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Oil Patch colleges facing influx of new challenges

WILLISTON -- Three years ago, Williston State College President Ray Nadolny asked employees to park in the front because the campus looked so empty.

Now, as a result of enrollment growth and a spike in demand for workforce training, Nadolny tells them to park in the back or they'll be ticketed.

The oil boom has brought an influx of new challenges for Williston State College, and the other campuses in the west also are feeling the effects.

The communities in western North Dakota are facing housing shortages, rising cost of living expenses and unpredictable construction costs.

At the same time, campuses are being asked to do more -- respond with academic programs that meet the economy's needs while also providing workforce training.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Bill Goetz recently met with presidents of Williston State College, Dickinson State University, Minot State University and Bismarck State College to discuss their unique challenges.

"We have to take a fresh look at those campuses," Goetz said. "No longer are we dealing with a traditional type population or student. We're dealing with a population that's much more diverse. It's important for higher education to recognize that we have to take a new look at the delivery of programs."

In Williston, enrollment in two-year academic programs is growing, even with high-paying job opportunities in the area. Enrollment is about 1,000 students, and Nadolny says hitting 2,000 students in 10 years may not be unreasonable with the area's population growth.

"You've got this town that has grown up into a city almost overnight," Nadolny said. "How do you provide that educational opportunity?"

The college is now proposing to

add a four-year business degree to prepare people for management positions. The program would serve northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana.

Meanwhile, hundreds of oil workers come to Williston State College daily for safety courses and other training offered through the TrainND program.

Just a few years ago, that program served about 3,000 workers a year.

That number is expected to surpass 10,000 this academic year, with many of those workers enrolling in more than one course, said Deanette Piesik, TrainND executive director.

"I am maxing out on my space," Piesik said.

The courses are scheduled 12 hours a day, six days a week and most holidays to accommodate as many workers as possible.

Dan Grafton, safety manager for Oasis Petroleum, which operates in the Bakken, said Williston State College plays an important role for the oil industry.

"They really listen to the industry, and they quickly make changes to help us get our folks through their programs," Grafton said.

The college wants to expand TrainND into a new building, but the inflationary costs on construction in the area make it difficult. The project was initially planned at $2.5 million but it now will cost $6 million, Piesik said.

"I want to think about what the future is bringing for this industry. And I wish the college could be part of the solution," Piesik said. "So in order for us to do that we need a larger space."

Terry Olson, executive director for the Williston State College Foundation, said people in the community are glad to see the progress the college is making.

"It's nice to see kind of a shining star amidst other things that are overwhelming -- semis and traffic and shortage of help," Olson said. "The community looks at this as being a bright spot. It addresses the quality of life issue that other businesses can't address."

Dalrymple is a reporter stationed in the Oil Patch for Forum Communications Co.