For the seventh year in a row, the number of undergraduates in petroleum engineering (PE) programs is down, but that could be changing.

Over the next year, Lloyd Heinze, a PE professor at Texas Tech University who has long done the survey discussed here, sees this downward trend slowing and then stabilizing in the next couple of years. There is no sure way to predict which majors undergraduates will pick, but there are some long-standing patterns to consider.

Based on past long slumps for US programs, the decline line is nearing a point where it stabilizes at a low level for years, and when the industry lives off the surge in PE graduates that occurred during the previous boom years.

But there is another trend that could change things. There has always been a strong relationship between class sizes and the preceding increases in oil price. The recent surge in oil prices to more than $90/bbl could signal a rebound, as it did early this century when it helped end the slump that dated back to the 1980s.

If those two trends apply, it could mean “there will be fewer bachelor’s degrees awarded this year, and after that we will be back to growing ever so slightly. And then 2 years from now we will be overwhelmed,” by new students, Heinze said.

So far, the survey is not offering evidence of a change from the down trend.

The best indicator of the size of future graduation classes is the level of undergraduate enrollment. During the slide down, the number of seniors has been far greater than the number of freshmen.

This year’s class shows that gap has narrowed. To stabilize it, the number of freshmen will need to far exceed the size of the senior class because another pattern is at work.

Heinze said the number of freshmen and sophomores who say they will major in petroleum engineering drops by 30% per class year as these students realize what is required, which includes proficiency in calculus.

Hiring Drives Enrollment

While it is hard to deny the power of higher oil prices to increase oil industry activity, Heinze and others in academia contacted for this story point out that the ultimate driver is the industry’s appetite for new engineers.

Students and their parents are looking for signs that the hard and costly job of getting a PE degree is rewarded with a job and a salary that justifies the effort.

So far, those in PE programs are seeing an improved job market with demand for the graduates they are supplying. When Texas A&M announced a spring job fair, there was a strong response from potential employers, said Tom Blasingame, a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M and 2021 SPE president. He said the market is much improved for students seeking jobs, but it is not like the boom days when multiple offers were common.

“I do not believe that oil prices are going to help us significantly in increasing the enrollment,” said Mohan Kelkar, chairman of the McDougall School of Petroleum Engineering at the University of Tulsa, who sees oil companies sticking to conservative spending programs.

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