VERNON — The sun was not out yet but, across the street from the town’s community college, order numbers were already piling in on the display monitor above Nikki Murray. The McDonald’s cashier slipped in one-liners with waiting customers while she wrapped their Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwiches. Her grin was contagious.

She tried to ignore how her back hurt. Work at the fast food chain can get exhausting — there is always another customer ready to order or another table to wipe down. She wouldn’t get a break until she clocked out.

Murray, who makes $10 an hour, often wonders if she would be in a better place if she’d finished college.

In the early 2000s, she spent her days in the same part of town, enrolled at Vernon College. Murray, now 49, knew a degree meant she could make more money for her kids, but the stress and demands of family life weighed too heavily on her, and she dropped out.

Two miles east, off Vernon’s main retail street, Krystal Fancher Smith worked out of her mother’s desk, in her mother’s leather chair. She has been training for nine years to take over her family’s business, Fancher Electric.

Smith, 41, also went to Vernon College for a while and was 10 credit hours short of graduation. The classroom was never a good fit for her, she said, and somewhere along the way, college stopped feeling worth the effort. She dropped out and has no plans of going back.

Murray and Smith, both lifelong Vernon residents, represent the kind of students that community colleges in Texas and across the country have struggled to keep. The two entered Vernon College young, wide-eyed and enticed by higher education’s promise to pave a path to a better life. But Murray and Smith grew and changed, their plans shifted with them and, for different reasons, the idea of college lost its luster.

In this low-income, rural northwest Texas town on the border with Oklahoma, most residents don’t have a college degree and say they don’t need one to make a decent living wage. The town’s bacon production plant and hospital both hire young people right out of high school.

Here and across the nation, young people and their families have become increasingly skeptical of the benefits of college as they face pressure to enter the workforce to make money right away. For students who do enroll in college, barriers including high costs and family obligations can get in the way of finishing, putting them in debt without any of the benefits.

“The purpose of community college is for someone to improve their life … We provide that opportunity,” said Dusty Johnston, the president of the college. “Not everybody is ready to take advantage of that opportunity.”

This skepticism has become an existential challenge for many Texas community colleges. Drops in enrollment numbers after the pandemic meant community colleges received less state funding, threatening their operations. Vernon College lost one in four of its students, or about 800 students, one of the largest declines in the state.

Community colleges such as Vernon were thrown a temporary lifeline when state lawmakers changed the funding formula this year to move away from an emphasis on enrollment. Colleges are now funded based on student outcomes.

Schools like Vernon College must still reexamine their recruiting tactics and the programs they offer if they want more students to enroll and graduate. To survive in the long run, they need to prove their relevance to the people they mean to serve.

• • •

No one orders at the self-service kiosk at the McDonald’s in Vernon. They prefer to give their orders directly to Murray, a familiar presence at the cash register.

One woman was late to work on a recent Wednesday but stopped in to ask Murray for a cup of ice. A retired truck driver sat at a table by the door, a morning routine for him. Murray let out a laugh as a woman swatted her husband’s shoulder for adding an ice cream to their order.

Murray finds joy in her work, but a melancholy settles in when her shift ends and she makes her way home. Though the fast food job covers the bills, it’s a marker of everything she didn’t get to be.

Nikki Murray poses for a portrait outside her home on Sunday, December 3, 2023 in Vernon. Murray, who works as a cashier at McDonald’s, attended Vernon College in the early 2000s but withdrew to raise her two kids while in an abusive relationship. College is still a dream for her, but she is currently settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family.
Nikki Murray poses for a portrait outside her home in Vernon. Murray attended Vernon College in the early 2000s but withdrew to raise her two kids while in an abusive relationship. “To start [college, and then] to just give up, I failed myself and them,” she said of her children. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

“Look where I’m at at my age. I had the opportunity to have a better life,” Murray said, fiddling with her black visor embroidered with the golden arches of the McDonald’s logo.

Murray became a mother before she could plan for college, which meant she first needed to be a provider.

She was 15 when she had her first child; two daughters followed years later. Research shows that early pregnancy compromises educational attainment. Less than 2% of teen mothers finish college by age 30, according to Power to Decide, a teen pregnancy prevention group.

