Sunday, June 15, 2014


Employer partnerships aren’t new in higher education.  For a long time, through the 1990’s, they were fairly widespread.  The usual arrangement held that employees who worked at a given company during the day could take night classes someplace local, and get their tuition (or a set portion thereof) reimbursed.  Many of those programs got cut in the 2001 recession, shortly before online education took off.

Starbucks is apparently making an old idea new again.  It’s planning to announce that any of its employees who work for the company for at least 20 hours a week will be eligible for full or partial tuition reimbursement for online classes at Arizona State University.  (Employees with at least half of the credits towards a four-year degree will get full reimbursement; those with fewer credits will get less.)  There’s no apparent requirement for a particular major, and there’s no “indentured servitude” period during which they have to stick around after using the benefit.  Starbucks seems to be aware that some people will take the degree and run, and is okay with that.

Color me intrigued.

As an employee recruitment and retention initiative, it could be quite powerful.  The hourly pay might not impress, but with both health insurance and tuition support, the effective compensation could be significantly higher.  The prospect of a bachelor’s degree without any student debt holds real appeal. Given that turnover and training costs tend to be high at that level of retail, somebody may have done some math and determined that the potential savings in those areas would make this affordable.  And it’s beautiful p.r.

Since the classes supported are online, rather than at night, more students could take advantage of them.  The variable hours that often go with retail jobs can be hell on class schedules, but shouldn’t be deal-breakers online.  

I see a lot of value here.  I was surprised that Starbucks is partnering with ASU all the way through, given that ASU charges about $500 a credit; I would have expected a community college partnership for the first two years as a way to keep the costs down.  But it may be easier logistically to work only with one partner.  I was surprised, too, that the Times piece chose to focus on a music major; how, exactly, you would do that online is not clear to me.  But that’s true whether you’re working through Starbucks or not.

It would be easy enough to get cynical and look for the cloud around the silver lining.  “Aha!  It’s a way to enforce employee discipline!”  Well, yes; all compensation is.  “Aha!  They’re expecting financial aid to cover some of the benefit for them!”  They’d be stupid not to.  Besides, to the student, the precise mix of Pell and Starbucks doesn’t really matter, as long as the bill is paid.  From a taxpayer’s perspective, I’d rather see students succeed than not; if private industry is willing to pick up a significant chunk of the tab to help students finish, I’m for it.  

In a sense, it reminds me of the way that kids in my high school looked at working at Wegman’s.  Wegman’s is an extraordinary supermarket chain in the Northeast -- though not yet the Pioneer Valley, cough, cough -- that started in Rochester.  Back in the 80’s, it let it be known that high school kids in its employ were eligible for non-trivial college scholarships.  (I don’t know if it still does that.) The hourly pay wasn’t any better than anywhere else, but the scholarships were a real draw.  Getting a job there was considered a real win.  As a result, Wegman’s had its choice of employees, and the people who worked there were unusually loyal to it.

I’m sure it’s possible to find some dark, sinister underbelly to the Starbucks/ASU deal, and I won’t rule out the possibility that there’s some awful catch that hasn’t surfaced yet.  But from where I’m sitting, it strikes me as a welcome flashback with an online twist.  Well done, Starbucks.  I hope you start yet another trend.