Oil Boom Town Forces Choice Between Well-Paid Work, College

How can a school keep hold of its great pupils in a town where students could potentially earn twice as much as a teacher?

Williston State College in Williston, North Dakota has started losing some of its best students as they face the decision of either spending thousands of dollars and getting into near crippling debt for a college education or earn $100,000 a year working on the rigs, performing maintenance on oil wells or driving trucks, writes Blake Ellis at CNN Money.

Indeed, Williston is truly one of America’s biggest oil boomtown. But where the oil industry prospers, the education system is struggling to keep hold of its best products. One engineering student dropped out of college last winter to take a job boiling the water used in hydraulic fracturing. In just two weeks, he made $5,000, according to Lance Olson, a science instructor at the college.

But it’s not just students who are tempted away. Williston State has had a 25% employee turnover rate. Recently, two diesel technology instructors were among a handful of teachers who quit to take higher-paying oilfield-related jobs.

Some students have been trying to convince their teachers to work for one of the oil companies — the last offer, Ellis writes, for one teacher was to drive a truck 12 to 18 hours a day and get paid nearly $100,000 to start. The lure of doubling his $56,000 a year salary is hard to resist.

Interestingly, though, as many students are dropping out to pursue big money on the oil rigs, there’s a new wave of students enrolling in Williston State. In fact, enrollment has hit a record 993 full-time and part-time students, a 6.5% increase from 2009.

With so many new workers flocking to Williston for jobs at the oilfields, these new students realize that getting a two-year degree in petroleum production, welding or diesel technology (all areas of study offered at Williston State) could help them get to the top of the oil industry pecking order and qualify for the best-paying jobs, writes Ellis.

But Williston’s campus isn’t big enough to handle the influx of students. The biggest classroom is made to fit 40 people, but now they are squeezing 50 students into them, said Jim Stout, an English professor at Williston State College in North Dakota.. Classes are even taking place in closets, he said.

“At some point [students] decide, ‘Well, college will always be here … but the oil boom won’t,’” says Stout.

But despite the challenges, Stout said his “call is to teach,” and  as hard as Stout tries to stick it out in North Dakota and change students’ lives with his teaching, in the face of external pressures, he’s determined to not give up on college.

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