Murray went to work straight out of high school. She was young — she did not know a world outside of Vernon’s eight square miles — but she knew she was ready to move mountains to get her baby what he needed.

Murray was ready to work, and work she did, but her grit was not enough to pull her out of hardship. She would skip meals so her kids would not go to bed hungry. The house she could afford — which belonged to her late father — was in a neighborhood that exposed her kids to crime and violence.

She encountered what economists call the “paper ceiling,” a limit to how much a worker can usually bring in without a college degree. U.S. workers with just a high school diploma made $152 less per week in 2022 than those with an associate’s degree — a $7,904 loss per year.

Nikki Murray feeds her granddaughter, Auriella Murray, 1, while sitting with her family members at her home on Sunday, December 3, 2023 in Vernon. Murray, who works as a cashier at McDonald’s, attended Vernon College in the early 2000s but withdrew to raise her two kids while in an abusive relationship. College is still a dream for her, but she is currently settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family.
Nikki Murray feeds her granddaughter, Auriella Murray, 1, while sitting with family members at her home. Her kids have encouraged her to go back to college but she feels settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune
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Left: Nikki Murray, center right, prays during Sunday service at Wood Street Baptist Church. Right: Nikki Murray, left, gathers with her family members at her home. As younger generations express skepticism about the value of college, Murray said it’s too soon to know if her grandkids will choose to continue their education after high school. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Murray was aware that college could help her. Vernon College, with its tan one-story buildings and white pedestrian bridges, was a brand new fixture in town when she was a kid. At 25, two more years in school seemed like a fair tradeoff for her young family’s chance at a better life. So she enrolled to get a degree in criminal justice.

But Murray couldn’t just set aside her parental responsibilities when she was at Vernon College. She also couldn’t shake an abusive relationship, which brought turbulence to her day-to-day life and chipped away at her self-esteem. On campus, she struggled in her math course.

“I couldn’t focus,” she said. “You had to stay up late, you had to watch your kids, watch them go through what you’re going through. It wasn’t good for them.”

Murray eventually got out of that relationship, but she did not pass that class or finish college.

Nikki Murray’s work hat hangs on her rearview mirror inside her car on Sunday, December 3, 2023 in Vernon. Murray, who works as a cashier at McDonald’s, attended Vernon College in the early 2000s but withdrew to raise her two kids while in an abusive relationship. College is still a dream for her, but she is currently settled in her job and continues to focus on caring for her family.
Nikki Murray’s work visor hangs on her rearview mirror inside her car. Murray earns $10 an hour as a cashier at McDonald’s, but often wonders if she would be in a better place if she had finished college. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

There was a time when Murray wanted to be a nurse, like the aunts who raised her. But she never applied for the nursing program; she didn’t think she would be accepted. Then she imagined she could become a probation officer. With a criminal justice degree, she thought she could help Black men get a fairer footing out of prison.

Murray had dreams that are now all smudged up and hard to decipher.

“I got to go back,” she said. “But when your bones ache like mine, I don’t know. I’m pretty much settled here.”

• • •

The wind turbines carry you into town, the towering white structures turning in almost perfect unison. Shipping cargo trains run along the main highway, their Amazon Prime and FedEx labels serving as a small reminder of corporate, fast-changing America.

Vernon used to be a booming town — residents recall having a JCPenney and a bowling alley. But when the main highway was rerouted away from town, it hurt business. All there is to eat now is burgers, Murray said.

Still, people like her stay. This is their community — a place where your neighbor will babysit your kid so you can finish high school. And if residents want to go to college, Vernon College offers the easiest, most affordable option.

A windmill farm outside of Vernon on Sunday, December 3, 2023.
A windmill farm is seen in Wilbarger County near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Back in 1970, voters in Wilbarger County agreed to form a junior college district. Baby boomers in a postwar economy had turned college age and were interested in postsecondary education; community colleges were popping up nationwide.

