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Pacific Dental Offers Workers Paid College Tuition

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Pacific Dental Services (PDS) has become the first dental support organization (DSO) to offer its full-time employees paid tuition for any degree program, according to the Irvine-based company.

The newly launched College Advancement Program—made possible in partnership with flexible education program provider InStride and Arizona State University—will cover book expenses and other associated fees, officials said.

“It’s all about finding their passion, and going after it with no restrictions,” founder and Chief Executive Stephen Thorne told the Business Journal. “If they want to get a degree in music, awesome. We’ll help them achieve it.”

Eligible employees currently include operations managers, benefits coordinators, and dental assistants; PDS will measure the pilot program’s success before extending it to other positions in the future.

Since the launch, PDS’ Vice President Trish Elliott said north of 570 employees have registered and an additional 293 have requested more information from ASU.

“PDS is honored to provide the means for our team members to fully realize their dreams,” Elliott added. “It’s been inspiring to see team members from across the organization rally around those who are choosing to step forward and embark on their educational journey.”

‘Growth Mindset’

The program underscores PDS’ overall “growth mindset,” according to Thorne.

Since Thorne founded the company in 1994, he’s watched it grow to become the third-largest DSO in the country, with 800 offices and over 13,000 employees nationwide.

DSOs build and manage office practices for dentists, taking care of just about everything except the actual dentistry.

Pacific Dental officials estimate it’s on track to exceed $2 billion in annual revenue this year, which would be up 30% from pre-pandemic revenues in 2019, Thorne said.

It also aims to build 500 supporting practices in the coming five years and nearly triple its headcount within the next decade.

Progressive Ethos

“As a company we’ve always looked to be very progressive in all that we do,” Thorne said. “This initiative is just another step of moving the company along and being progressive. It’s an incredible hand-up for people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to follow their dreams.”

In addition to the College Advancement Program, Pacific Dental Services previously helped employees advance their education through its traditional reimbursement program, PDS University, which repaid student employees up to $5,250 per year and offered over 1,000 free continuing education courses focused on specialized training and certificates.

“We see this as another way we can support the personal and professional growth of our team members,” Elliott added. “In addition to our traditional tuition reimbursement and clinical continuing education programs, helping our eligible team members to achieve their undergraduate degree debt-free will undoubtedly have a lasting positive impact on our company.”

An Employment Trend

PDS’ new initiative echoes a growing trend across the largest employers.

In recent years, Amazon, Target, Chipotle and Starbucks have implemented similar tuition coverage or reimbursement programs for employees as a recruitment and retention tool.

Earlier this year, Walmart, the largest employer in the world, announced that it would offer free college for all 1.4 million of its U.S. employees.

“We have the vision to become one of those big companies someday, so we’re entering the war to compete to find talent not only in the dental world, but across all industries,” Thorne said. “We want to be one of the best employers in the United States.” 

Audrey Kemp
Audrey Kemp
Audrey Kemp is a staff reporter and occasional photojournalist for the Orange County Business Journal. Her beats include — but are not limited to — healthcare, startups, and education. While pursuing her bachelors in literary journalism at UC Irvine, she interned for New York-based magazine Narratively Inc., wrote for Costa Mesa-based lifestyle magazine Locale, and covered the underground music scene for two SoCal-based music publications. She is an unwavering defendant of the emdash and the Oxford comma.

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