Opinion

Trump University had lookalike in Tacoma area

From the editorial board

Toni Cornell, a former Business Computer Training Institute student, stands in front of the former BCTI facility located in a strip mall in Tacoma. Cornell accumulated $7,000 in debt from attending the school, which closed in 2005.
Toni Cornell, a former Business Computer Training Institute student, stands in front of the former BCTI facility located in a strip mall in Tacoma. Cornell accumulated $7,000 in debt from attending the school, which closed in 2005. News Tribune file, 2006

It was 11 years ago that the Business Computer Training Institute, a Gig Harbor-based for-profit education program, closed its doors under a dark cloud. In a nutshell, BCTI made big promises that often led to false hopes for hard-luck students.

A News Tribune investigation found the program preyed on the vulnerable by recruiting at welfare and unemployment offices, overcharged for basic computer classes and pressured teachers to retain unqualified students so the school could collect their financial aid.

BCTI shut down in 2005, a month after it went on probation, amid investigations by federal, state and private regulators in two states. A $13.25 million settlement later resulted in payouts to more than 1,300 former students at seven campuses in Washington and Oregon, including sites in Tacoma, Fife and Lacey.

The BCTI saga provides a local touchstone to what’s currently playing out on the national stage: increasing scrutiny on Donald Trump and his now-defunct Trump University.

Parallels between the two education scandals are easy to find, but there is one peculiar difference: While the founders of BCTI would have had a difficult time running for dog catcher as details of their enterprise emerged, Trump has won enough support to lock up the Republican nomination for president of the United States.

Perhaps Trump’s popularity will flag in the next five months as more information comes to light about his numerous business practices, illuminated by the overdue release of his tax returns. But don’t hold your breath.

This week, Trump University’s shady reputation grew shadier after revelations from newly released federal court depositions in California, where disgruntled former students have filed suit. The documents form the basis of a New York Times story Wednesday in which former employees of the glorified real-estate seminar call it a “fraudulent scheme” and a “total lie.”

One former manager recalled how staff encouraged students to open multiple credit cards to pay for classes that many could not afford. Internal guidebooks and marketing materials show a program built on exploiting clients’ “roller coaster of emotions” during the housing bubble and its subsequent burst.

Meanwhile, the gilded Trump brand hovered over it all. Assurances were given that the billionaire himself was involved in handpicking instructors, though Trump acknowledged in a deposition that he was not.

Both the Trump University and BCTI misadventures point to the need for broader reforms to the for-profit education industry and its attendant abuses of the federal financial aid system. Under a Trump administration, it’s safe to assume, that won’t be a top priority.

Expect more attention to fall on Trump University in the runup to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next month. In fact, a judge in California has scheduled a key hearing on the class-action lawsuit that same week.

It’s one more issue for Trump’s political disciples to weigh carefully — including the 447,000 who voted for him in last week’s Washington state primary, 50,000 of them in Pierce County.

Because while Hillary Clinton should be held to account for her track record in government, Trump must answer for his capitalist ventures, the only track record he has and the one he can’t stop bragging about.

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