Vernon College welcomed its first class of 608 students in 1972. The promise was to give people in Wilbarger and the 11 surrounding counties a chance at social mobility. Residents continued to be persuaded by that pitch and, as demand exploded, the college expanded its class sizes and services. It opened a second campus in Wichita Falls, which houses a skills training center.

Five decades later, the promise is the same. But Vernon College — along with community colleges across Texas and the country — is now fighting for its livelihood.

The college had been shrinking even before the pandemic. In 2010, nearly 3,200 students were enrolled at the college. That number dropped to about 2,900 in 2019 and to just over 2,100 students this year, representing a 26.8% decrease in enrollment since the pandemic.

“A lot of community colleges, in fact, are facing a relevancy crisis. And you see that playing out somewhat in our enrollment,” said Karen Stout, the CEO of the national community college network Achieving the Dream. “We have to think about redesigning. Our communities need us to do that.”

Along with enrollment drops, the share of full-time students who attended Vernon College the previous year and returned for another year — known as the retention rate — was 22% in 2021, the lowest it has been in the past 15 years. The retention rate for part-time students, who represent most of the school’s student body, wasn’t much higher.

In the thick of the pandemic, the dorms, with room for about 120 students, were so vacant that nearly every student had an empty bed instead of a roommate. The dining hall — a hub to meet between classes — was absent of conversation. Students at the college say meeting other people on campus became difficult.

While many Texas community colleges have seen enrollment numbers bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, Vernon College has not.

Community college students in Texas choose either a workforce training program to get a job-specific certification, or an academic path to get an associate’s degree or credits to transfer to a four-year college. The enrollment declines at Vernon College stem from fewer students pursuing the academic track.

That tells Johnston, the community college president, that area residents are thinking twice about the value of higher education.

He thinks about this when he sees the hiring signs plastered on the glass windows of fast food restaurants around town. By the McDonald’s counter where Murray serves customers, it’s hard to miss the “WE ARE HIRING” sign taped up on the wall. Competitive pay, a flexible schedule and a monthly phone allowance are some of the benefits the fast food chain offers.

Plenty of other jobs in town also take employees right out of high school. Before Murray joined the restaurant, she worked for the biggest employers in the county: a Tyson Foods bacon-processing plant, North Texas State Hospital and the juvenile detention facility.

“The job opportunities in rural America that require a bachelor’s degree are not there,” Johnston said.

Community colleges in Texas have historically received state funding based on enrollment, so the enrollment declines in recent years meant less money for the schools. Not too long ago, Johnston was preparing to cut programs and lay off staff, he said.

A vehicle drives past Bolton's Crown Quality Mill on Sunday, December 3, 2023 in Vernon. Fast food restaurants and industrial businesses dominate the city of Vernon and are some of the top employers.
A vehicle drives past Bolton’s Crown Quality Mill in Vernon. Fast food restaurants and industrial businesses dominate the city and are some of the top employers. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

“People like me were losing sleep about what [the enrollment drops] would mean,” he said.

That changed when lawmakers passed a law earlier this year that put about $650 million into the state’s two-year public institutions as part of an agreement to start funding them based on student outcomes instead of enrollment. Vernon College is set to see a 43.5% increase in state dollars this year, amounting to $2.5 million. The funding overhaul “saved our hide,” Johnston said.

While the college gained some breathing room, it is still under pressure to figure out how to make higher education relevant for residents in its community.

“Our challenge is to influence people to do what we know is good for them through recruiting and through advising and mentoring,” he said. “How do we get you to understand that education can improve your life?”

• • •

There’s a family Christmas photo in Danny Fancher’s office. It’s 1988, and his daughter Krystal is 6; her three baby brothers are 3. The triplets sport identical red sweater vests and bowties, while Krystal stands out in her white dress and striped undershirt.

Just like in the photo, Krystal Fancher Smith and her brothers went separate ways when it came to school: They graduated from college, she did not.

“That’s their lane. It’s just not my lane,” she said.

