Best Online Degree Programs in Cyber Security

Oct 20, 2021

Online Cyber Security Degree Overview

Earning a degree in cyber security can help students develop the skills necessary to take on security breaches that threaten virtual infrastructures. From fundamental computer programming and networking knowledge to cryptography and ethical hacking, online cyber security degrees can prepare students for meaningful careers in the field. These degrees are available at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. There are also several undergraduate, graduate, and professional certificate options.

Online Associate Degrees in Cyber Security

Designed for entry-level positions, online associate degrees in cyber security focus on the essential knowledge needed for professionals to start a career in the field. Common course topics include computer applications, network and computer concepts, programming fundamentals, hacking methods, and more. In these programs, students may learn general computer skills such as coding and operating systems, as well as field-specific skills such as computer forensics and firewall design. Many online cyber security associate degrees consist of about 60 to 65 credits. This will take the typical full-time student about two years to complete.

Online Bachelor's Degrees in Cyber Security

An online bachelor's degree can help both new and experienced professionals. Many programs teach students beyond the essential skills of the field, immersing them into the dynamic world of cyber security. Students have a chance to learn critical skills such as risk management, computer programming, security system design, network security techniques such as firewalls and VPNs, penetration testing techniques, security audits, and more.

Online Master's Degrees in Cyber Security

At the graduate level, most programs are designed for students who already have a background in science, engineering, or computer-related fields. For those who do not have a background in these areas, some programs offer additional preparatory programs. Some online master's degree programs may also require a GRE or GMAT entrance exam, especially for those with a previous bachelor's degree below a certain GPA. These specific requirements will depend on the school.

Common course topics include risk management, ethical hacking and penetration testing, app security, cryptography, cloud security, and more. Some online programs require a thesis or capstone project, while others do not. Online cyber security master's degrees typically require 30 to 36 credits for completion. This may take a full-time student up to 2 years to complete, although some schools offer fast track programs that can be completed in as little as one year.

Online Doctoral Degrees in Cyber Security

Online doctoral degrees in cyber security are designed to provide students with a background in research and theory that they can apply to their field. Graduates from doctoral programs have the opportunity to go into careers such as program development, policy making, and senior leadership. Most online doctorates in cyber security require a dissertation to graduate and much of the course content may vary depending on the student's chosen research topic.

Online Certificates in Cyber Security

Online certificates for cyber security are available at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels. In undergraduate certificate programs, students can expect to learn essential skills in computer programming and digital security needed for entry-level positions. Online graduate and professional certificates allow working professionals to advance their careers through skill development in topics such as cryptography, defensive security, and cyber threat intelligence. Graduate certificate programs may also offer a variety of specializations, such as cyber crime and cyber law, computer forensics management, and project management.

Cyber Security Specializations/Concentrations

Many online cyber security undergraduate programs do not provide a concentration option. Instead, this field of study is often used as a concentration for broader degree programs, such as computer science or information technology. Some online graduate-level programs do offer additional concentrations in topics like cyber operations, cyber crime, and management.

Curriculum/Coursework for a Cyber Security Degree

Many cyber security program courses equip students with a variety of computer and security skills and knowledge. These include familiarization with a variety of operating systems, hardware and software configuration and analysis, computer programming languages, and computer networks. Students may also learn various security concepts in data, cloud, network, and application security. Some program curriculum may also have courses in cyber crime and a curriculum that focuses on risk management, legal and ethical concepts such as ethical hacking, management concepts, and enterprise security.

How Long Does it Take to Get an Online Bachelor's in Cyber Security?

Most online bachelor's degree programs consist of 120 to 130 credits and may take about four years to complete. Some schools may offer cohort programs, which are fast track degrees that allow for faster completion. Students with transferrable credits from previous education programs may also be able to graduate sooner.

Accreditation for Online Bachelor's in Cyber Security Degrees

When searching for the right online degree, it's important to find out if the institution or program is accredited. Accreditation provides validation through a third party that the school or program you're interested in offers quality instruction designed to prepare you for a career in the field. Accreditation is also important for students who want help paying for school; federal financial aid is available only to students who attend an accredited institution.

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission, or DEAC, is an accrediting organization for postsecondary distance education institutions. DEAC is recognized by both the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education.

The CHEA recognizes seven regional accreditation organizations that accredit institutions specific to their associated regions across the U.S. Some of these include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Commission of Higher Education and the WASC Senior College and University Commission.

At present, there is no accrediting agency specific to cyber security programs. However, the National Security Agency (NSA), in partnership with several other federal agencies, created the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity (NCAE-C) program designed to establish standards for postsecondary cyber security curriculum. There are three designations available for institutions to obtain: Cyber Defense Education (CAE-CDE), Cyber Research (CAE-R), and Cyber Operations (CAE-CO).

