In 2011, petroleum engineering topped the list of highest-earning college majors, with graduates earning median incomes of $120,000.
Now that oil has lost more than half its value in the past two years and oil jobs have dried up, however, students are abandoning petroleum engineering in favor of career paths they hope will be better prospects in today’s economy.
In the 2015-2016 year, the total number of students majoring in petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma fell by 20%, the International Business Times reports. The petroleum engineering program at the University of Texas—the top ranked program in the country according to U.S. News and World Report—got fewer than half the freshman applicants to its program for the current academic year than normal. According to NPR, students in petroleum programs at Penn State, Marietta College, Texas A&M, and other colleges are down as well.
Incoming students are reacting to the stark economic reality that the oil and gas sector has seen a huge slump in profitability in recent years, as a glut of oil on the international market has overwhelmed demand and caused prices to tank. The oil and gas industry in the U.S. slashed roughly 100,000 jobs between October 2014 and January this year.
Oil prices have appeared to stabilize in recent months and major oil producers are getting organized in an effort to stop prices from falling further and perhaps boost them. This means job prospects could improve, but that may not be enough, in the short term at least, to bring back students spooked by oil’s shocking price plummet.
“The job situation has changed radically,” Tom Edgar, director of the Energy Institute at UT-Austin, told the IBT. “When companies are laying off people, they’re not hiring the graduates. It’s pretty clear that that’s one of the early signs of stress in the situation.”