Bismarck State College to review partnership with Saudi institute amid low enrollment
BISMARCK — Bismarck State College officials are reviewing a highly touted partnership with an energy training academy in Saudi Arabia in the wake of lower-than-expected enrollment.
Neither student numbers at the National Power Academy nor profits generated for BSC have met expectations, The Bismarck Tribune learned through a public records request and interviews with a former teacher.
Nearly a year ago, Saudi Arabia, in partnership with BSC, welcomed its first batch of students to the National Power Academy in Dammam in the Middle Eastern country.
The academy offers a variety of energy training programs for Saudi men. BSC provides the training and curriculum for two-year diploma programs at the academy.
BSC officials announced the Saudi partnership last year as a potential big moneymaker for the school, originally projecting the venture could bring in almost $20 million for the college over the five-year duration of the contract officials signed.
But enrollment at the National Power Academy hasn't met expectations. In the first year, it enrolled just 65 students in the programs BSC oversees, compared to a 600-student projection.
A former teacher who was fired while working at the National Power Academy told The Bismarck Tribune that he thinks the public should be aware that unstable staffing levels caused by teacher firings created a "lack of cohesiveness" at the academy. The teacher spoke on the condition of anonymity due to a labor dispute he's been involved in.
BSC President Larry Skogen in an interview conceded there has been "turnover" among BSC staff at the academy in the first year, which he says is typical for a "startup."
"There has been tremendous turnover in that first year, but there's been really good stability in the last three or four months and that has calmed down," he said.
The Tribune requested and received emails and written correspondence between BSC officials and National Power Academy officials and learned that enrollment has been low.
Skogen said in an interview that while enrollment hasn't met expectations, the school is not losing any money. The contract states BSC's expenses are covered, plus 20%, he said. In addition, BSC receives a per-student fee for licensing its curriculum.
The final contract BSC officials signed estimated the college would make $18.1 million over five years, according to Skogen. The school in the first year of the contract made 70% of the revenue projected for the first year, he said.
In order to enroll in a two-year diploma program at the National Power Academy, a student must have a sponsoring company, such as Saudi Aramco or General Electric. Skogen said the recruiting and sponsoring of students, which is the responsibility of the National Power Academy, have "not materialized to the level and as quickly as we hoped it would."
National Power Academy Executive Director Mohammad Al Sharani did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Skogen said BSC officials have reached out to Al Sharani to discuss concerns with enrollment. He said they hope to have a conversation with academy officials this month.
Skogen said he's "optimistic" academy officials will find ways to boost enrollment and get student numbers closer to what was projected.
"If they don’t and we end up losing the number of students we currently have and there’s no intake (this fall), then we’re going to have to readjust our delivery on the ground, and by that I mean the number of faculty," he said.
North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott said he’s not concerned about the issues BSC is having at the National Power Academy, because BSC officials were careful to negotiate a contract to ensure the school doesn't lose any money.
"It’s the first year of this program and it’s revolutionary," Hagerott said. "I encourage (North Dakota’s public colleges and universities) to be innovative, but to protect their bottom line, and BSC did that; they were very careful."
Though BSC is not losing any money, Skogen acknowledged the college is not making as much money as it had hoped to make due to the lower-than-projected enrollment.
"In the long run ... this has to be fixed," he said.