Krystal Fancher Smith, 41, poses for a portrait outside of her family’s business, Fancher Electric, on Thursday, November 30, 2023 in Vernon. Smith didn’t finish college, but plans to take over the family business in the future.
Krystal Fancher Smith, 41, poses for a portrait outside of her family’s business, Fancher Electric, in Vernon on Nov. 30. Smith was 10 credit hours away from finishing college before she stopped to pursue a different path. “At this point in my life, I would not go back” to college, she said. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Smith’s initial plan was to do a year at Vernon College before transferring to Texas Tech University in Lubbock, potentially saving thousands of dollars in tuition.

But during her time at Vernon College, she didn’t like any of it. She didn’t like writing papers. She failed a physical education course because she skipped class.

“I didn’t have this big goal of what I wanted to be or do. I was still figuring it out,” Smith said. “And the last place I wanted to be was school.”

Danny Fancher, 69, owner  of Fancher Electric, left, watches as his daughter, Krystal Fancher Smith, 41, completes payroll and invoicing inside the company office on Thursday, November 30, 2023 in Vernon. Smith never finished college, but instead plans to take over the family business in the future.
Danny Fancher, 69, owner of Fancher Electric, left, watches as his daughter, Krystal Fancher Smith, 41, completes payroll and invoicing inside the company office on Nov. 30 in Vernon. Smith, who attended local Vernon College for a time but dropped out, plans to take over the family business with her husband, Trey. “I know we can do it. I don’t worry about the business in itself,” Fancher said. “It’s just figuring out my stamp on it.” Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune
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Left: A photograph of Krystal Fancher Smith, left, and her brothers is displayed inside their father’s office. The income from their father’s business, Fancher Electric, paid for in-state tuition for all four kids to go to college. While her brothers all graduated, Krystal decided college was not for her. Right: Krystal Fancher Smith, 41, left, and her mother, Julie Fancher, 68, co-owner of Fancher Electric, look over credit card payments inside the company office. Smith decided to leave college and join the family business — a decision she does not regret. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

When her first semester at Texas Tech rolled around, the Fanchers rented a moving truck and loaded it up. Most of her clothes were already packed when Smith realized she didn’t really want to go to college, or for her parents to waste their money.

“They’re going to be so mad. They’re going to be so mad,” she remembered thinking as she went to tell them she had changed her mind. “And they weren’t mad.”

When you ask Danny Fancher how that conversation went, he gets quiet, and then smiles. He could relate to his daughter: An electrician had plucked him out of a high school class straight into a job.

“She started college. But she’s like me, she didn’t like it,” he said.

Danny Fancher, 69, owner of Fancher Electric, inside his company office on Thursday, November 30, 2023 in Vernon. Fancher’s daughter, Krystal Smith, 41, plans to take over the family business in the future.
Danny Fancher, 69, owner of Fancher Electric, leans on a doorway to his office. Fancher is approaching 50 years with the business, which he built up to be the biggest electric company in Wilbarger County. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

Danny Fancher and his daughter did not need a college degree to make a good wage in Vernon. The phone is often ringing at Fancher Electric, the biggest electric company in Wilbarger County, with calls from clients who need their lights back on or their air conditioning units fixed. Smith takes every call. Her husband, Trey, tag-teams the electrical work with her dad.

“It wasn’t that I had a dream of doing this. But, I mean, we’re both very happy we’re here,” she said. “I’m very glad not to see all my dad’s hard work go down the drain.”

In Vernon, she said, residents don’t need college to stay. To run Fancher Electric, Smith needed to master bookkeeping and business management. Both skills are taught at Vernon College, but she learned them from her mother.

“At this point in my life, I would not” go back to college, she said.

• • •

To stay a town fixture, Vernon College knows it needs to be attractive to residents like the electricians at Fancher Electric who have never liked sitting still in a traditional classroom. It also needs to convince fast food workers like Murray to set aside their anxieties about college and the lure of immediate earnings from near-minimum wage jobs.

In a town that’s become increasingly skeptical about the value of a degree, Vernon College has had to embrace non-degree programs that meet the needs of local employers and lead their students to high-paying jobs.

“You’re going to live a valuable life right here in this town without a college degree,” said Kathy Craighead, the Vernon Chamber of Commerce director. “Not every career requires a college education. A piece of paper makes you no more smart than someone without one. I definitely see that.”

