Trump to Colleges: You're Fired

January 21, 2005

The NBC hit The Apprentice kicked off a new season last night, with a new gimmick: a team of college graduates would face off against a team of people who had never attended college.

Promotions of the series played up the showdown between "book smarts" and "street smarts," so we thought it would make sense to review the show with an expert on the education of business leaders. Catharyn Baird has been a business professor at Regis University for 20 years, teaching in its undergraduate, MBA, and online programs.

If the debut of the season was any indication, colleges are in for a rough time with The Donald, even though he noted during the show that he has a college degree. (He's a graduate of the Wharton School, at the University of Pennsylvania, which declined to make students or professors available to discuss the show, noting his connection to the school.)

The show began with Trump surprising the 18 contestants, all of whom are seeking the grand prize of an executive job in one of his businesses. They assumed that like on previous incarnations of the show, the teams would be divided by men and women.

Instead, he tells them that half of them have college degrees and half do not. He goes on to say that the two groups have approximately the same average IQ, but that there is one big difference: One team has an average salary (in their current jobs) of three times that of the other team.

Which team is better off? Of course, it's the ones who skipped college. "They're real killers," Trump says, suggesting that this will be a great way to find out if practical experience is better than academic experience (if street smarts "trump" book smarts, as it were).

He seems to know what the answer will be: He asks the college grads several times whether they will be embarrassed to lose to high school graduates.

While the two teams and Trump make much of the salary difference, Baird, our expert, points out the fallacy with the comparison: Because these team members are relatively young (mostly in their 20s or early 30s), the financial payoffs of higher education haven't kicked in. Many on the "street smarts" team, on the other hand, are in sales-oriented positions, where people can quickly earn a lot of money.

After Trump explains the way the teams are divided, all the players go back to a suite to pick team names. The "street smarts" team organizes quickly around the name "Net Worth." The "book smarts" team takes longer to pick a name -- "Magna" as in "Magna Cum Laude." (No one seemed to know that "Summa" might be better.)

Once they settle on that name, a team member named Danny (a Cleveland State grad who has also studied at Boston University and MIT's Media Lab) takes out a guitar and tries to lead the group in song -- prompting a "street smart" team member to tell the audience: "I'm not going to sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya. Maybe that's what they did in college."

Baird says this was "a bit over the top," and not the kind of thing that a good college training would encourage.

Now it's on to the first actual test of the teams: to help Burger King market new kinds of burgers. Each team must run a restaurant and try at the same time to sell as many new burgers as possible.

"Street smarts" gets its act together, coming up with a popular promotion (free plane tickets to Las Vegas), learning how to run the restaurant, and generally getting along well. "Book smarts" bickers, comes up with a pathetic promotion idea (a carnival-like ball toss outside the restaurant), and its team members are shown flustered by the high-tech registers.

Baird points out that the things the college grads are doing poorly -- very poorly -- aren't exactly integral to the MBA curriculum. "The difficulty is that the tasks -- running a cash register, making burgers -- are things that the college kids hadn't done."

She speculates that plenty of college grads would have done well, although not because of their formal education: "Kids who have worked their way through school would have been able to manage much better."

While reality shows are known for their surprise endings, this one had no big twists. After showing the college grads bumbling at various tasks, they ended up selling fewer burgers, prompting Trump to say, "So the college geniuses got beat by the high schoolers."

Viewers then get to see the college grads bicker some more, backstab, and cry before Trump fires Todd, a University of Miami graduate, for his poor leadership of the team.

Baird says the show did not in any way reflect the skills that business students pick up. Students at Regis are taught the kinds of things these college grads flubbed -- how to design marketing campaigns, how to assign tasks in an organization, how to do market research.

"The show was really designed to downplay the kinds of things one really learns in a business school," Baird says. "It was set up in a way to make it look like a college education is not worth anything."

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