Three-quarters of Starbucks employees – and an equal share of American adults— don’t have a bachelor’s degree. The big problem for people isn’t starting college…it’s finishing. And some research indicates that the growing income gap in American life is, in some part, the result of differences in access to higher education.
Starbucks is trying to address this issue.The company is partnering with Arizona State University to help its employees complete their college education. The program is open to any employee who works twenty or more hours per week, and features discounted tuition and at least partial reimbursement.
Could this model inform other service sector employers and enhance upward mobility for American workers?
From focus groups and internal surveys, Starbucks executives knew their employees made up a fairly representative sample of the national population, educationally speaking. They were disproportionately young and female, and the vast majority did not have a four-year degree. Most were either taking classes on the side or hoped to do so at some point. They were busy, cash-strapped, and yearning for more.
The program has some important features that may enhance the potential of Starbucks employees to successfully attain their educational goals.
The most revolutionary part of the program had nothing to do with tuition and got far less media attention. In their announcement, Starbucks and Arizona State also committed themselves to providing all enrolled employees with individualized guidance—the kind of thing affluent American parents and elite universities provide for their students as a matter of course. Starbucks students would each be assigned an enrollment counselor, a financial-aid adviser, an academic adviser, and a “success coach”—a veritable pit crew of helpers. Like a growing number of innovative colleges around the country, Starbucks and Arizona State were promising to prioritize the needs of real-life students over the traditions of academia.