Ear Hustle

Starbucks To Provide Free College Education To Employees


Starbucks will provide a free online college education to thousands of its workers, without requiring that they remain with the company, through an unusual arrangement with Arizona State University, the company and the university will announce on Monday.

The program is open to any of the company’s 135,000 United States employees, provided they work at least 20 hours a week and have the grades and test scores to gain admission to Arizona State. For a barista with at least two years of college credit, the company will pay full tuition; for those with fewer credits it will pay part of the cost, but even for many of them, courses will be free, with government and university aid.

“Starbucks is going where no other major corporation has gone,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, a group focused on education. “For many of these Starbucks employees, an online university education is the only reasonable way they’re going to get a bachelor’s degree.”

Many employers offer tuition reimbursement. But those programs usually come with limitations like the full cost not being paid, new employees being excluded, requiring that workers stay for years afterward, or limiting reimbursement to work-related courses.

Starbucks is, in effect, inviting its workers, from the day they join the company, to study whatever they like, and then leave whenever they like — knowing that many of them, degrees in hand, will leave for better-paying jobs.

Even if they did, their experience “would be accreted to our brand, our reputation and our business,” Howard D. Schultz, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said in an interview. “I believe it will lower attrition, it’ll increase performance, it’ll attract and retain better people.”

In a low-wage service industry, Starbucks has for decades been unusual, doing things such as providing health insurance, even for part-timers, and giving its employees stock options. (Like other food and drink chains, it has also been accused of using improper tactics in fighting unionization drives.) Whether in spite of those perks or because of them, the company has been highly successful; its stock, which closed Friday at $74.69, has grown in value more than a hundredfold since it went public in 1992.

The president of Arizona State, Michael M. Crow, something of an evangelist for online education, was scheduled to join Mr. Schultz and Arne Duncan, the education secretary, to announce the program on Monday in Manhattan. Arizona State has one of the largest online degree programs in the United States, with 11,000 students and 40 undergraduate majors, and one of the most highly regarded.

The university and the company say they do not know how many Starbucks employees will take advantage of the program, which includes help with paperwork and academic advising, but they expect thousands to enroll, and Mr. Crow said Arizona State has prepared for a major surge in enrollment. Tuition for Arizona State’s online undergraduate courses is usually about $500 per credit, and it takes 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree.

The Starbucks program sounds like a boon to Abraham G. Cervantes, 24, who lives in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles with his mother and two of his brothers, and would be the first in his family to earn a college degree. “I’m the only one in the family with a steady job,” he said. In fact, he has two jobs — one at Starbucks, and another at a music studio.

While studying at a community college, he discovered classical music, and fell in love with Chopin, Bach and Beethoven, though at home he can practice only on a worn-out piano. He said he dreamed of being a professor of music, but after five years of trying to mesh his class and work schedules, he has not finished his associate’s degree.

“Working two jobs, you don’t always have time to attend school,” he said.

The new Starbucks program “would be a huge benefit to me,” Mr. Cervantes said, giving him flexibility and eliminating the commute to and from school.

The company says that in its employee surveys some of the most compelling results are about higher education. Seventy percent of Starbucks employees do not have a degree but want to earn one; some have never gone to college, some have gone but dropped out, and others are in school, but have found it slow going.

“My dad lost his job during the recession, in my first year of college, and my parents were really struggling for money,” said Tammie R. Lopez, 22, who would also be the first in her family to finish college. “They were on the verge of losing their home, so I stopped going to school so I could get a second job and help them.”

Ms. Lopez, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, got a full-time job at Starbucks and goes to a community college at night.

“I could never see myself finishing school because it’s taken me so long to get where I am,” Ms. Lopez said. She is studying to be a sign language interpreter, but is also weighing other possibilities, such as a business degree. What Starbucks has planned, she said, completely changed her outlook.

“I could be done with school in a couple of years — I can see it, that financial burden would be lifted,” she said. “Even if I had an emergency and I had to go out of town, I would be able to take my computer with me and not miss class.”

Mr. Schultz, the Starbucks chief, said such stories strike a personal chord with him. He grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and an athletic scholarship enabled him to be the first in his family to attend college, at Northern Michigan University.

He and Mr. Crow said they met a few years ago when Mr. Schultz spoke at Arizona State, and got to know each other while working with the Markle Foundation, a charitable public policy organization. They found they shared modest backgrounds and concerns about growing inequality.

“The middle class is being hollowed out in so many ways,” Mr. Crow said. Unless more people become educated, he said, “We can all see this social train wreck ahead of us.”

It is a wreck that Michael Bojorquez Echevarria, 23, another Starbucks barista in the San Fernando Valley, can see clearly, and is struggling to avoid. He grew up in the Bay Area, the child of immigrants from Mexico, and saw the limitations that a lack of education had placed on them, he said, adding that he has always believed that “I have to be one of those people who can say we made it.”

“My ultimate vision, what I’m striving for, is to work with children who have gone through physical or emotional abuse,” he said.

For now, he is working toward an associate’s degree in sociology. He works about 60 hours a week at two different Starbucks locations, where he said the regular customers asked about his studies and egged him on.

“Imagine just waking up one day and knowing that your whole degree would be paid for, and the only thing you have to do is enroll and study and be a good student,” he said. “It would change my lifestyle, the whole dynamic of what I do every day.”

Source: NYTimes


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