Getting Off the Engineering Enrollment Rollercoaster: Interaction Between Academia and Upstream Petroleum Industry

Getting Off the Engineering Enrollment Rollercoaster: Interaction Between Academia and Upstream Petroleum Industry

Tatyana Plaksina (University of Calgary, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2212-6.ch012
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Traditionally, petroleum engineering programs trained young professionals for the oil and gas industry. After years, this strong tie made the universities completely dependent on petroleum companies for their student placement and research funding. Similar to the operators and service companies, the universities became sensitive to changes in demand. In the last decade, in response to a rapid increase in crude oil prices and unconventional production, the industry experienced a hiring surge which caused a subsequent agitation among engineering freshmen to claim petroleum engineering as their major. As a result, this short period of high demand for petroleum engineering graduates created tremendous pressure on the departments making them expand beyond their educational capacities. In some cases, that led to doubling of the number of undergraduates. Simultaneously, this rapid expansion of the student enrollment created a growing demand for faculty who are now experiencing serious demographic and research gaps.
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After a short setback of 2008-2009, when oil and gas prices experienced a rapid decline and then a hike back to the price of over 100 $/bbl (Figure 1), the US petroleum engineering programs continued the ongoing student admission frenzy. Inspired by impressive starting salaries of already employed petroleum engineers and their relative scarcity on the job market, first and second year undergraduate students rushed to claim petroleum engineering as their major. In 2013, when oil and gas industry hiring was still booming and excitement among students was growing steadily, several professionals who started their careers in the 1970s and 1980s began to see a number of dangerous signs. Drs. Hill and Holditch advised major petroleum engineering programs in the US against unconstrained growth of student enrollment after investigating the enrollment database compiled by Lloyd Heize of Texas Tech University (Hill & Holditch, 2013). Specifically, they recognized similarities in the enrollment trends in the 2010s and 1980s (Figure 2). In the 1980s, the demand for petroleum engineers created tremendous pressure on the academia which responded with higher numbers of graduates. By the middle of the 1980s, however, the oil and gas industry experienced another bust and most of the petroleum engineering graduates faced difficult job market. In that situation most students and graduates decided to switch to other engineering disciplines and left upstream petroleum industry with bitter disappointment. As a result, some of the universities such as University of Wyoming had to close their petroleum engineering program which resulted in rapid decline in satellite disciplines (for example, geosciences).

Figure 1.

WTI spot prices in $/bbl reported from 1986 to 2014 (IAE, 2016)

Figure 2.

Undergraduate student enrollment from 1972 to 2014 compiled by Dr. Lloyd Heize (Heize, 2014)


In almost three decades after these events, a new generation of aspiring engineering students and faculty members took over the academic stage, on which very few professionals still remembered the consequences of the 1980’s bust. As a result, most petroleum engineering programs ramped up their student enrollment to twice or more than twice of the student numbers observed in the mid-2000s. For example, the petroleum engineering department at Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge went from about 400 students in 2009 to approximately 900 students at the end of 2013 (LSU, 2016). Similar rapid expansion is evident from enrollment statistics of Texas Tech University, Oklahoma State University, University of Tulsa, University of Wyoming, University of Louisiana – Lafayette, and Penn State University. Some new programs such as University of North Dakota responded to extra high demand for petroleum engineers with magnitude increases in their enrollment. Per official department statistics, the petroleum engineering department at University of North Dakota went from only 4 students in 2010 to 208 people in 2014 (UND, 2016). In fact, expansion of some petroleum engineering programs (for instance, Louisiana State University) was so rapid that they found themselves on a verge losing ABET accreditation due to extremely small faculty to student ratio (O’Donoghue, 2014).

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