Trump U and the “Educated” Higher Ed Consumer

For those following the 2016 Republican presidential primaries (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) one of the hot topics is the now-defunct Trump University and its promises to make all Trump U students successful captains of the real estate industry simply by taking a series of self-guided courses and ballroom seminars.

Over at Politico, Kimberly Hefling and Maggie Severns have a great article on Trump U and the allegations made against it. It notes pressure tactics to get students to buy more and more expensive courses. It even details the story of one individual who tapped $60,000 in money she didn’t have to take course after course at Trump U.

Eduflack recognizes that the tale of Trump U makes for wonderful campaign commercial fodder and zingers at debates. I’ll acknowledge it was disingenuous to use the name “university” for something that was MOOC at best or late-night infomercial at worst. And I’ll grant that all of this happened well before MOOCs truly took hold and before concerns at places like Corinthian Colleges came to light.

But is what Trump University tried to tap into much different than what we see generally in higher education, or in for-profit higher ed in particular? The promises of a better life with more courses.  The “admissions” counselors pushing hard to get potential students to enroll in more and more courses. Students enrolling in programs well beyond their financial means and the institutions knowing it. Degrees and courses that will have no impact on the ability to get a job or increase future earnings.

No, I’m not defending Trump U and its tactics. But we shouldn’t be shocked by its approach. We have many for-profit colleges that offer “higher education” to students who never otherwise would be able to enroll at a college or university, all with the promise of bettering their lives and their families futures.

We have traditional universities where fewer than six in 10 students earn their bachelor’s degrees in six years. That leaves more than 40 percent of students with thousands in student loan debts and no degree with which to secure future employment.

So why should we be surprised with a higher education business venture offering to teach those seeking a better life the potential path to success, one that begins with a single course and continues to larger, more grandiose packages for those truly committed?

Ultimately, these institutions, whether the a for-profit storefront or the traditional state college, are providing consumers (the students) with what they are asking for. And most do so within the rules set by both the licensing body (usually the state) and the regional accreditors.

If we want to find fault, we need to direct it toward the students themselves. As our society has shifted to a belief that all individuals need college to be successful in life, we have failed to emphasize the need to be an “educated” consumer when it comes to higher education. We believe college is college, that any postsecondary ed is better than none.

Whether one is enrolling in Harvard or Trump U, we need to get better about asking real questions about our pursuit of higher education. What is the actual graduation/completion rate? What is the actual cost of degree? What is the job placement rate in careers related to major? How long does a graduate stay in the field of choice? What are the job prospects and earning potential in that field? Would successful graduates in that field do it over again, given the choice?

Until we ask those questions and take the answers to determine the greatest benefit to us as individuals, we shouldn’t be surprised that a Saturday afternoon course and a photo with a cardboard cutout is seen as a viable path for “postsecondary education.”

Sure, $60K is an awful lot of money for some pre-MOOC MOOCs in real estate. But is it that different than taking out $50K in loans to have four majors in three years, while securing just three semesters of actual college credit? At least Trump U students got a hat with their tuition.

 

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