High school grads to get free rides at two-year college in North Dakota oil patch

Petrodollars can buy the finer things in life. And in one North Dakota oil county, they will be used to pay for the higher education of every graduate of area high schools, if students want.

Williston State College, a two-year school in Williston, announced Thursday that graduates of Williams County's high schools will automatically be eligible for full-ride scholarships, including fees and books purchased at the school's bookstores. Once enrolled, students will have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and sign up for at least 12 credit hours to keep their award.

The program is set to begin in fall 2015 and even students who graduated from Williams County high schools in the past qualify to take advantage of the scholarship.

The Alva J. Field Memorial Trust is donating $1 million and the state is putting in another $500,000.

Additional funds will come from the Williston State College Foundation. The foundation has received donations of mineral rights donators and has seen the oil boom swell its funds from around $7.5 million in 2007 to more than $27 million in the last audit according to Terry Olson, Williston State College's interim president and director of the foundation.

"A lot of that is oil revenue," he said.

Tuition and fees at the college totaled $150.27 per credit hour for North Dakota residents for the fall 2014 semester. Students in the scholarship program must be enrolled for a minimum of 12 credit hours. They can be enrolled for a maximum of 18 credit hours.

Olson estimates that more than half of the college enrollment of around 900 students are from Williams County. Olson said that while officials don't know how many students will take advantage of the program, they expect enrollment to climb.

In 2013, 234 students graduated from Williams County high schools according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.

The oil boom in western North Dakota has skewed the economy. A physically fit 18-year-old can pull in a six-figure salary working in the oil field. Even jobs at Wal-Mart and fast-food restaurants have salaries starting at more than $15 an hour.

While high-paying jobs are easy to come by here, many sectors of the economy struggle to find employees. Olson hopes the program might help remedy that.

"We have a shortage of a lot of professional needs in this region, as in many parts of the state — like nurses, managers, accountants — everything else that goes with a booming environment," said Olson.

Free college to high school graduates is not unique to this corner of North Dakota.

Earlier this year, Tennessee approved full rides to community college programs in the state to high school graduates. By the end of September, more than 22,000 students had registered for that program.

Several other states have looked at similar programs.