Cyber Security Licensure & Certification

Credentialing in the cyber security field is important in demonstrating expertise. Although they are all completely optional, experienced professionals may hold several certifications throughout their careers. The cyber security industry offers a wide range of certifications, which often focus on more specific aspects of the field. One of the most popular certifications is the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) credential, offered through (ISC)2, an international organization that offers several certifications for information security professionals. Other certifications through the (ISC)2 include:

  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
  • Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP)
  • HealthCare Information and Security Privacy Practitioner (HCISPP)

Another common certification is the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) offered through EC-Council. The EC-Council also offers a variety of certifications, including:

  • Certified Network Defender
  • Certified Threat Intelligence Analyst
  • Chief Information Security Officer

Many other organizations offer cyber security certifications, such as the ISACA, an international organization for IT governance and control professionals. The ISACA offers several credentials such as the Cybersecurity Practitioner (CSX-P), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), and Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA).

Cyber Security Career Information

Cyber security professionals have a wide variety of careers to choose from as the field continues to expand. Some of these jobs include:

  • Penetration tester
  • Cyber crime agent
  • Cyber security engineer
  • Security administrator

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes cyber security occupations under information security analysts. According to the BLS, information security analyst positions typically require a bachelor's degree in related fields, such as computer science or information assurance. Certifications are not required; however, many employers may prefer professional credentials as they show expertise and knowledge in specialized areas with the cyber security field. Information security professionals should also possess skills in analysis, research, and problem-solving. As of May 2019, the BLS states that information security analysts earned a median annual wage of $104,210.

How to Become a Network Security Analyst

Network security analysts focus on monitoring network traffic and providing security protections against hackers and cyber attacks. Network security professionals may also audit network security systems to ensure they're running smoothly. If they work for a private company, they may also be responsible for teaching basic cyber safety to company staff, such as password choices and antivirus software fundamentals.

Like many other computer security careers in cyber security, a network security analyst position typically requires a bachelor's degree in a related subject, such as computer science or information technology. Some employers may also prefer specialized certifications. According to PayScale, the average salary for network security analysts in 2020 was $71,335.

How to Become a Penetration Tester

A penetration tester is a cyber security professional whose primary job is to check for vulnerabilities in the company or organization's cyber system. They do this through simulated cyber attacks and ethical hacking, attempting to break through firewalls and other security protections in place.

According to PayScale, penetration tester positions typically require a bachelor's degree in a related field, and employers may prefer relevant certifications.

The average annual salary reported in 2020 was $87,167, according to PayScale. Some cities reported a higher than average salary, including Alexandria, VA, which earned 24.9% higher than the national average. Washington, D.C. came in second at 20% higher than the national average. Other high salaries can be found in Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas. Lower than average salaries were reported to PayScale in New York, New York and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Financial Aid and Scholarship Information for Cyber Security Degrees

There are many financial aid opportunities available for cyber security students. The U.S. Department of Education offers the Free Application for Federal Student Aid program, or FAFSA. Basic eligibility requirements include completion of a high school diploma or GED and demonstration of financial aid need. Eligible applicants must also not be in default on current student loans.

Cyber security students may also be eligible for a wide variety of national scholarship programs. One such program is the CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service program, offered in part by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Through this program, students can earn scholarships, stipends, and internships for their undergraduate or graduate education in exchange for post-graduate government employment.

Other scholarships include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)'s Undergraduate Scholarship Program, which provides education funds to undergraduate students while working for the CIA during summer breaks. (ISC)2 also provides a variety of scholarships at both undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as scholarships for women entering the cyber security field.

The U.S. Navy also sponsors a cyber security scholarship for both DoD (Department of Defense) and non-DoD students in exchange for government service. Applicants must choose to attend a program recognized by the NSA as a Center of Academic Excellence, or CAE.

New York University sponsors additional scholarships for students in their cyber security graduate programs. These scholarships include the Bridgewater Scholarship for minority group students, the NYU Cyber Fellows Scholarship which offers as much as 75% off of their tuition, and the Society Scholarship, designed for engineering students associated with the school's society partners.

How to Choose a Cyber Security School & Program

There are many considerations to keep in mind when searching for the right cyber security online program. For instance, some may wish to consider a hybrid program, which allows for on-campus learning combined with online courses. For online programs, some schools may also offer additional resources for their distance education students for community building purposes, such as membership associations or virtual events.

Cost is another important factor for many. Schools offer programs at a wide range of costs and often list these as per credit. Students should calculate tuition costs ahead of time using the school's information. Don't forget to factor in cost for books, supplies, internet connection, and technology needs. Some schools may even offer free resources, such as digital libraries or access to a school laptop for the program's duration. Be sure to check with your school to see what they have to offer.

Another important consideration is accreditation. Schools and programs that earn accreditation signify that the education standards are adequate to help students pursue careers when they hit the workforce. Regional accreditation and distance education accreditation through DEAC are important factors to consider.

Prerequisites for a Cyber Security Degree

For acceptance into an online bachelor's degree in cyber security, many schools require a GED or high school diploma. Schools may also require SAT or ACT scores before enrollment. Specialized courses are typically not required; however, students may wish to learn basic computer skills or even basic computer programming before starting their program. Some programs may also have a minimum GPA requirement, as well.

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