WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2001 -- Computer Learning Centers (CLC), once one of the nation's fastest-growing chains of vocational training schools, is appealing a U.S. Department of Education demand that it refund $187 million in financial aid it and its students have received since 1994.

The Education Department found that CLC violated the Higher Education Act by paying recruiters a commission for each student they signed. CLC claims it was unaware of the rule prohibiting such practices.

CLC and other computer training centers were riding high through most of the 1990s, as workers went after the credentials that would help them in the fast-growing high-tech field. Federal student aid was readily available, further fueling the boom.

But just behind the wave of enrollments was a fast-swelling crest of complaints from students who said the courses were inadequate, outdated, inappropriate and poorly conducted. The Washington Post recently interviewed students at CLC's Laurel, Md., campus. Many said they hadn't been taught what they expected, hadn't gotten hands-on experience and were not able to pass the certification exams they need to qualify for high-paying technical jobs.

One student interviewed by the Post, Stephanie Robinson, said a hardware training course which began in July 2000 had to be restarted four times, once because a teacher left, twice when different substitutes were hired and yet again when a full-time teacher came on board.

Equipment shortages were also a problem, Robinson said. At one point there were 15 students working on 10 computers. In another class, there were 14 students working on five computers.

Robinson said that after finishing four classes to qualify for the "A+" certification, she and the other students declined to take the qualifying exam.

"Nobody took the exam because we couldn't pass it. We didn't know that much," she said.

Computer Learning grew quickly throughout the last decade. It had more than 9,500 students at 25 training centers nationwide in early 2000. Serious problems began in May 1999 when the Maryland Higher Education Commission ordered CLC to pay a $60,000 fine and refund $650,000 to 900 former students at the Laurel campus.

The commission found that CLC had deviated from state standards by admitting students who could not pass entrance exams, did not have high school diplomas and lacked other credentials.

CLC has training centers -- or "campuses," as it calls them -- in California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. Its corporate headquarters are in Manassas, VA.