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GUIDE to (mostly) Harmless Hacking

*** How to spot "colleges" and "universities" that offer nearly worthless degrees

Some of the scholarships noted above are hard to get. The alternative is student loans. Places such as University of Phoenix and ITT Technical Institute make it easy for you to get loans to cover your education. However, both these places have been in the news for questionable practices. (Read about FBI raids of ITT at http://certcities.com/editorial/news/story.asp?EditorialsID=571 and about University of Phoenix getting fined by the Feds for deceptive practices http://www.socialscience.msu.edu/news/documents/CHE011306For-ProfitEducation.pdf) So watch out for these schools that dangle easy loans in front of you. Study now, pay later -- with interest -- and get stuck with a boring job that doesn't pay so great.

And then there are all those online degree programs. Some even give you a degree for no study at all. Send in the money, get a degree for "life experience" or some such nonsense. Oh, yes, and there are "hacker boot camps" that will give you a fancy certification for only five days of study. Like that will make someone an instant genius, yeah, right.

The problem with these sorts of degrees or certifications is that they won't prepare you for the best careers. OK, OK, some people today have great jobs in computer security despite little or no formal education. However, what about ten years from now, twenty? Do you expect to live to age 60? Will your career still be flying high by then, in an era of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, spooky new encryption techniques and weird computing security flaws, and there you are without a clue how to understand it all? Those of us who pick up the physics and mathematics offered by top universities will always be ahead of the game. By contrast, uneducated "certified ethical hackers" -- wanna bet? -- will be flipping burgers by 2030.

Here are some ways to avoid the worst educational institutions.

Run a search at Ripoff Report.com http://www.ripoffreport.com/

Read the book "Steal this University," http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0415934842/002-1352528-1501646?v=glance&n=283155

Do a web search using terms such as "fraud" and "fined" and "federal investigation" to pull up news stories on educational institutions.

*** How to spot the truly great schools

One of the best ways to spot a top college or university is to see what courses they say you will have to take to get your degree. Top programs require calculus, differential equations and physics courses that require calculus as a prerequisite. They also require "liberal arts" courses such as history so that their graduates know something about how the real world works. If anyone thinks history isn't important -- just try writing good code or setting up a network in a city that has a war raging through it.

Another way is to see whether the department of computer engineering (or computer science) offers a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Even if you have no intention of getting an advanced degree, you will usually get a better education in a school where people earn Ph.D. degrees.

Yet another good sign is a department of electrical engineering. In many schools electrical engineering and computer engineering are combined in the same department. Your computer degree will be worth much more if you learn how computer hardware really works.

Best of all is to go to a school famous for research into computer security. For example, Prof. Stephanie Forrest of the Computer Science Dept. of the University of New Mexico is conducting fascinating research: http://www.cs.unm.edu/~forrest/

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