Ransomware attacks on higher education institutions

In the past three months, cyberattacks have claimed three colleges.

Higher education is not usually considered a target industry for ransomware attacks. However, there may be a growing trend. These cyberattacks have negatively affected three colleges: North Carolina A&T University Lincoln College, Austin Peay State University and North Carolina A&T University. One even led to the closing of Lincoln College.

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Tripwire vice president Tim Erlin stated that while there are other factors at play, it is clear that Lincoln College’s demise was influenced by ransomware. It cost them both time and money to recover. In this instance, the time they spent to recover was equal to the chance to save the institution and put the ship right. If you are already in trouble, losing access for more than a few months to critical operational systems can quickly become a death sentence.

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Lincoln College forced to close

Lincoln College, the worst example of ransomware infecting schools, was forced to close its doors after 157 years of operations on May 13. Initial attacks by the COVID-19 virus limited the school’s ability fundraise and recruit students. The final blow came after the school was hit by a December ransomware attack. This made it difficult for faculty to access important school data. It also made it more difficult for them to find potential students, thereby limiting their ability to keep the college open.

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The Lincoln College notice stated that “all systems necessary for recruitment, retention and fundraising efforts were not available.” It was a good thing that no identifiable information about individuals was revealed. After being fully restored in March 2022 the projections showed significant enrollment shortfalls. It was necessary to make a transformative donation or partnership to continue Lincoln College after the current semester.

“Cyberattacks such as ransomware can be very difficult for organizations to recover from in the best of times. But, as this story illustrates, they can pose existential threats for organizations already struggling,” stated Chris Clements vice president of solutions architecture at Cerberus. The institution was already in trouble due to the pandemic, but the fact that critical systems were offline for three months during an enrollment period could have sealed their fate.

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Cyberattack on Austin Peay

According to Austin Peay’s news page, the school’s systems were restored three days after they had been offline. Ransomware attacks were believed to have been carried out via phishing email, according to the Austin Peay news page. The school advised students and faculty to be cautious of any potentially dangerous links.

The Governor’s student body started a petition to postpone final exams due to the attack. It stated that the attacks had affected “connectivity on campus” and essential student services like One-Stop and Outlook email. Students who depend on campus Wi-Fi, Felix G. Woodward Library and the Writing Center for their resources, are not able to access them.


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