By Brian Hindo
With business schools around the country using Donald Trump's reality TV vehicle The Apprentice as a teaching tool, perhaps it was just a matter of time before The Donald cut out the middleman. On May 23, the real estate mogul formally launched Trump University -- a foray into the fast-growing field of online education. Courses are expected to begin as early as Thursday, May 25.
Trump U. won't be offering degrees, or even classes in the traditional sense. Instead, the plan is to provide short, focused lessons in specific subjects that emphasize practice over theory. The first three courses available to students, at the price of $300 apiece, are introductions to real estate, marketing, and entrepreneurship.
No students are enrolled yet, but Trump University President Michael Sexton expects publicity from today's announcement to draw enough students in time for the start of classes later this week.
Trump University won't have any textbooks, either. No lectures, no grades -- not even teachers, most of the time. Students will be divided up into cohorts of 6 to 12 and can choose to complete the courses in either one or two weeks.
They'll log on at trumpuniversity.com to get their assignments –- entrepreneurship students will be asked to assume the role of a venture capitalist and analyze a business plan –- and submit their work to classmates for a peer review. Three such assignments, and the course is complete. "People have learned the hard way that...trying to replicate the classroom experience isn't particularly effective," says Sexton, a venture capitalist by trade.
WORDS FROM THE WISE.
That sort of "self-directed learning" is a pretty far departure from most of what's online, which generally hews closer to the traditional teacher-student classroom model. But Trump U. does have its academic bona fides. The chief learning officer is Roger Schank, who founded the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University and is chief executive of Socratic Arts, which specializes in curriculum design.
Students won't be flying totally blind. The Trump U. Web site will have some background material for students to peruse, an "Expert Center," which features clickable videos of the professors, and Trump himself, offering words of wisdom.
Within a month, Sexton says, additional courses will have one of the B-school professors available to students via an online bulletin board, and eventually the profs will write feedback on the final assignment of each course. Trump won't be reading any term papers, but Sexton says the mogul will hold periodic live online Q&A sessions with students and will also address questions through an "Ask Mr. Trump" feature.
At the outset, Trump U. is going after a niche that falls somewhere between pragmatic adult education and aspirational learning for white-collar workers. The course content differs from the accredited degree programs and vocational training the major online players provide. The pricing will be significantly lower, and the coursework and experience quite different than the typical B-school executive education offerings.
With its extremely do-it-yourself structure, what Trump University proposes to deliver is almost like a living version of a best-selling business book such as Rich Dad, Poor Dad. "This is not for somebody who wants to put a sheepskin on the wall and thinks that is going to meaningfully help their career," says Sexton.
Trump U. could have some hiccups. Without a professor to guide discussions and direct the learning, the "classroom" experience could vary widely depending on how engaged and cooperative the students in each group turn out to be. And one or two weeks may not be enough time for a group to gel. Admits Sexton: "We're in a learning phase right now." He says the courses will be modified as needed.
Plenty is at stake for The Donald: Unlike many of his past ventures, he has funded this one all by himself. Sexton says the expectation is that the unit will turn a profit this year. There are no plans to pursue a public offering, he adds.
But Trump U. should have plenty of other ways to expand the business. First, three more course offerings are on their way within the next few months: Negotiations, Leadership, and Business Communication. Plus, more advanced sessions in the existing subjects are on tap. "On top of that, [we'll] start building not accredited curriculum, but services -– whether it's coaching services, or mentoring, or consulting," says Sexton.
Already, a six-part audio and DVD course called The Wealth Builder's Blueprint is for sale on the Web site, and Sexton says orders have been rolling in even before Monday's launch. Almost 35% of the inquiries have been coming from outside the U.S., which surprises Sexton. But it also makes him enthusiastic about overseas expansion. Who knows? Before long, Trump University may need to add a foreign languages department.
Hindo is BusinessWeek's Corporate Strategies editor in New York