The College Debt Barrier Comes Down

Starbucks serves up higher ed with a smile


It almost seems too good to be true—you want to ask, what’s the catch? Not only does Starbucks make delicious coffee, not only is it committed to using ethically sourced coffee beans, but it’s investing millions of dollars in its baristas so they can earn a college degree at a highly ranked public research university. Nah, can’t be, you say.

[Related: Young People Continue to See Lag in Employment Rates]

And yet it is.

Last June, Starbucks announced an innovative partnership with Arizona State University, ranked among the top 100 universities in the world, in which it would offer full-tuition coverage to full- or part-time Starbucks employees. Called the College Achievement Plan, it was limited to employees that were already college juniors or seniors. But this month Starbucks announced an expansion of the plan. Eligible Starbucks employees can now apply for and complete all four years of a bachelor’s degree through ASU’s top-ranked online degree program.

“Everyone deserves a chance at the American dream,” said Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, in a statement. “The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree, particularly disadvantaged young people, and others are saddled with burdensome education debt. By giving our partners [employees] access to four years of full tuition coverage, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity. We’re stronger as a nation when everyone is afforded a pathway to success.”

Ah, affordability. But this is an online program. Is online education a valid option? Or are students just “sitting in a basement, watching lectures”?

Akeisha Walker, a Starbucks store manager in Chicago and married mother of three, answers with an emphatic no. A rising junior through Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan who previously studied at schools in Illinois, she is majoring in organizational leadership and is fully integrated into the ASU student experience. Most of her classmates are physically on campus; for lectures or group work, she is brought in through FaceTime (video telephony) to provide her input. For a video group project, she did the voice over. Walker says she feels “very much involved” in her coursework. When her class meets in the library, Walker is there, by way of FaceTime. She has an academic adviser and a success coach with whom she talks every two weeks—sometimes their talks are short, sometimes long, and sometimes, Walker says, her coach provides “pure motivation.” Although nearly 1,500 miles from Phoenix, Walker says, “I feel more connected at ASU than I ever felt at any other school.”

That feeling of connectedness may be due to the extraordinary supports that have been built into the program. According to a representative from ASU, the school committed itself along with Starbucks to providing individualized guidance to students by way of its counselors, coaches, and advisers. In addition, its eAdvisor technology helps keep students on track. A spokesman from the school says, “technology helps ASU and the student identify problems while they can still be corrected.”

One aspect of the program sealed the deal for Walker. “My college degree was something I always wanted to complete, so when the College Achievement Plan was developed it was a no-brainer because I wouldn’t have debt hanging over my head.”

College debt is a barrier for many potential students, and for that reason the Starbucks plan looks very attractive indeed. Partners in the program receive an upfront College Achievement Plan scholarship worth 42% of their tuition costs funded by ASU and applied when they enroll in classes. Partners also have access to financial aid grants, and Starbucks reimburses any remaining tuition and mandatory fees not covered at the end of each semester. The reimbursement automatically shows up in the paychecks of employees each time they complete a semester or graduate. Students do not have to take out any loans. But even if they do, they can pay off the loan when they’re reimbursed at the end of the semester.

Nearly 2,000 Starbucks partners enrolled within the first seven months of the program—68% are female, 31% are male; 71% are white, 16% are Latino, and 3.7% are African American. Michael Crow, president of ASU, recently said in the New York Times that “86% of Starbucks students were retained between semesters, which is high for working adults.”

For more information about Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan and ASU, go to

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