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TOOTH OR CONSEQUENCES

WHAT'S THE DRILL? AFTER A SEVEN-YEAR LEGAL BATTLE, THAT'S WHAT THESE FORMER STUDENTS WOULD LIKE TO KNOW.

They spent their young adult lives looking after kids and husbands, cooking and cleaning. And then Arla Tolman and Suzanne Martin decided they wanted something to safeguard their futures. They wanted careers--as dental assistants.

What they say they got was the financial and psychological equivalent of a root canal.

That was in 1988. Now, after seven years of legal jawing that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, Tolman and Martin and eleven other women who sued the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers say they're getting drilled again. What's more, they're supposed to shut up and like it.

They don't.
Two years ago Cencor Career Colleges, Inc., the Delaware corporation that owned the school, filed for protection from its creditors without informing either the disappointed women or their lawyer. Today the school that offers the dental-assistant training is known as Concorde Career Institute; it's owned by another corporation, Concorde Career Colleges, Inc., and it operates in a new, larger facility.

But it's the same old wolf under a different sheepskin, critics claim. After all, the director of Concorde is the former director of the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers. The president of the corporation that owns Concorde is the son of the man, now deceased, who was president of the corporation that owned CCMDC. Photographs of CCMDC graduating classes hang in Concorde's halls. And complaints from a recent Concorde graduate bear a striking resemblance to those of students about its previous incarnation.

Back in August 1986, Arla Tolman was a widow with grown children. Her income from her late husband's Social Security stipend was about to expire. She needed a job, but all she had ever done outside the home was part-time retail sales. What she really needed, she decided, was a profession that would make her enough money to live on and, eventually, provide some sort of retirement plan.

Tolman became interested in a career as a dental assistant. She went to one school, took a general entrance exam--and failed it. Discouraged but determined to press on, she heard about the Colorado College of Medical and Dental Careers. A friend drove her to the school on Grant Street, where she got a hard sell.

Tolman says CCMDC officials told her about the school's 22-year history and how she would be trained by top instructors in the latest techniques using state-of-the-art equipment. After she graduated, they said, the school would help her find a job that would start her at a minimum $1,400 a month. They bragged of a 95 percent placement rate and promised that doctors and dentists were practically begging for CCMDC graduates.

Tolman got a whirlwind tour of the facility. Sure enough, the chairs looked like the chairs she'd seen in her dentist's office. Informing her that the school was very selective, the recruiter handed her an entrance exam. It was nearly identical to the one she had already failed, and Tolman worried that she'd be disappointed again. But instead, a miracle: She earned a perfect score.

Then she was told that she could keep her sales job and pay the $3,000-plus tuition by applying for a Colorado Guaranteed Student Loan; school staffers even helped her fill out the loan forms. And the best news of all: Tolman could earn her degree in an intensive, six-month, half-day program, rather than the year-long dental-assistant program offered at a local community college.

Two hours after she went into the building to pick up a brochure, Tolman left as a newly enrolled student in the dental-assistant program.

Suzanne Martin enrolled in the same program in the same month. She was at a similar stage in her life as Tolman: At forty, with her children from her two marriages grown, she wanted a career in order to help her second husband make ends meet.

Martin had seen the advertisements for CCMDC on television. The school looked promising. Two graduates worked as medical assistants for her allergist; they had gone to the school nearly twenty years earlier and had nothing but good things to say about CCMDC.

Martin visited the school and received much the same sales pitch that Tolman had heard. The program sounded wonderful, especially the part about getting out in nine months and into a satisfying, well-paid career. Martin had enough money to cover tuition from a small inheritance; she decided to use it to better herself.

At first the program seemed fine. Sure, there were irritations, such as being required to buy two $40 uniforms from the school, as well as books that they were then told not to read because "the school wanted to go by its own outline," Tolman recalls. But the women remained convinced that they would get a good education that would result in better jobs. In retrospect, Martin says, "They wanted to get you past the period when you could ask for a full refund."

After that, the situation went downhill rapidly. Martin says that when she inquired as to a teacher's credentials, "I was shown a paper that basically said, `Yes, I am a teacher.'"

And the teachers, Martin and Tolman say, were absent or tardy half of the time. "But God forbid you were ten minutes late," Tolman adds, "or you'd be severely reprimanded."

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