After 16 years as a receiving clerk for Hanes Brand Inc., Melissa Morris is back in the classroom five days a week at Aiken Technical College.
When the Barnwell plant closed in 2009, the 43-year-old married mother of three enrolled in classes to pursue a degree in surgical technology. Although Morris said the plant's closure was devastating at first, it's now given her an opportunity.
"That's what opened the door for me. It opened the door for the opportunity for a new career," she said. "It ended up being a good thing."
More people are seeking higher education, according to U.S. Census statistics over the past 20 years. For the most part, the percentage of people getting at least an associate degree in Aiken, Columbia and Richmond counties has increased since 1990.
Columbia County, which has the highest rate of people with at least a high school education, at 89 percent, had the largest percentage of residents with an associate, bachelor's or graduate degree.
Richmond County had the lowest percentage of high school graduates at 79.1 percent, and saw a decrease in 2008 of residents who had a bachelor's degree compared with 2000. In Aiken County, the percentage of high school graduates in 2008 was 81.8 percent, up from 70.9 percent in 1990.
Marc Payne, the dean of enrollment management for Aiken Tech, said he is not surprised more people are seeking higher education because companies are demanding a more educated work force.
"All the community colleges nationwide are seeing increases in enrollment," he said.
Sitting around a table in Aiken Tech's student center, Morris and her friends Mary Anne Knox and Patty Stauff agreed that more education would offer them opportunities.
"It was something that I always wanted to do," said Knox, 36, who is studying dental assisting and dental hygiene after earning her high school diploma at age 34.
Morris said she hopes to either help deliver babies or work with an orthopedist once she completes her degree. Stauff hopes to work for a pharmacy.
"I'm hoping that it improves my life where I can get a decent-paying job," she said.