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Lydia Gilbertson// Shale Plays Media

Cash from Bakken oil boom can make college a tough sell

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.

In related news, Oil price drop and its effect on the Bakken.

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


  1. Can those people do that same job at 50 years old as they can now at 21?

  2. My hubby is 46 years old and out performs all of his young counterparts, in the oilfield. His entire crew is preferred over the young ones. Age is not a factor, health & motivation is.

  3. I know of a guy that’s 50 years working offshore with heart congestive failure so yea lol

  4. It is all in what you want to do with your life. It is definitely a great return on investment.

  5. Why would you want to do the same job at fifty that you had at 21? Hopefully you would have gotten a promotion way before.

  6. Not everyone will get a promotion. Hard manual labor outside in winter doesn’t sound appealing at age 50. There is something to be said about educating yourself.

  7. I am 50…. in the oil boom.

    It is not about age….it is attitude.

    No need to work harder……work smarter.

  8. My husband is over 50 and works in this oilfield. He and one of his co workers who is also over 50 are the best working team they’re company has.

  9. If you love your job you stick with it

  10. Doesn’t hurt to have education and a degree to fall back on.

  11. I think it gives hope to our younger generation to be able to work and pay their own way through college and be able to move out of their parents house, buy their own cars! A little struggle never hurt anyone but who wants their kids to struggle! And for the older generation at least it gives them a chance and keeps them off welfare! I’m grateful for the opportunities the Bakken provides! It gives everyone a choice and a chance.

  12. #1 college should be priority #1 finish then come out and pay off your student loans, plus a degree can only help you advance up the corporate ladder out here!!
    #2 reality check anyone can say they or their friends or family are the best at their job, that’s bullkrap and you all know it, the reality of the oilfield is that EVERYONE IS EXPENDABLE!!! There’s always another guy waiting to take your spot so step up your game every day!!!

  13. At least if you have a college education and the oilfield doesn’t work out you can cut grass for the Forest service and call yourself a biologist for $15 bucks and hour lol.

  14. I’ve heard that down in Oklahoma all you have to be is an inexperienced dope head and you can get a job!

  15. How about I graduated at 21 with no debt and now get a good paying job in oil field ..

  16. You can earn great money in ND…ONLY if your living expenses are paid for. If you’re on your own the rent and other expenses will cripple you!!

  17. I am 22 and have been in the oil boom since I was 19 I just got promoted and I see tons of room for growth I would have to agree collage is a hard option when u can start at the bottom making 100,000 a year I myself thought of going to collage but the boom is just to good of an option not having to go in debt to make good money was a no brainier for me but at the same time not everyone is cut out for the hard work and the weather

  18. I went to college, managed to receive 5 degrees and left with NO loans because I worked full time and paid my own way. I also went to school full time and as a single parent, I know it’s doable.

    What I see in the Bakken, is many young people with no degrees, or even completed high school education, drowning in debts higher than 40k with their trucks and toys. Not really looking ahead to the longevity and sustainability of the oil boom. Mostly young men between 19-26 whom make a gross income of 8k+, still living paycheck to paycheck.

    The skipping-college-to-avoid-debt, is a myth and an excuse.

    A degree is becoming necessary in a world where we rank 26th in the world with our decrepit and under-funded educational system.

  19. Hopefully OPEC doesn’t frack it up.

  20. There’s no better way to become an executive like working hard in a manual labor job in the middle of North Dakota with no education. Keep it up!

  21. For now. Last one out turn out the lights!!!! Seen the billboard in 1986.

  22. People need to avoid going to Walmart, no benefits for their employees… It’s all about Sam Walton’s family, not the employees..

  23. Ashley Goletz you should read this!!!!

  24. I’ve worked on and off in the oil industry since the early 70’s. Be Warned.For those that are riding high on the Bakken, Eagleford, or any other play, save your money cause they won’t last. Well permit applications for the Bakken have declined 37% in the last two months. The low retail price of oil and gas will continue the decline in well permit applications. If the per barrel price gets really low the production companies will even resort to capping and shutting down of producing wells. Save your money because things might start slowing down real quick. I’ve seen it happen many times before….

  25. wait…..I thought Walmart paid minimum wage?

  26. You can spend thousands upon thousand on a degree, but you can’t buy a work ethic. That’s what wrong with this country.

