group’s chief executive.