The downturn in the oil and gas industry has spilled over into the academic world, where many students enrolled in petroleum engineering programs are opting to attend graduate school instead of entering a weak job market, several university officials said.
Lloyd Heinze, a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas Tech University, said because oil prices have been declining for roughly 2 years, fewer students are enrolling in petroleum engineering programs, and oil and gas companies are not hiring as many engineers.
Heinze, who tracks enrollment data at universities with an accredited petroleum engineering degree program, said the low price of oil combined with a weak job market has led many students to pursue master’s degrees, continue studies in other areas or simply work in nonoil and gas jobs.
“If they don’t have a job [at graduation], students will oftentimes look for an opportunity to improve their skills,” Heinze said. “Some of them are going to get a master’s degree in business administration; others are going for a degree in geology.”
Dan Hill, head of the Harold Vance department of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University, said the downturn in the industry is affecting both graduates and incoming freshmen.
“Some of our students may be stretching out their stay,” Hill said. “About half our [May] graduating class had a job in the [oil and gas] industry. About 20 percent are going on to grad school.”
Hill said it is easier for graduating students to extend their education than undergraduate students who are on a regimented schedule of courses.
Thomas Holley, interim chairman of the petroleum engineering department at the University of Houston, said there is a high demand to attend graduate school right now with the downturn in the oil and gas industry.
“I don’t see [many petroleum engineering students] continuing to take undergraduate classes. A lot of our students don’t have that kind of disposable income,” Holley said. “I have written a lot of letters of recommendations to graduate school. We do believe about one-third of our graduating students that graduated in spring got jobs.”
Heinze, Holley and Hill all said there could be a decline in enrollment for petroleum engineering degrees at their respective universities this fall. Data gathered by Heinze supports the belief, Holley said.
“[Heinze’s] data says that two years after the price of oil goes down, the enrollment [in petroleum engineering] goes down,” Holley said. “We are anticipating lower fall enrollment. I’m expecting it to be down 10 percent or so.”
Hill said Texas A&M is experiencing the same situation with fall enrollment.
“We’re expecting to have a smaller incoming class at the undergraduate level,” Hill said.
Heinze said when the decline in oil prices began in 2014, enrollment numbers began to dip.
“The bachelor’s degree [enrollment does] get affected about two years after the price decline,” Heinze said. “Definitely, [the] students and [their] parents pay attention to the job prospects.”
Many students who graduate and do not opt to extend their education seek jobs either outside the oil and gas industry, or they attempt to get hired as an entry-level oil and gas worker, Heinze said.
“Some are opting for jobs on a roustabout crew,” Heinze said.
Holley said the oil and gas industry traditionally has experienced financial ups and downs over the last several decades, and economic uncertainty often scares students who are thinking about entering the industry.
“It is a very difficult time to get out of school,” Holley said. “But it’s a great time to start [college]. By the time they graduate, this [downturn] will all be over with.”