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School Facilities Strained By Boom In Petroleum Engineering


We've heard elsewhere in today's program about the effects of America's oil and gas boom. Let's talk about the effect, now, on jobs. Students are flooding into schools around the country looking to cash in. The problem is high-paying jobs the students are seeking are also luring mining and energy teachers away from academia and back into the industry, meaning fewer professors and ballooning class sizes. Dan Boyce of member station KUNC reports.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: A campus tour around the Colorado School of Mines.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is our primary dining area on campus.

BOYCE: Prospective student Justin Sanford is listening casually to the tour guide, sporting his senior letterman's jacket from Anna, Texas. He's considering the school's petroleum engineering department next year.

BOYCE: Why is that?


BOYCE: Money

SANFORD: 'Cause I like money.

BOYCE: The money, the job opportunities; that's driving a lot of students like Sanford into petroleum - a lot of students into Marcus Hall, the school's new $27-million petroleum engineering building. Interim Department Head Erdal Ozkan says from the day they moved in...

ERDAL OZKAN: Which was about two years ago, this building was too small for us.

BOYCE: The gleaming structure of steel and glass was designed for 300 students. This fall, there are more than 900 students enrolled.

CARRIE MCCLELLAND: So everybody here, in just a few minutes, you're all going to get a letter, whether you're a, b or c.

BOYCE: The faculty, though, it's the same size it was a decade ago. Associate Professor Carrie McClelland is starting a new group assignment. She's moving table to table, checking in.

MCCLELLAND: I'll get to you in a minute, sir.

BOYCE: This section of 45 students is actually a bit of a relief for her. In most of her classes, she's teaching 80 or 90.

MCCLELLAND: It makes it difficult to make sure that they're still getting a great education.

BOYCE: This same pressure, it's not only being felt at the Colorado School of Mines. Petroleum engineering programs all across the country are seeing this explosion of students and the corresponding strain on teachers.

VLADIMIR ALVARADO: It's becoming unmanageable in some sense.

BOYCE: Vladimir Alvarado is a professor at the University of Wyoming. His program has quadrupled from 90 to nearly 400 undergraduates over the past half-decade. They're requesting more faculty to handle the growth, but the problem is finding qualified professors. Can a public university compete with oil and gas salaries?

ALVARADO: We cannot. We can't. We simply cannot.

BOYCE: At the Colorado School of Mines, a petroleum engineering professor makes a little more than $100,000 year on average. They could make double if they went into industry. That's the case with institutions around the country.

Schools are doing what they can to manage - creating more and more sections of the most popular classes to reduce class sizes, moving to more multiple-choice tests to lower grading time. The School of Mines is having more undergraduates work as TAs, like senior Kate Denninger. And she actually thinks that's helping her education.

KATE DENNINGER: It's great to be on the opposite side of things, trying to help these guys get through the same problems I did.

BOYCE: Industry is stepping in, too, helping pay for new equipment and classrooms. At the School of Mines, oil company Schlumberger is even paying for one of its own employees to teach courses as an adjunct professor. And Interim Department Head Erdal Ozkan says a saving grace in the professor shortage has been foreigners. More international academics are jumping at the chance to work in the U.S. and particularly, Ozkan says, for U.S. universities.

OZKAN: We have the best universities. We still have the best research programs. We have the best connections with the industry.

BOYCE: These professors are willing to accept lower salaries, even if their students are not. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce in Golden, Colorado.

INSKEEP: That story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. It's on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.