What's behind the boom in homeland-security and emergency-management majors?
The traditionally slow-moving education industry is churning out a slew of students with specialties in "mass catastrophe" and "international disaster." More than 200 colleges have created homeland-security degree and certificate programs since 9/11, and another 144 have added emergency management with a terrorism bent.
Homeland security is outpacing most other majors in part because governments and corporations are hungry to hire professionals schooled in disaster. One-quarter of the top slots—from presidential appointments to high-level civil servants to scientific posts—at the Department of Homeland Security remained empty last year. And with one-third of posts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency vacant, thousands of graduates are landing lucrative government gigs before they've finished their weapons of mass destruction final. A student at the University of North Texas now works as an emergency planner in Florida when he's not tracking hurricanes for fun. A graduate of the University of Southern California's Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events is using his dissertation, rooted in game theory, to help police at Los Angeles International Airport improve inspections. Others are security directors on ships or bomb specialists at luxury hotels.
DHS has doled out more than $300 million since 9/11 to eight prestigious U.S. universities to open "centers of excellence" devoted to narrow topics like "the psyche of terrorists" or "microbial risk analysis." Though the funding is a pittance in federal-budget terms, the investment is a notable deposit into higher-education coffers and a forceful message to colleges: Build these degree programs and students will register.
Universities, which recognize a good business venture and an admirable mission, have spent millions of dollars trying to enhance their offerings with electives on cybersecurity and agricultural terrorism. Thousands of military and law-enforcement experts have also enrolled in certificate programs to expand their expertise.
Educators say terrorist training camps probably have rigorous curricula with hefty reading lists and hard-grading teachers. America could use an army of tech-savvy terror experts who have the smarts to thwart the next Chernobyl or to whip out an orderly evacuation plan when Katrina's sister arrives. It's fitting that the generation of American students that grew up with violent video games are the ones outsmarting the real villains.
Rarely has an academic field swept through American campuses this quickly. When the Russians beat America into space in 1957 by launching Sputnik, the first unmanned spacecraft to orbit Earth, Washington helped universities respond. The federal bounty boosted college science and technology programs to counter the perceived intellectual threat from the Soviets during the Cold War. Physics and astronomy programs flourished. Products like ready-to-eat foods, no-fog ski goggles, and water-resistant clothing were born.
Jessica Portner, a former education reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, has written for the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor. She is currently writing a book about science and bioterrorism.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.