Trump University was a "scam from beginning to end": The most damning allegations against the "school"

According to former staff, Trump University was more concerned with selling seminars than educating students

Published June 3, 2016 8:20PM (EDT)

 Donald Trump (Reuters/Christopher Aluka Berry)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Christopher Aluka Berry)

Trump University promised to turn students into successful real estate investors, but according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the for-profit school was nothing but a "scam from beginning to end."

For years, allegations of fraud and deception have dogged Trump University, the now-defunct seminar program founded by Donald Trump that is the subject of several ongoing lawsuits, including a $40 million civil suit brought by Schneiderman in New York and a federal lawsuit filed in California by disgruntled former students.

Throughout his presidential bid, Trump has been forced to battle the perception that, in the words of one former employee, "Trump University was a fraudulent scheme" that "preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money." Below are a few of the most troubling allegations leveled against the school.

Bogus classes

Trump University claimed it would help prepare students to become real estate moguls by teaching Trump's personal strategies for success, but the mogul allegedly never reviewed any of the school's curriculum or content. Instead, according to Schneiderman's lawsuit, the classroom materials were "developed in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and seminar and timeshare rental companies."

Much like timeshare companies, Trump University attracted new clients with the promise of free stuff — seminars in this case, which served as an opportunity for salespeople to convince attendees to sign up for paid seminars costing up to $35,000. The sales team allegedly lured clients with the promise that Trump himself often appeared at paid seminars and would be "actively involved" in their education, but the closest most got to Trump was a photo with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the school's namesake.

Trump University also allegedly failed to deliver on a number of promises to students, including providing access to private financing or lenders, improvement of credit scores, and access to year-long "apprenticeship support" programs.

Trump "University"

According to Schneiderman's lawsuit, Trump University broke the law simply by calling itself a university — the program never obtained or even applied for the licensing required of educational institutions under New York law. The lawsuit alleges that Trump University continued misleading students into thinking it was an actual university for more than five years after the state first raised the issue.

High-pressure sales tactics

Internal Trump University employee guides instructed salespeople to encourage clients with insufficient funds to finance their tuition with credit cards, according to newly unsealed documents from the California case acquired by the New York Times. One former employee recalled colleagues encouraging clients to open up multiple lines of credit and max out credit cards in order to pay for classes.

"While Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could," former employee Ronald Schnackenberg testified. In his testimony, Schnackenberg recalled being reprimanded by Trump University officials for not pushing hard enough to sell a $35,000 program to a financially insecure couple that could only pay by using disability income and a home equity loan. Schnackenberg says he resigned in disgust after another salesperson stepped in and completed the deal.

Underqualified instructors

Trump University promotional materials boasted that Trump himself had personally selected "expert" seminar instructors, Trump couldn't identify a single former instructor during a sworn deposition in December. One former employee testified that a member of the Trump University sales team with "no real estate experience" and a background in jewelry sales served as an instructor at seminars. In another case, a Trump University instructor was a convicted felon.

Trump University's "98 percent approval rating"

Trump likes to defend Trump University by pointing to supposedly glowing reviews from former students. "They signed these documents saying, they rated the course, 98 percent approval rating and high marks," Trump claimed on "Meet the Press" in February. The Trump camp even went so far as to create a website,, to push this narrative.

But as Time magazine's Steve Brill has pointed out, arriving at that 98 percent figure seems to require some fuzzy math. Nearly one-third of students who attended Trump University's $1,495 seminar demanded and received refunds. And 16 percent of attendees of the $34,995 seminar got their money back. As Brill asks, "If at least 31% of one group and 16% of the other were so instantly dissatisfied that they immediately demanded refunds, how could 98% have been satisfied?"

Additionally, Trump University employees allegedly pressured students to give positive reviews on evaluation forms, which were filled out in the presence of instructors and did not explicitly offer students anonymity.

Fishy political donations

Trump made contributions to two state attorneys general who declined to take legal action against Trump University, fueling suspicion that the donations constituted quid pro quo arrangements.

Then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott opened an investigation into Trump University's "possibly deceptive trade practices," but Abbott declined to take legal action in 2010 after Trump University agreed to cease operations in Texas. As the AP reports, Trump later donated $35,000 to Abbott's successful 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

In Florida, a similar pattern emerged. Three days after Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi declined to join New York's $40 million lawsuit against Trump University in 2013, the Trump Foundation made a (possibly illegal) $25,000 contribution to a political group supporting Bondi's reelection campaign.

By Michael Garofalo

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