'If God existed, I'd have gotten into Penn': Meet the Trump official working on higher education policy

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — What does it take to get a job working on higher education policy in the White House? Ambition helps. So does, apparently, writing an awkwardly honest book about failing to gain admittance to an Ivy League college. At least that seemed to do the trick for 23-year-old Eli Nachmany, whose self-published memoir “Good Enough” appears to be his sole contribution in the field of higher education before coming to work in the Office of American Innovation, which is overseen by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, earlier this spring.

In any other administration, the recruitment of Nachmany to work on one of the most pressing and divisive issues in American culture would have been remarkable. Higher education was handled in the Obama administration by Ted Mitchell, who had been the president of Occidental College and the California State Board of Education.

Trump came to Washington vowing to slim down the federal bureaucracy. He would do so without the coterie of longtime political loyalists and policy experts usually attached to a winning presidential candidate. But Trump never lived up to his promise that he would hire “the best people” to work in his administration. Meanwhile, his Presidential Personnel Office, which vets political appointees, has been depicted as a fraternity house run by recent college graduates hosting drinking games in their Eisenhower Executive Office Building suite.

Eli Nachmany, author of "Good Enough," a personal account of the college admissions process. (Photos: Amazon, WSN via YouTube)

Nachmany’s hiring also underscores the lack of a coherent White House plan on higher education. President Trump has rolled back various Obama-era reforms, including those having to do with college loans, sexual assault and oversight, but he has advanced no new policy of his own.

Even before coming to the White House, Nachmany enjoyed a relative level of prominence within the Trump administration, having been hired at the tender age of 21 to serve as a speechwriter for Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary who was forced to resign from his position last December amid ethics investigations. The news of his move to the White House was initially reported by Politico Playbook, which described Nachmany as “detailed” to the White House from the Department of Interior.

At the White House, Nachmany is working in the Office of American Innovation, Kushner’s secretive policy shop, which lacks even a website. Nor does it have a clear agenda on higher education, which is also among the issues handled by the Domestic Policy Council, another White House office. Kushner has shown an interest in how colleges are accredited, but White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere would not say on the record whether that remained Kushner’s focus, or whether Nachmany would be working on that issue.

None of the relevant parties could explain to Yahoo News what qualifications Nachmany has to work on higher education at the uppermost reaches of American government. “We are excited that he has the opportunity to contribute his talents to the White House and the Office of American Innovation,” Interior spokesman Alex Hinson told Yahoo News. Nachmany himself did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Higher education is in desperate need of innovation. Nachmany’s posting at the White House came just as federal authorities uncovered a massive cheating ring that would allow the children of wealthy parents to gain admittance to elite universities. At the same time, cumulative student debt has reached $1.5 trillion, even as the uses of a traditional college education are increasingly being questioned by high technology leaders and others.

But those do not appear to be Nachmany’s concerns, judging by his sole contribution on the topic. “Good Enough— the clearest guide to Nachmany’s thoughts on higher education — was published in 2015 by Outskirts Press, a self-publishing company based in Denver. The 140-page book has 11 reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 2.5 stars.

One of the book’s rare five-star reviews comes from Nachmany himself and consists of a single sentence: “I wrote this book.”

The product of a comfortable New Jersey suburb, Nachmany’s book reflects some of the societal issues later exposed by the college cheating scandal: the self-regard of well-off whites, the inordinate concern with ranking and status. Despite a middling high school record, Nachmany was confident that he would get into the college of his choice. “I had grown up believing I was Ivy League material,” he writes in Good Enough, adding a little later, “I thought I’d get into Penn because I was Eli Nachmany.”

The main theme of “Good Enough” is the author’s quest to get into University of Chicago — or the University of Pennsylvania, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or Fordham University, or the University of Michigan, or Villanova University, or Case Western Reserve University or Franklin & Marshall College.

The failure to get into any of these colleges left Nachmany embittered.

“I want to be so successful that they ended up regretting not being able to have their name on my Wikipedia page,” Nachmany writes after being rejected from the University of Chicago, a school famous for producing and serving as an academic home to more Nobel Prize laureates than almost any other institution in the world.

By his own admission, Nachmany was not exactly Nobel material while a student at Demarest High School in Demarest, N.J., a wealthy bedroom community for professionals many of whom work in Manhattan. The average household income there is about $150,000, triple the national average.

Nachmany venerates Penn, the college Trump graduated from after beginning his studies at Fordham. In Trump’s case, a donation from his father may have allowed the future president to make the move. A $1 million donation from Charles Kushner may have similarly helped his son — Jared — gain admission to Harvard, despite an unimpressive high school record.

Trump frequently touts his own educational accomplishments. “You know, people don’t understand. I went to an Ivy League college,” he said in 2017. “I was a nice student. I did very well. I’m a very intelligent person.” He has frequently highlighted the elite educational backgrounds of judges he has nominated and politicians he has endorsed.

Yet an Ivy League education remains out of reach for most Americans, even as the allure of such an education remains as strong as ever: 304,909 people applied for seats at the eight Ivy League schools for the incoming class that will graduate in 2022. The average acceptance rate for an Ivy League college was 7.04 percent last year.

Nachmany, who is now one of the few White House officials explicitly working on higher education, does not appear to be perturbed by the state of things, judging by his book. “I wanted clout,” he wrote, describing his motivation behind his college applications in the fall of 2012. “I wanted a brand name university that would impress people.” It is not clear yet how that desire for clout will translate into Nachmany’s work at the White House.

Unlike the parents caught up in Operation Varsity Blue, the college cheating scandal, he does not resort to means that were improper or illegal. But like many Americans who have been told that admission to a “good” college is imperative for happiness and success, he seeks for every possible way to get himself into a top-tier school. For example, he decides that football would be his “back door” to Chicago, even as he continues to lust for a spot at Trump’s alma mater.

Spoiler alert: Nachmany’s lackluster record keeps him from getting into the schools he so badly wanted to attend. It also keeps him from getting into some of the schools he did not especially want to attend, including Fordham and Villanova. This disappointment grew, leading to an existential crisis.“If God existed, I’d have gotten into Penn,” he reasons.

There are flashes of self-awareness, as when Nachmany visits Elon University in North Carolina after being accepted there. Nachmany is put off by the racial homogeneity of the student body, writing, “How was I going to grow as a person over the next four years, socially and culturally, if most of my classmates looked the same?”

Now he will be working for an administration that is fighting to promote race-neutral admissions at universities, urging them to scrap affirmative action policies that seek to diversify student bodies. Trump has also proposed cutting federal financial aid.

Nachmany finally ends up at NYU’s continuing education school, now called its School of Professional and Continuing Studies. “The only opinion that mattered was mine and I opined that I was good enough,” Nachmany writes near the conclusion of “Good Enough.” “I decided to disregard objectivity and proceed with my opinion as though it were fact.”

At NYU, Nachmany interned for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, then for Christie’s presidential campaign, until that imploded in the winter of 2016. He did press-related work on the Trump campaign throughout that summer and fall of 2016, then worked as an event coordinator for the presidential inauguration before returning to NYU to complete his studies in the spring of 2017. That June, he joined the Department of the Interior, where he served as a speechwriter for Zinke.

Nachmany’s sojourn in the Trump administration may be temporary. After graduating with distinction from NYU, he earned admission to Harvard Law School, which he has deferred for a year. What he will do after law school is unclear, but Nachmany has said that he may want to run for elective office.

_____

Read more from Yahoo News: