WILLISTON, N.D. — As two men jumped off their bar stools and tumbled to the floor in a Saturday night brawl, Stephen Hopkins rushed to pin them down.
“That’s it, anyone involved is out!” hollered a server, as young engineers from Halliburton looked on with amused smiles.
Here at Doc Holliday’s Roadhouse, on the fringe of a Wal-Mart parking lot, Hopkins spends his nights tending bar and his days laboring in a warehouse instead of putting his business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to use.
He is among a stream of transplants who have come to the Bakken to pay off student loans with jobs that don’t even require a college degree. Discussion about the value of a four-year university education has raged nationally, as Americans have accumulated $1.2 trillion in student loans and lucrative jobs are hard to come by for many young people.
But that debate takes a different tone amid the oil boom here, where adults with minimal educations can pull down six figures with a little hustle. Jobs here are filled with college graduates — and dropouts — who’ve ignored and abandoned their degrees to pay off debt and save for a future.
Even teenagers can make more than twice the minimum wage, making sandwiches or working at Wal-Mart. And with the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, anyone who wants a job can find one.
That’s left the local community college, Williston State College, struggling to attract students to traditional academics, even as enrollment in its vocational training classes continues to explode — to 16,000 students, from about 3,000 before the boom. So, in late October, the school announced it would offer free tuition to local high school graduates. Books and fees are also paid for.
Just days after the announcement, Williston High School senior Taylor Bloxham is planning to take the school up on the offer. She won’t even need to fill out an application.
She laughs off the debt that weighs heavily on students’ minds around the country.
“We don’t have that problem,” said Bloxham, in the midst of her shift at the Complete Nutrition vitamin store, where she pulls in $2,000 a month for the part-time work.
Experience over courses
There are plenty of jobs for college graduates in the oil field, from petroleum engineers to geologists. And many oil field positions require shorter-term training for commercial driver’s licenses and other certificates.
But a contingent of workers describe not using their degrees at all. One business student at Baylor University in Texas left school to start his own oil pad services company in New Town and pay off his loans. A business management graduate of Rochester Community and Technical College ditched jobs selling auto parts and working in a deli in Minnesota to work on an oil rig and get caught up on $12,000 in student debt.
Matthew Withrow, the Rochester grad, defended education as a good investment, but noted, “What you want to accomplish [after graduating] won’t happen with that much debt.” Now, said Withrow, 27, he’s a machinist and runs motors at a growing company that values experience over his business courses.
When Joshua Johnson moved here two years ago from Fergus Falls, Minn., to take a job building and moving oil rigs, one motivation was paying off his $35,000 in student loans plus his wife’s college debt.
“We want a house — so try doing that off of two medium-income jobs,” said Johnson. “It’s kind of tough with two kids.”
Now he makes $80,000 to $90,000 a year in a position that has nothing to do with his animal sciences degree from the University of Minnesota-Crookston.
“A lot of people I know didn’t [go to college] and make just as good money and better and they don’t have $40,000 in debt sitting on them,” Johnson said.
Hopkins, the bartender, came to town with $148 in his pocket and bill collectors hounding him. He’s on track to make about $90,000 this year working two jobs as he pays down $34,000 in student debt.
“A lot of kids are making $30, $40, $50 grand a year with their college jobs and they’re not really getting ahead,” said Hopkins as he poured drinks, a “Back to the Wild West” sign hanging behind him. “It’s crazy,” Hopkins said. “I’m living out of my car and I make more than my parents.”
But he knows this won’t last forever. He’s hoping to save enough to fund an MBA later on.
“Long-term, education is a better investment,” said Hopkins. “I can’t do this when I’m 50 years old.”
‘A silver lining’
Hundreds of people drive past the busy Halliburton business complex and turn left into a building for TrainND, a program run by Williston State College that offers certifications for in-demand oil field jobs. A larger, more modern building is under construction nearby to accommodate all the new students.
On a recent cold morning, students in a crane operating class took turns on a rocky lot maneuvering 1,000-pound weights through an obstacle course, trying not to knock down any poles or tennis balls perched on top. For 10 days of training and $4,500, graduates would be on track to earn six figures moving materials on oil and construction sites. All the students were middle-aged.
One said he was still paying off student loans at 40 and had talked a 20-year-old acquaintance out of going to college because of the debt. Another, Ken Perkins, said that at 51 this kind of a program gave him a more comforting feeling than when he graduated from college decades ago: “When you complete it, you’re pretty much lining up jobs; there’s people who are waiting to hire you. … You’re going to be making more money.”
TrainND is a much easier sell to people than a traditional degree, given that the cost of the classes is either paid for by employers or by students who will be immediately connected with oil field recruiters waiting to hire them.
Williston State knows that all too well. It’s hoping its new free tuition scholarships for Williams County graduates will boost enrollment of its traditional two-year program, which has been stuck at about 900 students.
And while it has yet to see any benefits of the just-announced program, Williston State is already hoping to expand it to neighboring counties, such as McKenzie and Mountrail.
Oil money is footing the bill. Williston State pursued the program after its scholarship trust and college foundation saw swelling oil royalties, and a state government flush with oil revenues pitched in.
“Traffic, long lines, high prices, high cost of living, housing shortages — all of those things are related to a bustling economy,” said Interim President Terry Olson. “But, on the other hand, it is high-paying jobs, good real estate, low unemployment; there’s so many positives. There’s really a silver lining in a hustle-bustle, booming environment.”
Still, the school is already concerned about how it will squeeze in the anticipated growth in students, particularly if a lot more decide they want to live on campus.
“It’ll be more work for everybody,” said Olson.
Maya Rao — 612-673-4210