Craighead said the college added a barbering program to train students on how to shave and style hair after Black parents started to leave town to get their boys’ haircuts because there weren’t enough Black barber shops.

At Fancher Electric, one worker used to make a three-hour commute from Wilbarger County to Dallas just to take classes. Vernon College has since created a program where residents can get certified in installing, maintaining and repairing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

And at a new truck driving school, students practice simulator training and range and road driving in a five-week course.

Now, Wilbarger County is on the brink of getting a “green” hydrogen plant. The companies behind the plant estimate over 1,600 new jobs in construction, operations and transportation and distribution. The college is assessing how it can provide training for those future employees.

First impressions also matter to a college determined to boost interest and enrollment. So Sjohonton Fanner, a recruiter at Vernon College, goes into high school cafeterias and sets up booths at college fairs to talk to students about starting the process of going to college.

Sjohonton Fanner, 46, an assistant director of enrollment management at Vernon College, center, introduces fifth grade students from Booker T. Washington elementary school to college students inside the Electra Waggoner Biggs Arts and Science Center during a campus tour on Tuesday, November 14, 2023 in Vernon. Fanner was the first in his family to graduate college and is currently deep in student debt from pursing a higher education.
Sjohonton Fanner, 46, an assistant director of enrollment management at Vernon College, center, introduces fifth-grade students from Booker T. Washington Elementary School to college students during a campus tour on Nov. 14 in Vernon. Fanner was the first in his family to graduate college and is currently deep in student debt from pursuing a higher education. Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

He knows college is a loaded word. Sometimes, students’ eyes glaze over when he talks about what Vernon College can do for them. Even those interested in the idea of a degree, like Murray, are overwhelmed by what it entails.

Attitudes toward college start at home, he said. Murray’s mother never talked to her about college — though she had seen plenty of advertising at school. Smith had a model for how to make it without a degree from her father.

“Most people want to be what they see. It depends on the home life,” Fanner said. “This generation has parents, like me, in deep student debt.”

When kids bring up their anxieties about the cost, he gets it. All the plush chaparrals, the school’s mascot, and stickers that Vernon College gives away when promoting its programs do not ease the reality that higher education, even community college, is expensive.

Sjohonton Fanner, 46, an assistant director of enrollment management at Vernon College, left, gives a tour of the campus to fifth grade students from Booker T. Washington elementary school on Tuesday, November 14, 2023 in Vernon. Fanner was the first in his family to graduate college and is currently deep in student debt from pursing a higher education.
Sjohonton Fanner, left, gives a tour of the campus to fifth-grade students from Booker T. Washington Elementary School. “It’s just a step-by-step process,” Fanner said, about how he talks to kids about going to college. “Make it simple. You can get overwhelmed with it if you’ve never been exposed to college before.” Credit: Desiree Rios for The Texas Tribune

The cost of tuition at Vernon College this year is about $3,600. Students must then pay for food, housing and books, which is about $8,900 a year in Vernon. At a public, four-year college in Texas, the average cost is about $8,000 for in-state tuition alone and about $11,500 for books, room and board.

Fanner tells students federal financial aid and state scholarships can ease the burden. In the 2022-23 school year, 82% of students attending Vernon College received financial aid through grants. The average scholarship or grant award was about $4,300. In a town where one in five residents live below the poverty line, paying for the remaining balance can feel impossible.

Fanner, who grew up in Vernon, went to college on a football scholarship; he started at Ranger College, about 150 miles south of home, before he transferred to a state school in Oklahoma. Five kids later, he is still paying off his student loans.

“I understand the financial aspect… You’re going to have to pay the bill,” he said. “It could be until death do you apart.”

So if residents in his town decide to join the workforce straight out of high school, he gets that too. But he makes it clear: Vernon College will still be there for Murray, Smith and anyone who changes their mind.

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Rural News Network, and the Cardinal NewsKOSUMississippi TodayShasta Scout and The Texas Tribune. Support from Ascendium made the project possible.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Reporter covering pathways from education to employment for the Texas Tribune in partnership with Open Campus.