I got a press release Wednesday from Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., founded by Jerry Falwell, crowing because President Donald J. Trump will speak at commencement ceremonies there May 13.
Presidents often speak at university commencements, and Trump is great pals with Jerry Falwell Jr., who endorsed him early on. And let’s face it, given Trump’s erratic behavior and tendency to spew one lie after another, Harvard and Yale aren’t likely to clamor for him any time soon.
As Trump prepares to head to Liberty, it’s worth taking a closer look at this school. A peek at its inner workings may shed more light on why Trump is so drawn to it.
Many people think of Liberty as just another conservative Christian college, like, say, Cedarville University or Biola University. In fact, Liberty is something else entirely. For some years now, LU has essentially been a sketchy correspondence school that just happens to own a physical campus.
About 14,000 students attend Liberty’s campus, but another 65,000 are taking LU courses online. Online classes aren’t that unusual these days, and lots of colleges offer them. But for a non-profit institution, Liberty has really refined the art. The New York Times reported recently “it’s almost unheard-of to have four times as many online students as residential students.”
The Times reported that Liberty brings in online students through an aggressive telemarketing campaign run out of large call center near its campus. Most of the online students receive financial aid from the federal government. In 2015, The Times reported, Liberty received “$347 million from federal undergraduate grant and loan programs. Few other private nonprofit colleges receive anything like that sum. … Liberty’s considerable financial success – it has built a $1 billion cash reserve, and Mr. Falwell is paid more than $900,000 a year – was underwritten largely by the federal taxpayer.”
Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump for president early in the campaign.
Falwell is doing very well indeed. Unfortunately, many of those online LU students are not. According to The Times, “around 9 percent default within three years of graduating” on their student loans. (The default rate is about 6.5 percent among private colleges.)
Most students avoid default but have difficulty paying off their loans. Noted The Times, “Only 38 percent of Liberty borrowers manage to pay down as little as one dollar on their student loan principal within three years of leaving school. This is probably because many struggle to land well-paying jobs. Forty-one percent of former Liberty students earn less than $25,000 per year – the typical salary for people with only a high school diploma at age 25 – six years after entering college.”
Remember, Trump has appointed Falwell to a task force on higher education. One of the things Falwell has vowed to do is use the position to push for less oversight of private colleges. I’m sure he’d like that – he could bilk the taxpayers for even more than he already is.
Like Falwell, Trump, a former reality TV star, made money while the people he claimed to be helping often faltered. His fake “Trump University” was so fraudulent he had to pay $25 million to settle claims against it.
There’s always been more than a whiff of hucksterism around Trump, who has slapped his name and image on just about anything to make a buck. Over the years, he’s hawked a Trump board game, a cologne for men, neckties and suits, mail-order steaks, a mattress and bottled water.
Looked at in that light, the friendship between the two men makes perfect sense. When you’re running a con as massive as Trump’s, it’s always a good idea to have an experienced partner.