Starbucks plans online college free to workers

Unique deal with Arizona State won’t tie employees to company

A man drinks a Starbucks coffee in New York.
A man drinks a Starbucks coffee in New York.

SEATTLE — 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 today.

The program is open to any of the company’s 135,000 U.S. 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 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 workers to stay for years afterward, or limiting reimbursement to work-related courses.

Starbucks is, in effect, inviting its workers to study whatever they like, and then leave whenever they like.

Even if they did, their experience “would be accreted to our brand, our reputation, and our business,” said Howard Schultz, the company’s chairman and chief executive. “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 also has been accused of using improper hardball tactics in fighting unionization drives.

Whether in spite of those perks or because of them, the company has been highly successful. Its stock has grown in value more than 100-fold since it went public in 1992.

The president of Arizona State, Michael Crow, something of an evangelist for online education, was scheduled to join Mr. Schultz and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to announce the program today in New York.

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.

Tuition for Arizona State’s online courses is about $500 per credit, and it takes 120 credits to earn a bachelor’s degree.