WARRENTON — Mary Byes hopes to be a 53-year-old junior at Portland State University in the fall. She plans to specialize in human resources when she finishes two years later.

This Warrenton resident currently makes $10 an hour working for her sister-in-law at Bay Breeze Boarding & Grooming. Advanced education will mean higher earnings potential. She can make $16 to $17 an hour working in the HR field with a B.A. degree; she’s done the research and likes the potential.

Higher education can be a challenge, but the payoff can potentially mean hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2009 study by the Georgetown University Center On Education and the Workforce titled The College Payoff found median lifetime earnings for people with a bachelor’s degree was $2.26 million compared to $1.3 million for those with a high school diploma. The numbers increase significantly for graduate and post-graduate degrees.

Clatsop Community College President Lawrence Galizio said the economic perspective of higher education is important, but it’s not the only thing.

“What’s often lost is the importance of the college experience in terms of citizenship, diversity of perspectives, thinking about broader issues,” he said. “We’re creating people who are critical thinkers and have the ability to be productive in a global economy.”

Nevertheless, a college degree has never been more valuable, he said. A study by the Economic Policy Institute in 2013 found the median earnings of people with a four-year degree were 98 percent higher than those with no degree at all.

The upfront cost of higher education, including tuition, student loans and unearned wages while in college, can seem high, Galizio said, but if you check in with those people 20 or 30 years after graduation, you find they make up the difference.

“The economic value is absolutely clear,” he said.

For Byes, it’s been a long haul getting to this point. She’s had plenty of help along the way. Her sister-in-law and employer Liz McKerren has been flexible and supportive.

Her husband, Darrell Byes, offers steady support as she wraps up her associate’s degree from Clatsop Community College and applies for scholarships for the fall.

“I keep saying if I go, he keeps saying, ‘you’re going,’” she said. “I’m a lucky woman; I went from no support to complete support. He knows it’s a benefit to both of us.”

Her first husband didn’t support her desire for education.

She had been living in and out of the area since she was about 19 years old. She fell in love with the area and wanted to come back.

She got her GED at Clatsop Community College in 1991. Her husband at the time also started the program, but didn’t finish, she said. He was intimidated and didn’t stick with it.

Byes wanted to continue on with college then, but her husband discouraged her.

“I always wanted to go back to school,” she said.

The couple moved to Denver after that, and Byes got her cosmetology license. She spent years on her feet “behind the chair” and was part owner of a salon for six years.

“If I had known then what I learned at college, it would have been a more successful salon,” she said.

She attempted to return to college in Colorado, but didn’t get support at home. She finally had enough and the couple split in 2008.

She moved to Knappa in 2009 and started looking for work. She had done some accounting in Denver and started looking for similar work locally. Every job she applied for required a degree.

She had to find something else. She drove a taxi for six weeks. She worked at a Seaside motel for a while. Eventually she got licensed for cosmetology in Oregon and worked in a salon for two years.

But it wasn’t what she wanted. She saw an ad for a Women Interested In Going to School conference in the newspaper and attended.

“I realized I could be a college student,” she said.

WINGS volunteers offered guidance and most of all, motivation. Byes credits them with giving her the push she needed to start school in September, 2011.

She initially wanted a one-year degree in accounting, but after seeing her grades, she hungered for more.

The one-year program turned into an Associate’s in Business. She’s just a quarter away from finishing her AA degree, and she wants more. She’s targeting a bachelor’s degree from Portland State University and has begun applying for scholarships.

“If it wasn’t for WINGS being there, I don’t’ know if I would have done it,” she said.

The CCC courses helped Byes learn QuickBooks, which has helped eliminate some paperwork at Bay Breeze. She’s also taken some documents online, including contracts and check-in sheets that customers fill out. They give details about their pets, such as medications, feeding schedules and special needs, so that staff can take care of the critters while at the kennel.

In addition, it’s given her confidence she didn’t have before. Byes greets people bringing their pets in for grooming or kenneling, and she likes being able to talk to them about more than just the weather.

“I can talk about a variety of topics with people,” she said. “I know about biology now; I understand plate tectonics. I’m widening my horizons.”

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