Cybersecurity Trends and Best Practices for Schools and Universities

Cyberattacks on academic institutions are rising at an alarming pace. In 2021 alone, over 771 institutions suffered data breaches exposing millions of sensitive records.

This highlights the critical need for schools and colleges to strengthen their cybersecurity. This article will discuss the latest cyber threats facing education and provide best practices to improve defenses.

Emerging Cyber Threats Targeting Academia

Educational institutions today face advanced cyber risks including:

More Disruptive Ransomware

Malicious software like Conti, Ryuk and Maze encrypt school data and systems. Paying ransom is often the only way to restore access. Ransomware attacks have become more frequent and harmful.

For instance, a ransomware attack forced the Los Angeles United School District to take their systems offline in September 2021, potentially compromising thousands of student records.

Targeted Phishing Scams

Deceptive emails and texts pretending to be from trusted sources trick users into sharing passwords or clicking malicious links. Social engineering makes phishing highly effective.

Phishing remains the top malware infection vector. Emails impersonating IT teams or faculty are sent to harvest credentials and gain network access. Lack of user training and awareness increases susceptibility.

Unsecured IoT Devices

The fast adoption of smart devices like WiFi cameras and digital whiteboards expands vulnerable attack surfaces. Lack of IoT security exposes schools.

Unsecured IoT devices have minimal password protection and encryption. They become easy network entry points. Large device volumes make manual security an uphill task.

Cloud Misconfigurations

Schools rapidly moving data to cloud platforms often incorrectly configure access permissions and settings. These cloud risks cause widespread data leaks.

A 2021 IDC report found over 80% of cloud breaches involved customer misconfigurations, mismanaged settings, or accidental exposures. This highlights the need for cloud security training.

Insider Threats

Disgruntled or careless students and staff abusing access privileges to steal intellectual property, alter records or destroy data.

Insider threats are harder to detect and prevent. Staff with elevated access privileges pose the biggest risk through deliberate or accidental data mishandling.

Challenges Amplifying Risks

Certain factors increase cyber risks faced by academic institutions:

Lack of Security Training

Faculty and students often lack awareness of latest cyber threats and best practices. This results in more successful attacks due to human errors.

While technology is rapidly evolving, user education on risks hasn’t kept pace. Lack of trained security personnel also impacts incident response.

BYOD and 1:1 Device Sprawl

Uncontrolled BYOD and 1:1 device programs quickly expand attack surfaces. Lack of visibility and control over personal devices increases risks.

BYOD and 1:1 devices are often unpatched, misconfigured, and unmonitored. They become easy endpoints for attackers to penetrate school networks. Managing device hygiene is difficult.

Old Systems and Unpatched Software

Budget constraints prevent upgrading outdated systems. Running unsupported software with known flaws invites exploitation.

Many schools still rely on outdated enterprise software like legacy ERPs and CRMs well past end-of-support. New vulnerabilities in unpatched software also expose networks.

Limited Security Budgets

Scarce funding results in understaffed IT teams unable to adopt modern security tools or leverage expert guidance.

According to CoSN, over 50% of school districts lack dedicated cybersecurity staff. Budget cuts also affect staff proficiency training on new threats.

High Impacts of Cyberattacks

Successful cyberattacks on schools and colleges result in:

Financial Loss

Recovering compromised systems and data, legal liabilities, and fines cost universities an average of $1.6 million per data breach. For K-12 schools, costs exceed $2 million.

Beyond remediation costs, grant funding opportunities get affected by lax security. Insurance premiums also rise significantly post-breach.

Reputation Damage

Data breaches severely erode public trust in an institution’s ability to protect student and staff information. This affects enrollment numbers.

Negative publicity following breaches shakes stakeholder confidence. Prospective students reconsider applying to exposed institutions.

Learning Disruption

Ransomware and DDoS attacks crippling school systems force classes and research projects to stop. Student records get disrupted.

The 2020 ransomware attack on Baltimore County schools disrupted virtual classes for 115,000 students for 2 weeks. Productivity loss and costs exceeded $5 million.

Intellectual Property Theft

Breaches exposing proprietary research, patents, and other IP cause loss of competitive edge and revenue opportunities.

Cybercriminals increasingly target academic IP and research data which is largely unprotected compared to corporate data.

Strengthening Cybersecurity

Here are best practices schools and universities should adopt:

Conduct Risk Assessments

Get unbiased experts to audit cybersecurity controls and identify high-risk areas needing urgent attention. Fix critical gaps.

Annual assessments bring an outside perspective to security posture. They also meet compliance needs and requirements of cyber insurance policies.

Enforce Access Controls

Classify data sensitivity. Restrict access to private information through identity policies and multi-factor authentication.

Limit access to confidential data to only authorized personnel. Make authentication stronger for systems holding sensitive information.

Adopt Data Encryption

Encrypt sensitive student records, employee data, IP etc. in transit and at rest. Make encryption mandatory based on data classification levels.

Use role-based access coupled with encryption to maximize data security. This protects assets even if perimeter defenses get breached.

Segment and Monitor Networks

Divide networks into logical segments. Monitor traffic between segments for anomalies using SIEM tools. Quickly isolate compromised systems.

Network segmentation prevents lateral threat movement. SIEM analytics quickly detects suspicious activity enabling rapid response.

Train Staff and Students

Conduct cybersecurity awareness training on latest threats and security practices. Test preparedness through simulated phishing drills. Set security policies.

Ongoing user education is crucial as systems and threats evolve. Tailor training to key stakeholder groups based on risk level.

Prepare Incident Response Plans

Define incident escalation and communication procedures. Test readiness through cyber crisis simulations. Engage IT disaster recovery partners.

Incident response planning reduces disruption caused by attacks. Test plans annually using breach scenarios identified through risk assessments.

Backup Critical Data

Maintain recent backups of databases, systems and applications. Regularly test restores. Disaster recovery reduces disruption.

Secure backups allow restoring data following corruption or loss. Test restores ensure availability when needed after an attack.

Leverage Managed Security

Augment in-house staff with managed security services providing 24/7 threat monitoring, detection and response based on proven frameworks.

Managed services provide cost-effective access to expertise and technology required for comprehensive security.

Take a Proactive Security Approach

Cyber threats facing education will continue to advance. Institutions must take a proactive approach to security based on best practices.

Prioritizing cybersecurity will enable schools and colleges to adopt new education technologies confidently. Staying a step ahead of emerging threats is crucial.

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Hitesh Patel
Hitesh Patel is an engineer turned business owner of WPG Consulting. He is a techie enthusiast who believes in finding creative IT solutions to solve consumer problems.

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