The National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security this week named UCF a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education, an honor that recognizes the strength of the university’s cyberdefense programs, curriculum, faculty and students.

The designation, which brings prestige and additional access to scholarships and research grants, comes under a federal program that’s meant to reduce the vulnerability of America’s information infrastructure by strengthening higher education and research in cyberdefense. The honor recognizes that by producing top-notch graduates, the University of Central Florida’s College of Engineering & Computer Science is addressing the critical shortage of professionals with the skills to defend against hackers and cyberattacks.

“I am so proud of our student champions and our faculty who spend countless hours researching and teaching in this critical discipline that is a part of our daily lives,” said Provost and Executive Vice President Dale Whittaker. “This latest recognition as a National Center of Academic Excellence is a clear testament to the quality of our people and our programs.”

The quality of computer science and computer engineering students at UCF comes as no surprise to the university community.

The student Collegiate Cyber Defense Club at UCF – also known as Hack@UCF – is the two-time, back-to-back winner of the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, making it the reigning national champion in the field. The club’s competition team members are defending their title this weekend at the 2016 competition in San Antonio. The club’s success played a role in the designation, according to Michael Georgiopoulos, dean of the College of Engineering & Computer Science.

“This designation recognizes the successes and cybersecurity expertise of our students and faculty, and our constant focus on the cutting edge of this changing field,” Georgiopoulos said. “It will open a lot of doors for UCF students and faculty, including scholarships and grant opportunities.”

Georgiopoulos credited faculty from across his college for bringing the honor to UCF, including computer science professor Mostafa Bassiouni, who led the “Herculean effort.”

The criteria for the federal program is stringent. Among other things, centers must have “a vibrant and mature” cyberdefense program, foster student research, employ faculty with expertise in current cyberdefense practice, and partner with companies to identify their needs and support student job placement.

UCF has also moved to strengthen its cybersecurity offerings by establishing a university-wide research cluster focusing on security, privacy and their intersection. Led by Department of Computer Science chair Gary T. Leavens, the cluster will span multiple disciplines, including computer science, computer engineering, industrial engineering and management systems, legal studies, mathematics, optics and photonics, philosophy, political science, psychology and statistics.

Aside from the prestige and professional advantages being named a National Center of Academic Excellence brings, students who attend institutions with that designation are eligible to apply for scholarships and grants through the Department of Defense Information Assurance Scholarship Program and the Federal Cyber Service Scholarship for Service Program.

Jonathan Lundstrom, a senior majoring in computer engineering and leader of Hack@UCF’s competition team, said the designation will benefit graduate students in particular.

“It’s supposed to give graduate researchers the ability to essentially bid on research projects that only schools that have this title have access to,” Lundstrom said.