When Lousie Chamberlin shows up for the annual convention of college admissions officials this year and the talk inevitably turns to budget cuts and dwindling enrollments, the New Mexico admissions director plans to keep her mouth politely shut.
In the midst of a pervasive gloom that seems to have settled over the nation's colleges and universities, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is one of a happy handful where students are clamoring for admission and money is plentiful.
New Mexico Tech's modernistic campus, in the shadow of 7,200-foot Secorro Peak 75 miles south of Albuquerque, is dotted with new buildings and bustling research projects.
"There are times," said Chamberlin, 35, "when the other admissions people hate to see me coming."
For schools that are not experiencing the boom, perhaps the most painful aspect of the new prosperity that has overtaken New Mexico Tech and some two dozen other petroleum and mining engineering colleges is the fact that the wealth has been fueled by the energy crisis.
Even as population changes have reduced the number of college-age Americans, rising energy and energy-related costs are forcing budget cuts and driving up tuition. The result has been a drop in enrollments that some experts believe will reach 15 percent over the next 20 years, and even schools that once boasted two or three applicants for every space are feeling the pinch.
At the Colorado School of Mines, however, enrollments have climbed 60 percent since the 1973 Arab Oil embargo.
"We are in a complete night and day situation from what we were seeing five years ago," said William Young, the school's admissions director. s
"We are in a very desirable situation, and we attribute it to Arab Oil," said Young. "We had a pretty strong anti-technology attitude running among young people during the 1960s. But when the Arabs embargoed oil in 1973 all of a sudden we popped out as a school that everyone wanted to attend." 1
In fact, Colorado Mines has always been known within a small circle as a top school for mining and petroleum engineers. The college at Golden boasts that its graduates include top executives of a number of major mineral-oriented firms such as ASARCO, Union Carbide and Texas Gulf.
But even with this reputation, the number of applicants was small enough before 1973 so that anyone qualified could get in, Young said. Now applications are rising 20 percent annually and Young said the college's turnaway rate runs about even with schools like Harvard and Yale.
"People don't look at us funny anymore when we go back East," said Young.
In other similar schools -- most of them small and scattered through the rural West -- the pattern has been similar. According to one compilation, the number of mining engineers turned out by the schools climbed from 201 in 1973 to 500 last spring. During a similar period petroleum engineering graduates went from 328 to 812.
Even more striking has been the increase in the number of women going into the field. Colorado Mines, for example, graduated just 37 women engineers in the 100 years since its founding as a coed institution in 1874. This year 461 women are enrolled in engineering courses.
"Where else can a woman go to school for four years and start out at over $20,000?" mused a mining school official.
Energy companies, hungry for new engineers, have pushed the average starting salary level for petroleum engineers to nearly $22,000. Also big companies like Arco and Gulf have been pumping research money into the mineral engineering schools.
"We are at the point now where we are being selective in the research grants and contracts that we accept," said Richard Gowen, dean of engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.
The South Dakota school sits at the edge of the Black Hills, about 150 miles from the center of big coal fields in Colorado and Montana.
The number of research grants pouring into South Dakota Mines has doubled in the last four years to $1.5 million, Gowen said, and he expects further growth before the school year ends.
Like the other mining schools, the South Dakota campus is sprouting new buildings. But the goods times have brought problems, Gowen said -- problems he conceded other schools might be pleased to have.
"The high industry salaries are taking our faculty," he said. Moreover, engineering students who might have started in graduate school and later taught now leave for industry Nationally, only about 2 percent of undergraduate engineers go on to graduate school.
"Other deans around the state cry the blues because they're cutting back their faculties," said Gowen. "We have eight faculty openings right now that we're trying to fill."
With no end in sight to the industry demand for mining and petroleum engineers, Gowen said the lack of teachers could soon be serious. "Right now," he said, "we're selling off the future."