Last week, Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel – the same judge Donald Trump blasted for bias due to his Hispanic heritage – rejected Trump's motion to have the ongoing lawsuit against his now-defunct namesake “university” dismissed before it goes to trial. Instead, Curiel ruled there was enough evidence to move on with the class-action suit, giving hope to outraged former students that they may eventually be recompensed for thousands of dollars in tuition – money they allege the program fraudulently extracted.
As a former adjunct professor at a shady, predatory for-profit college (a sector that bears a massively disproportionate responsibility for student debt) I recognize a lot of the running routes in Trump University's so-called playbook. Their strategies mirror those of the for-profit educational industry in general: Trump U targeted susceptible victims, played on their emotions, encouraged them to commit fraud on financial aid applications, up-sold them to the hilt, and misled them about post-grad employment opportunities and salaries.
I got to know some of my students. The Dominican grandmother in her fifties who read English at a third grade level and copy-pasted each essay from Wikipedia, but was told by an admissions counselor that she was ready for college. A 60-something Romanian male stroke victim with a head injury who could barely string sentences together, but who had somehow made it to Composition II. A military veteran and mother of two who hoped to get a nursing job at a hospital – despite the fact that her school didn't even offer clinical labs.
They aren't stupid: Think of them as the friend who tried to sell you body wraps or metabolism-boosting pills. Perhaps they're simply not very savvy about marketing, maybe a bit unsophisticated about researching things. Maybe they're between jobs, on hard times, and someone has dangled a golden ticket in their face. They're hopeful and often a fair bit desperate.
ASA College, my former employer, was sued a few years ago for targeting undocumented immigrants, manipulating job stats and misrepresenting future debt burdens – charges that amounted to a RICO Act case, the same set of anti-conspiracy statutes that's used take down mafia families. While the lawsuit was dismissed because it failed to live up to the "fraudulent intent" necessary for RICO, the charges mirrored the questionable practices I saw while working there. According to the New York Legal Assistance Group's filings, they instructed employees to use high-pressure sales tactics and advised people to commit fraud and go into debt to make payments – something I witnessed and experienced personally. The school's street recruiters would doggedly pursue their targets, pestering them about how much money they made, and telling them about how much more they could be making with an ASA degree. On my way into the building, they'd occasionally peg me as a potential recruit. (A request for comment from ASA was not answered.)
But while ASA College targeted pedestrians in Herald Square and Brooklynites riding the A train, Trump U tended to go for bigger fish – people making $90,000 a year, with a net worth of at least $200,000. Trump is now pointing to surveys as proof of how satisfied students were – launching the site 98PercentApproval.com to berate the former students who are speaking out against him – while ASA pointed to dubious job-placement information and statistics for graduates. Trump U had customers fill out surveys with no anonymity while they were still in the midst of the program; ASA went the route of actually employing its own grads to hand out leaflets on the street to potential students – look, they've got jobs! It's almost like the Donald had a sit-down with my old boss and they talked shop about optimal ways to give people the shaft.
Another issue that makes Trump's scam an innovative new low seems to be the professors. At least professors at ASA were real educators with actual degrees, who cared. We really were trying our best to teach students to write essays, conduct research and speak English. Even if you have a degree from a school no one's heard of, nothing can take away what you've learned in the classroom, and at the end of the day – so I told myself – being a better writer or a better English speaker are skills that can quantifiably improve students' lives. At Trump U, some of Donald's "hand-picked" lecturers were legitimate, but often they were hucksters like him, or simply people with no prior experience in real estate. (He now denies having had anything to do with faculty selection.) Former employees have even copped to the scams, stating point-blank that the school took advantage of the housing crisis to fleece older, uneducated customers.
Crippling student debt is becoming a bigger obstacle to economic growth by the day, and predatory for-profit colleges are increasingly – and disproportionately – responsible for its rise. Some Democrats want to eliminate this debt altogether, others are attempting to only mitigate it. Republicans are mostly determined to ignore it. Trump – stepping over the line from everyday awfulness into the realm of cartoonish super-villaiiny – is personally guilty of exploiting it.
Lately, Trump has taken to wooing the disaffected Bernie-or-Bust crowd. It isn't going well, but at least one common thread links Trump supporters and those of Bernie Sanders: both possess a not-unfounded sense of being denied a crack at the American dream. What's so stunning and cynical about enterprises like Trump U is that this very faith in the dream's existence is what's being dangled in front of people's faces. It's the bait. And that lure is ruining the financial future of real people, people like the ones I met and taught. While Sanders is finished as a candidate, one of his more popular proposals was taxpayer-funded college for anyone who wants it. Whatever one may think of its practicality, the idea was meant as a fix for societal ills: make Americans globally competitive again academically, eliminate the burden of student debt on America's workforce, and create more opportunities for those with the least resources. The idea was a part of a plan to make the dream tangible again, for everyone. For Trump, hustling suckers is the American dream.