Whenever his intellectual credibility is questioned or mocked, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is quick to remind everyone where he attended college.
“I went to the Wharton School of Finance,” he said multiple times in a July 11 speech in Phoenix, Ariz. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
Trump transferred into Wharton’s undergraduate program — then known as the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce — after spending two years at Fordham University in New York. He graduated in 1968 and has embraced the school’s card-carrying prestige ever since.
In an Aug. 16 television interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he described the school as “probably the hardest there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.”
“Why do you have to tell us all the time that you went to Wharton?” moderator Chuck Todd asked. “People know you’re successful.”
“They know it’s a great business school,” Trump replied.
Despite Trump’s repeated mention of Wharton, his own classmates hardly remember him, and he even describes the school’s high-flung reputation as overwrought in his 1986 book, “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”
“In my opinion, that [Wharton] degree doesn’t prove very much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously, and it’s considered very prestigious,” Trump wrote.
He added, “It didn’t take long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates, and that I could compete with them just fine.”
During Trump’s rise to the top of the real estate development world, various news publications exaggerated his academic achievements at Wharton, according to a 2011 Salon magazine article.
Reports of Trump’s grades at Wharton vary. The New York Times reported in 1973 and 1976 that he graduated first in his class. But in a 1985 biography of Trump, Jerome Tuccille wrote that he was not an honor student and “spent a lot of time on outside business activities.”
Another biographer, Gwenda Blair, wrote in 2001 that Trump was admitted to Wharton on a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer. The officer had known Trump’s older brother, Freddy.
Trump’s classmates doubt that the real estate mogul was an academic powerhouse.
“He was not in any kind of leadership. I certainly doubt he was the smartest guy in the class,” said Steve Perelman, a 1968 Wharton classmate and a former Daily Pennsylvanian news editor.
Some classmates speculated that Trump skipped class, others that he commuted to New York on weekends.
“Four years — including lots of required classes — is a long time never to hear of a classmate, especially with such a distinctive name,” wrote 1968 Wharton graduate Larry Krohn, another one of Trump’s classmates, in an email.
In a manner hardly consistent with his outsized personality, college-aged Donald Trump was barely seen around campus on weekends, remained uninvolved in most campus activities and his picture was even absent from the yearbook. While there’s no lack of Trump hotels, casinos and golf courses, no building on Penn’s campus bears his name.
Though he only attended Penn for two years and was not especially active on campus, Wharton’s alumni magazine named him one of their “125 Most Influential People” in 2007.
A Wharton spokesperson said that the leadership of the alumni office and magazine have turned over since the publication of the article, and declined to comment further on Trump. Penn has declined comment to multiple news sources on the topic of Trump’s presidency and attendance at the University.
Another classmate, who did not wish to be identified, speculated that Trump might not have interacted much with his class at Wharton because his late transfer required him to take the core courses that many of his classmates had taken as freshmen and sophomores.
Other students disputed this notion, pointing out that Trump still completed the curriculum in two years — meaning at least some of his credits from Fordham had to transfer over.
Of the 13 classmates who spoke with the Daily Pennsylvanian, only one remembers seeing Trump at all on campus. That student, 1968 Wharton graduate Ted Sachs, remembered a far different Trump than “The Donald” of today.
“I liked him. I thought he was a really nice low-key guy,” Sachs said. “He was very self effacing — he never talked about himself.”
Sachs, retired from a finance and consulting career and now residing in Lake Forest, Ill., sat next to Trump in a finance class. Sachs would get lunch occasionally with Trump, but after their class together ended, he heard less from him. It was only until nearly 10 years after he graduated that Sachs realized that Trump was the son of wealthy real-estate developer Fred Trump.
As Donald Trump assumed worldwide recognition in the 1980s after the publication of “The Art of the Deal,” Sachs began to recognize less of the friend with whom he would eat fried oyster sandwiches outside of class.
“I was lost — I didn’t get it,” Sachs said of Trump’s public persona. “I thought he kept two sides to his life, as some people are capable of doing.”
Seeing the quietly ambitious student grow into the gregarious face of a conservative movement did not leave Sachs completely surprised.
“He sort of had a magnetism about himself. He knew where he was going — that was clear,” Sachs said of Trump. “Looking back, I had that sense: he knew something at that age that I didn’t.”
Other alumni, many of them business leaders in their own right, still have not encountered their famous classmate, who as of Aug. 18, leads the 17-person Republican field with 24 percent of the vote, per a CNN poll.
For many of his classmates, Trump is just an image, a figurehead, a celebrity personality. They know he went to Wharton, that at some point he must have sat in the same desks as them and taken the same tests. But they only remember the Trump they see now, plastered throughout the media with snippets of his latest controversial statement or idea.
For Sachs — who actually remembered Trump from their college days — uncovering the true Donald Trump is no easy task.
“I suspect underneath there’s a decent guy. Fifty years is a long time. After any relationship, does anyone really know a person?”