If you’ve heard of Trump University, the pseudo-educational apparatus that promised to share Donald Trump’s secrets to business and real estate success, you probably haven’t heard good things. Trump University—which was not a university but a series of online courses and in-person seminars—changed its name to Trump Entrepreneur Initiative in 2010 after multiple warnings from the New York State Department of Education about its misleading use of the word university. It is currently the defendant in two class-action lawsuits and one fraud lawsuit, filed by New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which are all founded on claims that the program pressured students to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a “Gold Elite” curriculum that purported to offer insider knowledge and personalized mentoring but in fact offered very little of either. Trump’s opponents hope that Trump University’s legal troubles and history of dishonesty can slow Trump’s momentum in the Republican primaries.
But for some people, Trump University is more than presidential debate fodder or a late-night punch line. It’s a notch on their résumé. Scores of Trump University “graduates” list the credential on their LinkedIn profiles. Why, after all the terrible press Trump University has gotten, would anyone brag about paying thousands of dollars for a real estate seminar?
“I didn’t go to Trump University,” replied an advertising professional when I contacted him through LinkedIn. “It was a joke.” (He subsequently removed the reference from his profile.)
But most people who put Trump University on their LinkedIn profiles were not joking. Many felt that they’d gotten their money’s worth and were legitimately proud of the professional accomplishments they’d made after attending Trump University seminars. Michael LaMonica, who now owns an estate sale and art auction business in New Jersey, volunteered that he was named Donald Trump’s “Student of the Month” in October 2008 and was even profiled on Trump’s blog as a “real estate success.” Kevin Andrews decided to attend Trump University seminars after selling the business he owned with his wife to start flipping properties. “We spent a ton of cash and our first deal paid for it,” he told me in an email. “We followed the program as it was taught and we got the results that were promised.” Joel Halley, who spent about $1,000 on online Trump University courses about sales and marketing—much less than many of Trump’s students—said the program taught him concepts about marketing that he uses today as the owner of a computer repair shop in Melbourne, Australia.
Others who listed Trump University on their LinkedIn pages had had more mixed experiences. Samson Malani, who’s now 36 and co-owns a music school in Hawaii, went to a free introductory Trump University course on real estate brokerage after receiving an invitation in the mail in 2011. He was so impressed that he and his business partner (who is also his cousin) signed up for a three-day seminar, which he found enormously helpful, especially the scripts that guided him through real estate deals. (He had to translate the scripts into Hawaiian Pidgin for most of his clients.) “Me and my partner, we really wanted to win, so we applied everything that we learned, and we went ahead of the class and read ahead in the book and just started applying everything and asking questions,” he told me. “So after that first day we had our first couple real estate deals already in the works.”
The trouble arose after Malani and his cousin gave in to the pressure to sign up for an additional program, to the tune of about $18,000, which he borrowed from family members. “That was a rip,” he said. “We got everything out of the first class, and the second one, they were supposed to send a guide to us and he was supposed to do deals for us and everything, but it didn’t happen. We were doing everything ourselves.” The instructor who was supposed to be mentoring him sporadically called Malani to ask if he could partner with him and his cousin on their real estate business, but he didn’t offer any guidance. Malani eventually made back his investment in Trump University as a broker, but he felt that the second program was a waste of money.
So why put it on his LinkedIn page? “I just put it on my profile I guess because it was a certification, and I never really attended a university,” said Malani, who didn’t graduate high school but eventually got his GED. “Would I remove it? I don’t know. I guess if people really hated Trump, and it was destroying relationships I got, yeah, I would remove it, because a certification is not worth relationship losing.”
Margaret Tom, 69, also lived in Hawaii but came from a very different background when she paid about $35,000 for multiple Trump University seminars and a private coach in 2010. About to retire from a career in social work, and having seen her retirement savings diminished considerably by the recession, Tom was looking for a way to boost her retirement income. “This was like a ready-made business, and you’re getting tons of knowledge from somebody that is an expert in it, that helps you get that quick start,” she said. Tom liked her mentor, who spent a full three days with her in Hawaii, and the educational materials gave her the confidence to buy a condo in Hawaii and four houses in Detroit, which she rented out and then later sold. But she found Trump University’s curriculum thin on details about business administration, and she realized only after paying for the program that Trump himself would not make any personal appearances during the program.
Tom says Trump University was not a scam—unlike another real estate seminar she took—but her experiences in real estate investing have been mixed. She made back her investment in Trump University after selling her Detroit properties, but she lost more than $60,000 that she had put down for a ranch property in California after she was unable to secure a loan for it. “I think there is a vulnerability in this area broader than Trump,” she said. “You believe that if you invest this amount of money that you’ll really be able to have a business that’s up and running. And it’s not that at all. So you invest that amount of money, and you make some progress, and you get a little wind under your sails, and you see the possibilities—you’re not quite there yet, or you’re really fairly far off from it, but you think it’d be possible—and so you invest in the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, with this idea of ‘Well, I just need this one more thing.’ And then pretty soon, you’re out of all of your money and don’t have the foundation you need to make it back again.”
Naturally, there were a few Trump supporters in the ranks of Trump University alumni. Halley, the computer repair shop owner, said, “I think if he wins he’ll be a lovely president, and he’ll do a lot of great things for the business world.” (Halley is Australian, so his opinion doesn’t count in the way that matters.) But most of those I talked to did not align with Trump on politics. “I am not, not, a Trump supporter for president,” emphasized Andrews, whose first real estate deal paid for his Trump University fees. Malani compared Trump to powerful CEOs he met during a former job as an importer. “They’re like dictators of their own worlds,” he said. “It’s good to be a businessman. I think out of all of the candidates, he’s definitely a certified businessman, he definitely knows how to do business. But at the same time, that dictatorship stuff is pretty heavy.”
Tom just laughed when I asked if she was a Trump supporter. “First off I’m a social worker, so I’m a Democrat through and through,” she told me, before comparing Trump supporters to European nationalist movements and suggesting that his success stems from a backlash against the Black Lives Matter campaign.
“I haven’t been that active on LinkedIn or anything else, and so your finding [the Trump University credential] on there [made me think], ‘Oh my god, I should take that off,’ ” Tom told me. “Except that most of the people that go to these things are really, really good people. I’ve made some wonderful connections. And so the people I do business with, most of them have Trump pictures on their website too.”
It’s clear that, despite Trump’s historically low approval ratings and increasingly outrageous rhetoric—and despite Trump University’s terrible press—many Trump University alumni still think the Trump brand reflects positively on them. Halley, the Melbourne computer repair shop owner, observed, “Donald Trump’s got a great market penetration with his brand name.”
Brent Choi, who works as a software engineer in Stanford University’s IT department, gave me the most succinct explanation. After I contacted him on LinkedIn, he emailed, “I basically learned how to use Zillow from Trump University. … I understand how very many people were upset after taking this course. Nobody made any money, and Trump promised that professional coaches would hand-hold the students to success until their money was made back, which never happened for anybody.”
I wrote back, “If you think Trump University was a bad deal, why include it on your LinkedIn page?”
“Just looks good in the profile; that’s it,” he responded.
In a way, the persistence of Trump University on former students’ LinkedIn profiles helps explain Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate, even though many of those former students are wary of Trump the politician. Trump was able to entice people into paying for Trump University because he’s enjoyed respect as a businessman for a very long time. The people I talked to who list Trump University on their LinkedIn profiles aren’t chumps. They paid for Trump’s cachet and insider knowledge, and to a greater or lesser degree, they got it. As far as I can tell, their successes in real estate or business have more to do with their own initiative and hard work than with what they learned at Trump University—but they still credit the Trump-branded seminars with giving them that initial push.
It’s going to take more than some accusations of fraud to make people forget what the Trump brand has represented for decades. Trump is tapping into a deep reservoir of goodwill, and it’s nowhere near exhausted. You might consider LinkedIn a bellwether for Trump’s reputation as a businessman. As long as people credit Trump University for their success—or just think it looks good on their résumés—the rest of us will have to take Trump seriously.
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