Baristas Pull Degrees: Starbucks Workers to Get Help Paying for Higher Ed

College students who work at Starbucks just got a helping hand with paying for all that espresso-fueled coursework.

(Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Apr 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Ashley Jakubczyk is an editorial intern for and a graduate student at Harvard University. She has also written for Thought Catalog,The Daily Bruin,The Daily Breeze, and Peninsula People magazine.

A shot of espresso might keep the average college student awake long enough to get through a term paper, but if you’re a Starbucks employee, the company may help you through your college years in another way: by paying for your tuition.

On the heels of McDonald’s announcement last week that it will expand its educational assistance program, Starbucks announced this week that it will grow its partnership with Arizona State University’s online degree programs to include four-year degrees.

With the program update, more than 140,000 part-time and full-time employees—more than 75 percent of Starbucks’ workforce—will be able to participate wholly in the program for all four years of their ASU online bachelor’s degree. Previously, students only received full reimbursement for the final two years of ASU’s online program.

“The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree, particularly disadvantaged young people, and others are saddled with burdensome education debt,” Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said in a press release. “By giving our partners access to four years of full tuition coverage, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity.”

The company is committing to assist more than 25,000 employees, which it calls partners, in their successful graduation by 2025, which could be an investment totaling more than $250 million. To date, 3,500 applications for the program have been received. About 3,000 students have been accepted, and more than 2,000 have enrolled.

The coffee chain’s announcement begs the question: With large companies beginning to wholeheartedly jump on board, is this the corporate-sponsored higher education model of the future?

If so, it’s worth noting that earlier versions of Starbucks’ model have faced criticism. In an earlier iteration of the program, employees who enrolled were expected to continuously work an average of 20 hours a week, which can be challenging while pursuing full-time—or even part-time—study. As Inside Higher Education noted last year, full-cost reimbursements didn’t kick in until junior or senior year, after 21 credits were complete. The online program was costly—between $480 and $543 per credit hour—to boot. That meant students would have to front about $10,000 before ever seeing a reimbursement.

The program’s updated FAQ page states that 42 percent of “upfront scholarship and any need-based financial aid” will be given to reduce a student’s out-of-pocket expenses at the onset of the semester. Now, students will be reimbursed further after successful completion of each semester.

Employees of any brand operated by Starbucks, including Teavana, La Boulange, Evolution Fresh, and Seattle’s Best Coffee, can participate, but the program is only open to those who work at the 7,300 company-owned stores. It was unclear why the more than 4,600 franchised locations are not included. Starbucks declined requests for an interview to clarify this and other questions.

Another lingering question: Why ASU? Starbucks workers may already be enrolled at local colleges and universities—why not a tuition program that applies to any accredited institution? Even after its expansion, the program still only offers assistance if the student enrolls online at ASU, leaving those attending other schools in the dust in terms of reimbursement.

Despite some portions of the new plan remaining unclear, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press release that the announcement is “another win” for students in the U.S. and commended Schultz and ASU President Michael Crow for their strategic partnership.

“I hope more institutions and companies will take their lead to collaborate on ways we can all do more to make higher education more attainable and affordable,” Duncan said.