Sitting in a spacious home in the Las Alturas neighborhood of Las Cruces, Julia Palomino pours herself a cup of tea.
Las Alturas, which means “the heights” in Spanish, has a commanding view of the Organ Mountains of southern New Mexico. Nearby are desert trails and seeing quail roam near pools in backyards isn’t that uncommon.
As bucolic as her life can seem, Julia is moving into an apartment in town this month with a high school friend.
“I’m 26 and living with my parents, so it’s kind of sad,” Julia said.
Julia isn’t alone. For the first time in decades, a majority (52%) of adults 18 to 29 years old are living with parents, surpassing the previous high of 48% measured by the 1940 census, although Pew Research Center noted that data for the worst years of the Great Depression in the 1930s were not available.
Julia moved back while pursuing her childhood dream of becoming an attorney. She took the LSAT, the law school entrance exam, more than once pushing for improved scores in hopes of getting admitted into a good law school. But once she was accepted and won a tuition scholarship, she realized it wasn’t for her.
“It felt like everything in my being was like, ‘No, I don’t actually want to do this,’” she said. “I think you know when it’s not right for you.”
A big reason was how much debt she’d take on. The average recent law school graduate takes on around $150,000 in debt, according to a study by the American Bar Association (ABA).
In a surprising turn, at least for Julia who describes herself as a formerly science-challenged student, she found herself thinking about a career she hadn’t thought much about before: nursing. Earning power, career opportunities and job security — while COVID-19 has hurt major industries, nursing isn’t one — came wrapped in one package without the prospect of enormous debt.
Julia’s worry about loans shackling her future isn’t rare, and it often stops young people from pursuing college at all. Debt is a growing hindrance to young people’s prospects after high school in the state, said New Mexico State University economics professor emeritus James Peach.
“Not everyone has to have a college degree, but almost everyone is going to have to have some sort of post-secondary education, whether it’s community college or a vocational track or something like that. We need to make that affordable.”
Peach said flatly that “New Mexico is not very well prepared for a 21st century economy.”
While the state has invested in economic development projects, Peach said attention-grabbing initiatives like Spaceport America and film industry incentives have competed with “the things that are, for lack of a better word, not sexy. Education comes up every year in the legislature and so does broadband and so do the other things that we need, and it’s just not as appealing to legislators.”
Taking her own path
Jacinto Palomino is an Otero County immigration judge who has worked as a prosecutor and a district court judge, and from childhood, Julia planned to follow her father into his chosen profession. First, she attended his alma mater, Santa Clara University in California, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, and then set her sights on law school.
Life took her on a two-year detour when she moved to Colorado Springs with a romantic partner. She worked in an entry-level marketing job at the city’s visitors bureau until the relationship and the job both unraveled, and she returned to Las Cruces in 2019, landing at her parents’ home and taking on a retail job where she is the oldest among her co-workers.
Living with her parents this year meant she could be on her parents’ insurance until she turned 26. But that coverage has ended and she’s now enrolled in Medicaid, the government’s health insurance program for low income people. She earns $15 an hour working part-time.
Her decision not to go to law school did not go over well with her parents. “They were like, ‘Well, we took out loans for our schools, so you should just do the same – you’ll pay it off,” she recalled.
However, today’s students – including law students – are confronted with larger debt burdens than their parents’ generation.
American Bar Association studies of law school debt indicate that since Julia’s father graduated from Santa Clara in 1993, tuitions at both private and public institutions have grown at a rate far outpacing the cost of living and rates of inflation. The association found that borrowing by law students more than doubled through the 1990s, with students typically borrowing more than $80,000 by 2003. Adjusted for inflation, that would amount to approximately $114,000 in 2020.
The “debt load for new attorneys in the early 2000s would be a windfall blessing for today’s graduates,” the association said in its 2020 study.
Doing her own job market research, Julia found that, despite the high-paying job prospects dangled in front of prospective law students, a great many graduates begin their careers in jobs paying in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. Compared to the typical debt load, it didn’t add up.
“You’re renting an apartment. You have to pay for food. By then you won’t qualify for Medicaid because you’ll have enough money to buy your own insurance,” she said, “and then to top that all off you have, like, $300,000 in student loan debt – your money doesn’t really go very far.”
At her mother’s suggestion, Julia began sizing up nursing school at New Mexico State University, which offers an accelerated program for students who have completed bachelor’s degrees in other fields.
