$100M could go to CA Community Colleges for Cybersecurity – Natural Self Esteem

SAN RAMON, CA – To stop online grant theft at California’s 116 community colleges, campuses may soon receive a total of around $100 million to improve their cybersecurity.

The $100 million funding plan was presented to lawmakers Tuesday as a point of information during a hearing of the Assembly’s Budget Subcommittee on Education Funding. The spending, originally proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in January, was approved by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a bipartisan office that advises the Legislature on fiscal and policy matters. Subcommittee staff also signaled support.

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

Lawmakers did not vote on the proposal, but no one opposed it. Lawmakers and Newsom need to approve the budget by the summer.

The system’s 116 colleges have been dealing with security breaches since last year, reporting tens of thousands of scammers trying to apply and enroll.

An EdSource survey of colleges last year found hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost to the scammers, although the actual figure could be much higher. The attacks often targeted a portion of the $1.6 billion the federal government had provided to California community colleges for emergency financial assistance 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 violation just last month, though she didn’t specify which district.

Under Newsom’s proposal, colleges would receive $25 million annually, mostly to increase college cybersecurity staffing. The remaining $75 million would be a one-time grant to the colleges and would pay for upgrades such as anti-fraud technology and new security software.

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

Legislative staff on the committee concurred with the LAO’s assessment. “More spending and more posts related to cybersecurity seem warranted given recent attempts to cheat the system to gain access to federal and state grants,” they wrote in an agenda item for Tuesday’s meeting.

The LAO has proposed that lawmakers allocate $23 million to the system as a starting point for hiring cybersecurity personnel in colleges. LAO estimates that this would be enough to cover at least one full-time cybersecurity person at each of the colleges, although LAO added in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting that districts with more than one college may need more funding.

For technology and security upgrades in colleges, the LAO recommends that lawmakers allocate $69 million to the system and direct the chancellery to allocate funds based on each college’s specific needs, not just enrollment. Colleges that are less prepared to fight hackers, for example, would receive more funding than colleges of the same size that are better prepared.
“So trying to get all colleges up to a minimum level of cyber security, because there are quite different levels of preparation right now,” Steenhausen said.


During Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers also reiterated their desire to shut down Calbright, the state’s online-only community college focused on professional education. Under Assembly Bill 2820, the college would cease operations by 2024 and money for Calbright would be reallocated to fund basic needs centers and student housing at the state’s other 115 colleges.

Calbright opened in 2019 and was designed as an alternative to traditional colleges to serve adult learners looking to pursue professional training rather than an associate degree.

Ajita Talwalker Menon, the college’s CEO, testified Tuesday that Calbright should remain open, saying the college has doubled its enrollment since July and “met every milestone” set out in its founding legislation.

“It’s important to remember that we’re actually pretty early on in our seven-year start-up,” she said.

The legislature was unimpressed and referred to low graduation rates. As of the end of 2021, only 70 out of 748 enrolled students have completed a certificate.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, chair of the subcommittee that met Tuesday, argued that changes in guidance during the pandemic showed Calbright is not needed. He pointed out that colleges across the state moved their instruction entirely online early in the pandemic and continue to offer many courses this way.

“So if we have successful colleges and their faculty are learning how to do Zoom education, why do we need this experiment?” It seems it was an experiment and it’s not working,” he said.

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This story was originally published by EdSource.

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