Fewer students, more $ in oil belt

With enrollment plummeting, Dawson Community College in Montana’s oil and gas belt is offering free tuition to “dual enrollment” high school students and to former students who are close to a degree, reports AP.

Dawson’s enrollment dropped 22 percent from fall 2011 to 2012; the college is down to about 259 students.  At Miles Community College, enrollment fell by 9 percent to 368 students.

The Bakken oil boom is partially to blame, said DCC President James Cargill. Students who graduate from high school may be lured to higher-paying jobs in the oil fields rather than going to college.

. . . The college also is struggling to find instructors for technical programs such as diesel and gas mechanics and welding technology because people with those skills can make more money in the oil fields.

Tuition waivers will go to high school students taking college classes in the Early Start program. Under Finish Line, adults who’ve dropped out three or more year ago can take up to 10 credits tuition free.

Miles Community College is stressing training in oil, pipeline and coal jobs, such as heavy equipment operation and construction. Students also can train for high-demand jobs in computer technology and auto mechanics and for health careers such as phlebotomy, pharmacy technician and medical lab technician.

Flush with money because of the oil boom, North Dakota is spending more on higher education.

Go to college or take an energy job?

Some Montana teens are choosing high-paying jobs in the booming energy industry over college, reports the New York Times from the town of Sidney.  It’s a “risky” decision, opines the Times. What if the oil and gas drilling boom is shut down by environmental regulation?

. . .  with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing . . .

One  high school senior makes $24 an hour as a cashier in Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. She plans to work for a few years, save her money and move to Denver.

In eastern Montana, counselors say “more and more students were interested in working for at least a year after graduation and getting technical training instead of a four-year degree.”

Last year, one-third of the graduating seniors at Sidney High School headed off to work instead of going to college or joining the military, a record percentage. Some found work making deliveries to oil rigs, doing construction and repairing machinery. Others decided to first seek training as welders or diesel mechanics, which pay more than entry-level jobs.

Meanwhile, enrollment at Dawson Community College in Glendive, about an hour from Sidney, has fallen to 225 students from 446 just a few years ago, as fewer local students pursue two-year degrees.

People are moving to the energy belt in search of jobs at good wages, but even more jobs are expected.

Shay Findlay found a job repairing drilling pumps the day after he was graduated from high school. At 19, he earns $40,000 a year and enjoys his work. His friends are home from college for Christmas break with “stories of dorm-room dramas and drunken scuffles with campus police officers,” reports the Times.  “They’re going to have to come back and look for work,” he said. “And there’s nothing but oil fields over here.”

Who’s taking the risk? Findlay’s party-hearty friends are very likely to drop out of college owing money. Honor-roll students with the ability and motivation to earn a degree — petroleum engineering pays very, very well — will benefit from going straight to university. But that’s not who’s earning a welding certificate or working as repairmen, drivers and cashiers.

The New York Times is worried about the risk to the “college-industrial complex,” writes Heather Mac Donald. “Too many high-school graduates are reflexively going to college as it is, without a clue what they are doing there or how to take advantage of higher education.” They aren’t studying the great ideas of Western civilization, she writes. Most will “double major in communications and binge drinking.”