As we enter March, colleges and schools are well into their spring semesters. Classrooms are full again, and campus life is in full swing after the quieter winter months. But as students and teachers turn their focus to learning, cybercriminals have kept educational institutions squarely in their crosshairs.

As data shows, malicious actors’ interest in the education sector is growing: Malware and phishing attacks remain the most prominent types of cyberattacks in education, which ranks fifth globally by industry in cybercrime incidents.

As the CTO for NordLayer, a cybersecurity company, I view the educational sector as one of the most essential. However, due to its high financial circulation and sometimes low cybersecurity precautions, cybercriminals find such an industry appealing.

What Makes The Educational Sector Appealing To Cyberattackers?

Cybercriminals attack the education sector for several reasons:

Educational institutions contain concentrated stores of sensitive data, intellectual property, cutting-edge research and innovation, and personal data on thousands of staff and students. This makes schools an attractive target for theft and ransomware.

• Tight IT budgets expose many academic institutions to cyber threats with inadequate defences.

• Universities often lack enterprise-level security applications, firewalls, threat detection systems and advanced cyber protections that could mitigate attacks.

Between students, faculty, university networks, research facilities and more, schools have a broad attack surface and many potential vulnerabilities for attackers to exploit. The rise of online learning programs has expanded this attack surface by introducing additional infrastructure, software platforms and access points vulnerable to intrusion.

Worrying Statistics And Common Attacks

Various studies make it clear—cyber threats to schools and universities are escalating at an alarming rate.

Both in 2021 and 2022, education and research institutions faced the highest attack volumes every month compared to other industries. When looking at K-12 schools, the threats stemmed primarily from two sources, with 29% of attacks originating from vulnerability exploitation and 30% from phishing campaigns in 2023.

Social engineering is the most dangerous threat to the education sector, particularly phishing attacks that steal login credentials to target high-profile individuals. Ransomware is also a prevalent issue in the industry, hitting 79% of higher education providers and 80% of lower education providers.

Once inside the network, attackers often deploy ransomware to encrypt data and extort institutions. Between 2018 and September 2023, ransomware attacks on schools have already cost over $53 billion globally in downtime alone. Over 6.7 million individual records were breached during this period—and many attacks go unreported.

How To Stay Protected

From what I have observed, the education industry is combating these threats by blending new security strategies and appliances of best practices. Schools started to implement multifactor authentication, data encryption and security awareness training for staff and students to prevent breaches. Some are issuing VPNs to keep remote learning safe.

Schools can also partner with specialized IT security firms to help manage this growing threat. This will enable even small institutions to gain access to enterprise-grade defences. Additionally, external audits can help schools locate gaps in their infrastructure.

I believe the key is for school IT leaders to adopt a proactive cybersecurity stance focused on prevention rather than reaction. By implementing and keeping up-to-date layered defences, educational institutions will be able to manage the growing range of cyber risks while avoiding massive disruption. Training all academic community members to be security-conscious helps stop threats before they start.