Once upon a time, a college degree practically guaranteed a decent job and a stable future.

However, facing the realities of the higher education bubble, some high school graduates are opting to work in the oil fields instead of continuing school. Jack Healy interviews a number of the young and employed in Montana for his New York Times report:

It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing, often working alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Some live at home; others drive back on weekends to eat their mothers’ food, do loads of laundry and go to high school basketball games, still straddling the blurred border between childhood and adulthood.

Just as gold rushes and silver booms once brought opera houses and armies of prospectors to rugged corners of the West, today’s headlong race for oil and gas is reshaping staid communities in the northern Plains, bringing once untold floods of cash and job prospects, but also deep anxieties about crime, growth and a future newly vulnerable to cycles of boom and bust.

Even gas stations are enticing students away from college. Katorina Pippenger, a high school senior in the tiny town of Bainville, Mont., said she makes $24 an hour as a cashier in nearby Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. Her plan is to work for a few years after she graduates this spring, save up and flee. She likes the look of Denver. “I just want to make money and get out,” she said.

19-year old Shay Findlay compares his life to that of his friends who went to college:

Now, his friends are filtering back to Sidney after their first semesters at college, and their stories of dorm-room dramas and drunken scuffles with campus police officers are like reports from another world. He said he misses them sometimes, but would not trade places with them.

“They’re going to have to come back and look for work,” he said. “And there’s nothing but oil fields over here.”