Find some Dickinson State University alumni and strike up conversation. Odds are you’re speaking with teachers, nurses or an 8-to-5 businessperson whose work domain is an office.
The university offers a variety of majors — including some outstanding pre-professional programs that have produced doctors and lawyers — and thousands of its alumni live in our community and achieved successful careers.
But times are changing in western North Dakota.
As tuition rates throughout the nation continue to rise and salaries for jobs requiring college degrees remain stagnant, it’s only a matter of time before four-year institutions like DSU become less attractive to prospective students and their parents.
In some ways, they already are. Especially when two-year degree programs, technical schools and even on-the-job training programs offer better chances for higher income, and immediate and prolonged employment success.
It has become evident that DSU is burdened by the oil boom. The enrollment scandal of 2011 and 2012 hasn’t helped.
Enrollment is down — way down. The university reported an enrollment of 1,449 students in late September, a decline of nearly 42 percent in just three years.
It’s not entirely DSU’s fault though.Some local students who may have had few options after high school and normally would have attended DSU to get a degree and help find a career are instead forgoing that opportunity in favor of working in the oil industry or a related field. They’ll make money immediately and, if they choose, go to school later — likely at a technology or engineering school, which will help them further their careers.
This summer, we published a story in The Drill about one such teenager from Belfield who left DSU after his first semester because the sizable paychecks of oil field work were too tempting for him to pass up. He said he may go back to school eventually but wasn’t enthused enough about the program he was entering to stick it out.
Couple the oil field’s influence with the absurdly high cost of rent in Dickinson and few on-campus housing opportunities, and getting a degree at DSU seems like it would be more of a problem than a solution to some high school graduates.
As the oil industry has thrived around it, DSU has not seen its stake in educating those who work in it rise.
Yes, there are some DSU graduates who have gone on to work in the energy industry. Most have a bachelor’s degree in a science field and hold office positions. Some do jobs that pay very well despite not requiring a degree. Like with most post-college jobs, they say having a degree helps with advancement, but more attention is paid to the work they do.
North Dakota University System interim chancellor Larry Skogen told the Press Editorial Board on Wednesday that North Dakota is “changing dramatically and higher ed is a big piece of this. We need to be able to educate our young people. We need to be able to attract our young people to the state to fill these jobs and higher ed has got to do it.”
He’s absolutely correct.
But as easy as it is for Skogen to say that, places like DSU are unfortunately getting left in the dust.
Last year, the University of North Dakota’s first petroleum engineering program graduates hit the workforce. A former DSU student who transferred to UND and graduated from the program is now employed by a Fortune 500 energy company.
Bismarck State College, a two-year school known for its power plant and processing plant technology programs, has exploded since receiving a grant from the state in 2005 that became the seed for the National Energy Center of Excellence that opened in 2008. It’s enrollment has since surged and BSC students are in demand in all sectors of the energy industry.
DSU needs to begin working with the state University System and Legislature to find ways to bring kids back to the College on the Hill.
But to do that, the university and its supporters in policy-making positions must embrace western North Dakota’s job climate and help it find ways to attract those students who don’t want to be teachers, nurses or businessmen.
That may mean going through the political process of trying to add a degree program, finding ways to partner with western North Dakota’s energy industry leaders to provide internships or job opportunities — DSU’s accounting program is already beginning to do this — or, as some of suggested, even reinstituting the long-ago dismantled truck-driving school.
Dickinson and western North Dakota need DSU to be a strong institution now and in the future.
But to stop its declining enrollment and turn around its public image, DSU must embrace new ideas and work with policy-makers to ensure it plays a role in the growth of western North Dakota.
Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him at monkebusiness and read his past features and columns at monke.areavoices.com.