Starbucks program offers college students more than a coffee break

Starbucks announces a program to help its employees earn an online degree while they work, potentially benefiting families with kids heading to college, or parents aiming to complete a degree they never received.

Gene J. Puskar/AP
Starbucks is announcing a new program to help its baristas earn an online degree. The company is partnering with Arizona State University to make the program available to 135,000 US employees who work at least 20 hours a week. They will be able to choose from a number of educational programs. This photo shows the Starbucks logo at one of the company's coffee shops in Chicago on Saturday, May 31.

Starbucks is giving new meaning to the idea of “working your way through school” with a College Achievement Plan that has the potential to empower students and parents to embrace educational opportunities and perhaps serve up a new business and food for thought.

This is an investment in “human capitol” with the potential for substantive and far-reaching positive effects on families, if the program lasts. 

However, it is a good sign that this is an improvement on the  program Starbucks already has. The existing program reimburses workers for up to $1,000 a year at City University of Seattle or at Strayer University.

According to the Associated Press, Starbucks spokeswoman Laurel Harper says that existing program will be phased out by 2015.

The company’s new program is far more generous and is intended to address high college drop-out rates, given the financial struggles many face in finishing college.Under the College Achievement Plan, Starbucks employees who work at least 20 hours a week will receive full tuition reimbursement if they enroll in Arizona State University's online program as juniors or seniors, according to a press release from Starbucks.

Employees enrolling as freshman or sophomore students will be able to apply for scholarships worth $6,500, on average.

ASU advisers will also help employees apply for other, need-based financial aid, including Pell Grants, according to the release.

To me, a mom of four, including two who are currently devouring family funds as they enter their sophomore and junior years of college, a program like this could mean a light at the end of the tunnel.

For families like ours, working to finance two additional college students, programs like these could mean my younger boys would have more college options.

However, on a deeper parenting level, it may help empower students and parents to balance work and school – two key responsibilities that parents often try to instill in their kids – and to take charge of their own futures with a clearer path ahead for how to pay for it.

I run a free chess program for our community, and I tend to meet a lot of parents who either can’t afford to send a child to college or who have spent an adult lifetime scratching to make ends meet because they had children at such a young age that they never went to college themselves.

This program also seems like a huge opportunity for those parents who could better support their families by continuing their own education.

I have met so many people who tell me they never completed high school because they found out they were going to be parents.

When I suggest a GED class to get their diplomas one of the common responses I get is, “What’s the point?”

The parents then proceed to tell me they can’t afford colleges nearby and it would take more than their minimum wage jobs could supply to make college a reality even at a local community college. Then they wouldn’t be able to support their kids while they learn.

The Starbucks program may be a way to grind down the barrier to entry into education for kids, and perhaps their parents, to make their way to better lives.

While the minimum wage debate continues in the US, could programs introduced by companies like Starbucks help even the playing field, even if their wages remain largely the same in the long run?

Of course I would prefer for all of my sons to have the "full college experience."

However, as my ability to earn continues to fall short of my ability to pay tuition, and I look at the very real possibility that all of my sons may not be able to complete a full college experience, I see this a powerful idea.

In fact, this idea is good enough to merit the most sincere form of flattery – imitation.

Let’s see what other partnerships can be struck across the nation between minimum wage chains and universities with great online programs.

This is a classic case of the old Stone Soup story, where a man who has nothing comes to a town where everyone is slowly starving and tells them of the most incredible soup for which he uses only a “magical” stone which he places in a pot.

If only he had a pot, and water to go in. As the story goes, someone provides a pot of water.

Oh, and he would gladly share this amazing, nourishing meal with anyone who has a carrot and a few potatoes to add to the pot.

And so the ingredients are added, until each person in the town has put a little something into the pot and the result is that everyone is nourished.

Starbucks has put something into the pot for families, and should the soup come together, other companies and educational institutions should be eager to come to this table and add a little something to the new mix.

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