The National Science Foundation's (NSF) headquarters is seen under construction in Alexandria, Va., on June 24, 2016. The National Science Foundation is proposing a regulation that would allow it to take over management of student loans for the Cyber-Scholarship-for-Service program, something they say would allow for more favorable repayment terms for some students who fail to meet the program’s requirements.(Maria B. Barners/NSF)

The National Science Foundation is proposing a new regulation that would allow the agency to take over management of student loans for the Cyber-Scholarship-for-Service program, something they say would allow for more favorable repayment terms for students who fail to meet the program’s requirements.

The program is designed to build a direct pipeline between college students at top cybersecurity programs around the country and government service. The awards are doled out to help colleges and universities fund their own cyber scholarship programs, with the stipulation that students promise to finish their degree within five years and commit to working for a federal, state, local or tribal government for at least as long as their scholarship.

It also gives federal agencies special authorities to noncompetitively hire selected scholars to full-time positions the government, or shorter-term positions that can later be converted to full time without opening up the job to other candidates.

However, in the event that a student does not complete their degree within five years, exceeds borrowing limits spelled out in federal law or is non-responsive to the school, it prevents the school from converting that debt into a direct unsubsidized loan (or Stafford Loan) and “results with participants being required to submit a one-time payment to NSF or being sent to Treasury for collection action.”

In a proposed regulation scheduled to be posted in tomorrow’s Federal Register, the agency proposed that the NSF take over as direct managers of the loans and move decisions about converting them to Stafford loans from individual schools to the agency and Department of Education.

“After discussions with the Department of Education, NSF is proposing that the conversion of the scholarship to a Direct Unsubsidized Loan will be done by NSF in collaboration with the Department of Education rather than by an academic institution,” the agency wrote.

According to numbers provided by the agency, the Cyber-Scholarship-for-Service program has enrolled 4,773 students since 2001, of which 3,842 went on to graduate. There are currently 91 universities with active projects and another 28 community colleges participate in the program. By converting those debts to a Stafford Loan, undergraduate students would be allowed to pay them back at a fixed interest rate of 3.73%, while graduate and professional students could do so at 5.28% interest. The proposed regulation would also allow the NSF to ensure that the payments don’t count against regular student loan spending limits.

The NSF believes the change will only affect a small number of students, but building better relationships and pipelines out of colleges and universities in the hopes of reaping the benefits is a strategy that many federal agencies are pursuing as they continue to navigate a global talent shortage. Further, while organizations in the public and private sector are desperate for cybersecurity employees, unlike some other fields, the industry is largely dominated by practitioners with hands-on experience, not necessarily IT or cybersecurity degrees. That means even those who haven't completed their degrees may still be capable of contributing even with limited formal education.

“You don't need a college degree to get a job in this space…give them a job as an apprentice, almost like a trade school,” Rick Driggers, a former CISA official and now critical infrastructure cyber lead at Accenture Federal Services, told SC Media. “If you want to be a plumber, you want to be a mechanic, you go to a trade school; you learn on the job. You can do the same thing in this space.”