    • You have got that right Nick! Work ethics are AWFUL these days, the youngsters out there now feel a sense of entitlement and more often than not are lazy, immature and irresponsible asshats

  27. The world needs ditch diggers too. We all make the world go round. If we didn’t have the oilfield workers, college boy wouldn’t have gas to get to class. Not all superheros wear capes, not all wealthy people have degrees.

  28. I worked at Walmart for 17 yrs. There no way in hell they hire at that rate. This is bs!!!

  29. Someone stuck that 1 there. Its more like 7 an hr!!!

  30. Joy BossBiach Mathewes Walmart in williston

  31. Deborah Nowosad you are obviously misinformed. Wake up.

  32. Nothing wrong with getting a degree, it’s great! There is also nothing wrong with being 50 and working in the oilfield doing manual labor, as long as it’s honest work and a honest paycheck.

  33. I have 4 years of college and it’s 4 years wasted my degree hasn’t helped me at all. I have a Class A CDL with all the endorsements and 17 years driving experience, I’m thinking of going to ND to work as well.

  34. I love it.. williston has billboards all over the place with positions available

  35. $17 an hour isn’t all that much. Especially there where cost of living is so high

  36. I prefer the oilfield to college.. out here there are not as many commies, socialist, and idealogues as you find in todays schools.. just hard working men and women.. people not afraid to get dirty.

  37. I am a safety manager for a oil hauling company here in the Bakken. Are drivers come from all walks of life some with master degrees others with a high school diploma. The fact of the matter is even with a degree its hard to find work that pays well. Here in the bakken most jobs pay well the average income is over 50k a year. Very few places in this country can say that

  38. Our lowest guys make 8000 a month with living provided. Supervisors in the 180k to 240k year

  39. The hell with college unless it’s for engineer or RN and up In Medical field.

  40. Deborah Nowosad, I took this pic myself in Williston 2011

  41. College is stupid. Look at the overall cost. Loans. No real job offerings.

  42. I need to get back out there. Can get lonely but whatever.

  43. A lot of us are out here to pay off our student loans. The cost of college is what makes it a hard sell. It’s ridiculous!!!

  44. I was there for 2 years but left to get an education. Being intelligent is better than having money, for me anyway.

  45. I drive truck and gone a week at a time make 60k a year but I been telling people about going to the oil patch it won’t last

  46. Just shows u what these companys could pay u

  47. So what is it libs do you really want to do away with it because you think it’s bad for the environment or do you want to keep younger people in a perpetual state of debt so the government has control?! What the real answer? You decide

  48. How much is rent on a 3 bedroom house in Williston nd

  49. It don’t matter anymore how many degrees uou have….

  50. $17/hr is not a “good” wage. Maybe for a Wal-Mart greeter, box boy or even the long haul truckers. It’s Wal-Mart, how are their benefits? You’re better off going to college and getting a degree in a field that has existing jobs. Maybe think of a technical/trade school. Work union!

  51. Work Union so you can break the back of your employer like GM!…

    • Keep on working to make the rich man richer. If you think your employer cares about you one bit, wait til things get tight. You’ll see their bottom line really quick. Then I’ll be paying for your dumb ass collecting an unemployment check. Union makes the work environment safer and more productive as long as the hands aren’t disgruntled. If employers would treat their employees fair and pay them a fair wage, there would be no need for unions. Fun fact, employers are out to make themselves as much money as they can, no matter whos expense.

    • Typical Union trash response.

    • Let’s see UAW destroys GM and Chrysler, teacher unions receive funding for eduction but nothing improves, government unions are crushing city/municipal/ state governments. Yea unions are great.

  52. Started driving in the oilfield in Colorado a year and a half ago just after I got my CDL, hauling oil 70,000 + a year. Had learning disabilities in college had to drop out because of failing grades. Passed with CDL with 98% GPA. tells you the education system has failed me. Oilfield has changed my life and I know I’m a lucky one. Right place right time.

  53. This country needs both college educated people and laborers. The oilfield boom is a great opportunity in this country.

    I’m a veteran with the GI bill, but still chose the oilfield because of the great pay and ability to save up for my future. If this bubble ever bursts, I always have free college to fall back on.

  54. Jason Thompson dude we’re going come May

  55. the oil boom!! Dirty yucky waste of fossil fuels that does absolutely NOBODY any good!! Get educated!! Use your minds to develop energy that will ensure a clean healthy planet for your kids and grand kids to live and prosper in!! #geteducated #getthatdegree #fukoil

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