Her mother, a university admissions administrator, pointed out that during hard economic times and higher unemployment, many people out of work go back to school; and careers in the medical field are comparatively recession-proof, offering far more job prospects than marketing, Julia’s first field.
Job security was important to Julia as were her prospects for sticking near her hometown. “I don’t ever want to have to worry about finding a job,” she said.
Nursing satisfied both criteria. New Mexico struggles with a nursing shortage in all counties but two, Bernalillo and Grant, according to a New Mexico Health Care Workforce Committee 2019 report. In March 2019, 3,841 job openings for registered nurses existed across the state. And that’s not going to end anytime soon, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions, which anticipates nursing will experience significant growth over the next 10 years. Nursing pays well, too, with the average wage for a registered nurse at $73,000, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average salary, meanwhile, for a nurse practitioner, which requires additional education, is in the six figures, rivaling what an attorney makes.
A cousin who graduated from NMSU’s nursing school in 2017 and went on to work locally at MountainView Regional Medical Center told Julia she could expect to “cry a lot” during nursing school and contemplate dropping out once a week, but that the work made it all worthwhile.
Julia reached that point last semester while taking a demanding anatomy and physiology class online, she said. The course was hard enough to make her rethink her choice, but she concluded, “I want to do this, so I have to pull through.”
“These people who are looking to make career changes have a special place in my heart,” Alexa Doig, director of NMSU’s School of Nursing, said.
Like Julia, before entering the nursing profession Doig earned a bachelor’s degree in a different field: mechanical engineering.
Doig said students in the program can complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing in as little as five semesters, and those who hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, may complete five prerequisite courses instead of 15 for students completing their first degree, provided the returning students’ GPA during their first degree is greater than 3.0. That shaves off at least a year of school, maybe more.
For Julia, that means less debt, if loans even prove necessary.
“We try to decrease some of the barriers to making a career transition,” Doig said. “We have them take what we consider to be the really key courses – anatomy, physiology, microbiology … and a course on pathophysiology, whereas our first degree students have a much larger number of science courses and other social science courses that they do as a prerequisite to the nursing program.”
The program has a good retention rate, an “excellent” pass rate on exams for nursing licenses, and “pretty close to a 100 percent employment rate” after graduation, Doig said.
“Nursing is such a lucrative career and you can do so much with it,” Julia said. “I could be a nurse practitioner if I wanted to. I could go into administration, stuff like that. I could do a lot more with that career and go into higher positions instead of being an RN.”
She didn’t want to worry about being able to retire, having seen the national trend of people working into old age. Given the lower cost of living in parts of New Mexico, high demand for nurses and wages Julia said she can live frugally, pay off credit cards and save for retirement.
And a nursing career will likely weather major economic upheavals, as well, like pandemics.
Julia has first-hand experience with job insecurity thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived in the United States while she was taking prerequisite courses for the nursing program.
New Mexico, which had struggled historically with high unemployment and poor education outcomes, was rocked by the public health emergency order declared by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 11.
Restrictions meant to slow community spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus closed businesses or reduced their operations, leading to unprecedented layoffs and unemployment rates statewide. When Julia’s employer was forced to reduce the number of customers allowed in the store at a time, Julia and her coworkers saw their hours cut as more shoppers placed orders online for pickup. Julia was able to restore some of the hours she lost by helping package some of those curbside orders, but she knows those hours are not guaranteed.
The pandemic rapidly changed campus life as well.
After NMSU moved all of its instruction online, Julia took anatomy and physiology and microbiology classes entirely from her laptop at her parents’ home, instead of in a classroom.
“I hated it,” she said. “I have no attention span for Zoom classes. At least when you’re in class, my phone’s in my backpack, my dogs aren’t here … I have my full attention on the lecture that’s happening and actually participate.”
Meanwhile, her classes have altered her view of herself and her talents. As a child, she had never considered science as a pathway for her. Acing a chemistry exam last January opened her eyes to new possibilities.
“That was a really good moment for my self-esteem,” she said. “I felt like I’m finally on the path that I’m supposed to be on … It took me a long time to figure that out, but it really does feel right.”
Grateful as she was for her parents taking her in while she figured out what to do with her life, Julia seemed excited about moving in with one of her friends closer to campus.
As business closures, social distancing and mask requirements filter out distractions, Julia said she hopes to focus on school and pay her own way in the year to come – a year she predicts will herald “a very different world compared to 2019 and before that.”