by Janet Pinkerton, CompTIA

At the advice of its industry advisors, Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, La., rigorously mapped the curricula and structure of its young Cyber Information Technology (CIT) program to CompTIA and other IT certifications. The goal: Give students credentials and experience to succeed in the technology workforce and higher-level education.

“These are national certifications that a student can take with them no matter where they go,” says Laura Goadrich, dean of the college’s Technology, Engineering and Mathematics department.  “If they get certifications along with their two-year degree, that makes all the difference when they compete for a job.”

The Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC) program may be less than five years old, but this CompTIA Academy partner and Cisco Networking Academy has already earned national level recognition and an important role in the local economic development engine.

The BPCC program began with five courses in spring 2009, and now offers associate degrees and certificate programs in network security, network specialist, web design, programmer analyst and systems administration. In 2012, the National Security Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated it a “National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance.” In addition, its training is accredited by the government’s Committee on National Security Systems (CNSS).

The program developed during a regional economic development push that intensified in 2008 when nearby Barksdale Air Force Base was in the running to permanently host the 24th Air Force – the Air Force component to Cyber Command headquarters. Seeking to demonstrate the region’s ability to support Cyber Command, state and local officials built a $100 million Cyber Innovation Center (CIC) dedicated to strengthening the local technology work force and also developing an office park complex to house and attract defense contractors, cyber innovators and academia.

The Air Force in 2009 opted to locate the 24th Air Force at San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base, but placed its Global Strike Command, focused on nuclear deterrence and response, at Barksdale. CIC, local educators, industry representatives, and business groups continue to work together to improve the local tech economy and workforce. BPCC’s cyber program is an outgrowth of that ongoing campaign.

“BPCC saw a need to strengthen the cyber skills within our community and responded by developing five new degree programs and certificate technology tracks,” says CIC Vice President G.B. Cazes.  “Now we have students coming out of the program with those degrees who are being hired by companies inside our building and the National Cyber Research Park.”

In addition, roughly two-thirds of program graduates enter four-year computer degree programs, often through the BPCC’s articulation agreements with Louisiana State University, Louisiana Tech University, Northwestern State University of Louisiana and University of Maryland University College.

How It Works

The program attracts about a 50/50 mix of high school graduates and non-traditional students seeking to start a new career. It currently has 163 students in all five programs, with the largest percentage in the network security track. The majority of students are on some form of financial aid; some take remedial English or math courses before starting CIT classes.

The faculty knows that the stakes are high for many students. “For some students, this is the only opportunity they’re going to get to go to school and better themselves,” says instructor Eddie Horton. “We want to do everything we can to support them.”

Curricula for each course tracks with the objectives for IT industry certifications, including CompTIA, Cisco, Adobe, Microsoft, Java and EC Council.  Last year, BPCC began mandating its CIT students take the certification exams for required courses. So, for example, students in CIT 112: “Support of Emerging Technologies” must take the CompTIA A+ exam. Students do not have to pass a required exam to pass a course, however.

Students take their certification exams at the Pearson VUE testing center on campus or at Barksdale Air Force base, where the  program also holds certification classes for military workers seeking to comply with the U.S. Department of Defense Directive 8570.01-M for information assurance personnel.

As a benefit of being a CompTIA partner, BPCC purchases CompTIA exam vouchers at a discounted rate and passes that savings on to students. BPCC includes the certification exam fees in the course fees, which can be covered by financial aid if the student is eligible. The CompTIA Academy program also provides qualified faculty with complimentary certification exams, and Goadrich reports that all of her faculty members use this benefit.

Certifications’ Feedback Loop

Requiring students take certification exams provides critical information to both students and BPCC.

Depending on the student’s aptitude and interest level, taking an entry-level certification exam, like the CompTIA A+, can be a confidence booster or a reality check.  Some students are encouraged to continue in the CIT program; others realize a CIT specialty is not for them, given the work and skill level needed to pass the exam. “It can be an eye-opener,” says Horton.

The college also gets feedback. Students sign a waiver allowing the school to receive the scores from each exam they take under the program, and students’ exam results serve as an assessment tool for the program itself. “Every semester we are able to analyze how many students took the certification exams, how many were successful and areas where students were or were not as successful as we want them to be,” says Goadrich.

BPCC will analyze how the 2012 mandate requiring certification exams for specific courses impacted academic achievement once CIT students complete the spring 2013 semester. Goadrich reports that graduates say the certifications are “vital for their job applications and that they like the way the program maps certifications in with required classes.”

Partnering for Growth

Over the past five years, Goadrich and BPCC have built strong working relationships with the local school district, the Air Force base, and organizations such as the local ArkLaTex chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, the local tech meet-up group Techx20, and TechRouler, a coalition of technology companies that share a common need for tech-skilled workers. “All of these entities and the close relationships they have, along with the help of the North Louisiana Economic Partnership, helped drive IT hiring locally,” says Kevin Smith, a retired Air Force colonel who is now a vice president at tech start-up Logic Nation.

“I can’t tell you how much that partnership is needed locally,” adds Smith, a long-time member of the CIT industry advisory board.  “BPCC’s course offerings, and how they shape their curricula, are serving the needs of the industry partners locally.”

Logic Nation is a “perfect example,” Smith said. “We are a tech start-up, and several BPCC students have either interned with us or came to us as graduates. Some have become some of our top quality programmers.”

“With all of these offerings, all of these people working together, I couldn’t be more proud of what’s going on here locally,” says Smith. “A lot of people and a lot of organizations had a part in it, and BPCC’s program has been right in there with everybody.”