By Jennifer Johnson, Grand Forks Herald

A study released this month links higher dropout rates nationwide to increased hydraulic fracturing, but some North Dakota superintendents do see a link.

Fracking increased the high school dropout rates among teenage males more than females from 2000 to 2013, according to the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. For every 0.1 percentage point increase in the male oil and gas employment rate due to fracking, the dropout rate among male teens increased by about 0.3 to 0.35 percentage points, the study stated.

North Dakota has drawn thousands of workers in search of oil jobs since 2005, creating new employment opportunities in several cities. The state is identified in the study as one of three states with the most shale oil per capita.

Fracking jobs are appealing to teenagers because of the immediate payoff of making a lot of money quickly and by increasing expectations of a dropout’s lifetime earnings, but the relative wage boosts have also shown to be temporary, the study stated.

Kevin Hoherz, a former high school principal in Stanley, N.D., said dropouts shot up during the boom’s height, but so had enrollment. By the time he left the district in 2013, the district’s student body had nearly doubled to 680 because of oil-related activity, he said.

However, students who dropped out of school weren’t looking for oil jobs. They also didn’t grow up in town but came from families who moved to Stanley for oil-related employment, he said.

“They weren’t highly academic,” he said. “They just struggled in school and kind of said, ‘I can make $17 an hour working at Subway.'”

Few school officials in districts heavily affected by the boom were available to comment on the study, and others said they didn’t feel comfortable making the connection with dropout rates.

Gap widened

The study’s authors estimate if fracking had not been occurring the gap between 17- and 18-year-old male and female dropouts would have narrowed by 11 percent from 2000-13 instead of remaining unchanged.

“We also present direct evidence that the effects of fracking on the decision to drop out of high school have been driven by local labor demand shocks that favor the least-educated workers, as well as try to rule out alternative explanations,” they said.

The study covered the impact of fracking on wages, the dropout rate of teens before and after fracking grew nationally and examined oil and gas prices in relation to the male and female wage gap.

From 2009-14, the male dropout rate in North Dakota districts most affected by the boom– Crosby, Watford City, Stanley, Dickinson, Belfield, Minot, Williston and Tioga–were generally highest in 2010-11, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

During the five-year period, the highest male dropout rate was 30 percent in Belfield in 2009-10. Watford City’s district reported the lowest rate–no drop outs–in 2010-11.

Williston Public School District’s dropout rate ranged from 17 to 23 percent while McKenzie County School District in Watford City fluctuated from 2 percent to 19 percent.

All school districts are expected to provide graduation data to the state department each year.

Reductions in resources

The study notes reductions in school resources associated with fracking might have caused an increase in dropouts in places like North Dakota.

Environmental threats or other negative effects of fracking could have led to reduced property values, a shrinking local tax base to support public education and reduced school spending that could have prevented some students from dropping out, the study stated.
Hoherz said it’s hard to track exactly why students drop out.
“Some kids would leave or just quit showing up, and we wouldn’t get a transfer request. They would never officially drop out,” he said. “Some wouldn’t show up and would move to a different state. It was really hard to pinpoint exactly which ones dropped out (for oil-related jobs).”

He’s now a principal in Beulah, N.D., located on the outskirts of the Bakken. Less than 25 students in the district are there with parents who have oil-related jobs, he said.