Starbucks and Higher Ed.

Starbucks is in the news for offering “free education” to “thousands of its employees.” Reporting on this decision is probably best exemplified by Forbes‘s headline, “Starbucks Announces It Will Give A Free College Education To Thousands Of Workers.” This article declares that Starbucks’s program is “the first of its kind” and that it “will allow many of the Seattle-based company’s 135,000 workers to graduate debt-free.” But here are the details:

1. You only get full tuition reimbursement if you already have two years of college.

2. You can only get up to $6500 of support if you’re a freshman or sophomore.

3. It’s tuition reimbursement only (you will have other costs, but at least they will be more manageable, especially with federal financial aid).

4. You have to work at least 20 hours per week for Starbucks.

5. You can only attend Arizona State University’s online program.

6. You only get reimbursed after completing 21 credit hours of coursework — so you have to pay out of pocket until then.

And now for the reality:

1. Many employers already offer tuition reimbursement to their employees, and often pay on a semester by semester basis, so Starbucks isn’t doing anything new here, and in fact isn’t doing it as well as many employers. I worked in a university financial aid office for about four years during graduate school and had to process many of these students.

2. Starbucks should get kudos for offering this benefit to part time employees, however — I’ve never seen tuition reimbursement offered to anyone who wasn’t full time.

3. I have never, ever, even heard of tuition reimbursement being available for attendance at one school only. That’s very questionable, and I’m wondering if there isn’t some financial interest involved.

Why not let students take courses at any accredited college in the country? It’s about $500/credit hour* to take courses at Arizona State University Online, but college tuition at a typical community college is less than half of that. Looking locally, Owens Community College (in Findlay and Toledo, OH) charges $153/credit hour while Ohio State University charges about $10,000 a year for Ohio residents at its main Columbus campus and about $7,000 a year at satellite campuses, which works out to maybe $250-$350/credit hour. Why not let employees get the best locally available education rather than require them to attend ASUO, especially when it may be cheaper? Maybe limit attendance to state universities and community colleges?

Overall, Starbucks deserves praise for extending additional benefits to its employees, especially to its part time employees, but the media surrounding this benefit has been hyperbolic and misleading. I also think Starbucks deserves praise for being a company of this type to extend this kind of benefit. If Starbucks wants to catch up to the benefits other companies offer, though, it should allow its employees to attend any accredited college or university, and it should reimburse its employees no later than the end of the semester, when the student can produce final grades.

UPDATES 17 June 2014:

You can read details about Starbucks’s program on their websiteUSA Today is doing some stupid misreporting that you shouldn’t pay attention to. You will also notice from the link that there once was a thing called Starbucks U (which Inside Higher Ed claims was affiliated with Strayer University), and that the ASUO partnership will be phasing out Starbucks U by 2015.

The Chronicle of Higher Education just revealed that ASUO is heavily discounting its tuition for Starbucks students. It can do so because of “profits” (wait… isn’t ASUO a non-profit institution?) generated by the online program and because it won’t have to market to recruit these students. So, it’s essentially discounting the cost of marketing (which for online programs is massive) from its tuition costs.

The net result is that ASUO is actually paying out more for the education of Starbucks employees than Starbucks is, and is doing so in conjunction with federal financial aid (you and me). From the CHE article:

In broad terms based on current projections of the expected student profile, Mr. Crow said that, for every 1,000 upper-division students, the program would cost ASU about $24-million per semester and Starbucks about $11-million per semester. An additional $7-million would come from Pell Grants.

*I finally found the correct cost of attendance on ASUO’s website.

I don’t think any of these details affect my comments above. I’m just waiting now to hear about a business partnership between the Starbucks CEO and ASUO.

Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at for details.

9 thoughts on “Starbucks and Higher Ed.

  1. Thanks for being a reader, M.

    1. “what is ASO ?” I was using ASO as shorthand for Arizona State University Online, which I named initially, but since the correct name is Arizona State University Online the correct abbreviation is ASUO. I should correct that, but it’s very important to distinguish between ASU and their online programs.

    2. “why do you think that Starbucks employees do not deserve degrees .” You’re not really paying attention here. What I said above was that I thought Starbucks should just run a standard tuition reimbursement program that allows students to get reimbursed for attending any accredited college anywhere: “Why not let students take courses at any accredited college in the country?” So yes, I do think they deserve an education. I also provided numbers indicating that a community college or local state university is half the cost of ASU Online, or maybe even less. Why are you thinking as if this is the only one way that Starbucks employees can get an education at all?

    3. “if you do not know enough about the quality of ASU and EDX , you cannot comment at all İn the first place .” Again, that’s not what I said. What I said was that I don’t know how they compare to one another: “I can’t speak to the quality of ASO courses compared to EdX or other MOOCs.”

    4. “Do you mean ASO ( rather ASU ) cannot be compared with a really good school . Why ?” First, we need to distinguish between ASU and ASU Online. ASU does. As you know, there are many studies demonstrating that online courses aren’t as effective for most student populations. I’ve provided links to them in our past conversations. The people who benefit the most from this kind of study are those who already have college degrees.


    1. So, Starbucks is basically a fast food coffee store and you think it’s a good idea for it to be offering degrees? What a joke :). Maybe the laundromat down the street should offer degrees too. Hey — how about McDonald’s U?

      Seriously, though, to address your other comment, I can’t speak to the quality of ASO courses compared to EdX or other MOOCs. ASO has gained a lot of recognition, but I don’t trust these accolades too much: people in government are more interested in saving money than in educating its populace, so they’ll praise anything that even looks like it works. Compare ASO to a really good school and I don’t think the comparison would hold up very well. Same with EdX.


      1. James
        I have been reading your comments for the last 3 may be 4 years now .
        Number 1 what is ASO ?
        Number 2 why do you think that Starbucks employees do not deserve degrees .
        Number 3 if you do not know enough about the quality of ASU and EDX , you cannot comment at all İn the first place .
        Number 4 Do you mean ASO ( rather ASU ) cannot be compared with a really good school . Why ?
        Number 5 EDX is not a school it is a consortium .

        I still respect your comments very highly for the last 3-4 years .


  2. If I were Starbucks I would do much better.
    If an employee get a success certificate from edx universities courses , which are all free and online and best universities in the World , I woukld pay them an extra $ 100 as a bonus .EDX is set up by MIT and Harvard and have about 30 universities as members .
    If they get 20 certificates I would award
    AA degree of Starbucks Digital University plus $ 100 per certificate.
    If they get 40 certificates I would award them
    BA Degree of Starbucks Digital University plus $ 100 per certificate .

    I can claim that MIT Harvard and other member universities courses are much better than ASU online programs costing $ 250 per unit .
    Please comment


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