The inside story on Trump University

Donald Trump is facing scrutiny for his program that many say failed to provide any useful experience

Former employees and instructors for an educational seminar developed by presidential candidate Donald Trump say that the program devolved from high-quality online courses to pricey seminars with empty promises. 

Trump University promised students seminars on real estate as good as University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business and instructors "handpicked" by Trump. In 2010, former students—some of whom paid as much as $35,000 for the courses—sued Trump and the school, claiming the school misled them.

After the lawsuit was filed, the school changed its name to the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative and stopped enrolling students. Trump lost a bid to dismiss the case in November.

In another pending case filed in 2013 by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Trump University is alleged to have operated as an unlicensed education institution.

Trump has defended the school, saying it had a higher approval rating than Harvard University or Wharton, his alma mater. 

Initially, instructors had high hopes for the initiative. Trump University brought instructors from prestigious universities to lead online courses aimed at aspiring real-estate investors. But over time, that model changed to one focused on seminars and one-on-one coaching that promised attendees great business success.

Trump University led three-day seminars in cities such as Orlando, Las Vegas, and Phoenix with titles like "Fast Track to Foreclosure" and "Quick Turn Real Estate." Each event had a team of staffers who encouraged participants to purchase training packages costing up to nearly $35,000.

According to staffers and online student surveys, few instructors who created Trump University's early online classes were also involved in the seminars a couple of years later.

"There were some pretty legitimate people involved at the beginning," says John Vogel, an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College's Tucker School of Business. However, he notes, "Had I realized they were going to change course from providing high-quality online education to something that was closer to a boiler room operation and these 'how to get rich' seminars, I never would have gotten involved."

Three innovations in online course design

Roger Schank, a former Yale University and Northwestern University professor, served as Trump University's chief learning officer.

"I was set up to believe, and this was true for a while, that this was going to be the avant-garde right way to do teaching," he says.

But by late 2006, Schank was told he would no longer be needed at Trump University, as the school has used up the $3 million that Trump wanted to invest in the project.

There have also been disputes over whether Trump personally selected instructors for the program.

Creating community for online students

In a deposition last year for a suit pending against Trump University in California, Trump said, "I looked at résumés and stuff, but I didn't pick the speakers." He later added, "It depends on the definition of what that means, handpicked."

Former Trump University President Michael Sexton said in an affidavit for a separate case that Trump did not have a direct hand in choosing any of the live instructors (Korn, Wall Street Journal, 4/11). 

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