The White House’s Plan To Fix Tech’s Diversity Problem And Cybersecurity At The Same Time


Howard University graduates celebrate at the school's 2014 commencement.

In the wake of recent high-profile cybersecurity attacks, the Obama Administration awarded $25 million to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) Thursday to expand their cybersecurity degree programs.

Vice President Joe Biden unveiled the Energy Department-funded grant during a visit at Virginia’s Norfolk State University, one of the 13 HBCUs across the country and in the Virgin Islands that will receive the funds over five years.

The new initiative, titled the Cybersecurity Workforce Pipeline Consortium, will serve as a classroom-to-workplace bridge so students at the partnering schools, including North Carolina A&T State University and Clark Atlanta University, as well as one K-12 school district in Charleston, South Carolina, have a clear path to entering the tech industry. The program aims to give black students the resources needed to complete their studies and successfully enter the cybersecurity workforce by partnering with the Department of Energy’s labs, providing professional mentoring, teaching and course development, and recruiting students into the department.

The tech industry is often accused of having a “brogrammer” culture that doesn’t welcome women and people of color. But tech companies have started to make strides to diversify their staff. Since Google first released its diversity report in May admitting the company was overwhelmingly white and male, other companies have followed suit. Google in particular has launched several initiatives to get young people, especially school-age girls, more interested in coding.

Racial diversity in tech has been a steady struggle. Only 3 percent of Google tech workers identified as African American or Hispanic, according to Google’s analysis. Much of that disparity comes from the lack of educational offerings, and because big tech companies routinely pluck talent from the same limited pool of elite schools that have little to no racial diversity.

The country has more than 100 HBCUs that comprise only 3 percent of all American colleges, but graduate one in five college-educated African Americans, according to the United Negro College Fund. Moreover, about 35 percent of black computer science majors come out of HBCU programs.

Meanwhile, the demand for cybersecurity workers is growing at record pace. Nearly 43 million cyber attacks were detected in 2014, 48 percent more than the year before. Those breaches cost the U.S. economy almost $500 billion a year for companies to recoup funds and rebuild their network security. Experts believe that trend will continue with breaches happening more frequently and security software advancing to better detect them. To combat that, businesses and the federal government are investing more money, over $71 billion, in cybersecurity, CNBC reported.

Breaches and hacks have become routine hazards of digital life. With so much of everyone’s information accessible online, the risks — and the need to mitigate them — are mounting exponentially.

The cybersecurity field is booming as a result, and is projected to grow even more in the coming decade — about 12 times faster than the overall U.S. job market. The sudden industry growth stems from increasing awareness of businesses’ and government’s vulnerability to cyber attacks.

The wake of the Sony attack and the U.S. military social media hacks has led to a renewed focus on cybersecurity measures, which have been a primary focus for President Obama in the days leading to his State of the Union address Jan. 20. Earlier this week, he announced plans to enact legislation that would require companies to tell customers when their information has been exposed or stolen.