Starbucks To Offer Employees Online College Degrees

Published October 6, 2014

Starbucks and Arizona State University will offer Starbucks’ employees who work at least 20 hours per week the opportunity to receive an online college degree at a discounted price.

This arrangement “is a first of its kind,” said Sharon Keeler, an Arizona State (ASU) spokeswoman. “[W]e have a constant desire to find new ways to offer qualified students the opportunity to receive a quality higher education and will continue to seek out and evaluate partnerships with like-minded companies who are committed to the on-going education of their employees.”

ASU is well-known for its online degrees. Its Starbucks arrangement represents a number of nascent trends, including an expanding of benefits packages into education offerings, and a new relationship between business and education. While businesses often demand higher-quality education, in recent years few actually provided it in-house.

This new program will gradually replace Starbucks’ current tuition reimbursement program, which gives students up to $1,00­0 each year for tuition. Now, for a student’s freshman and sophomore years, Starbucks and ASU will subsidize the estimated $20,000 in tuition with $6,500. Students can apply for grants, such as Pell grants, which typically cover most of the remainder. After students complete their first two years of college through the program, Starbucks will reimburse them for any out-of-pocket expenses from those first two years, and for the remaining two.

From Online College To Business Training
The phenomenon of online higher education, or massive open online courses (MOOCs) has taken off in recent years because of companies that offer such MOOCS, such as Udacity. Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University professor and Udacity co-founder, said MOOCS are a mechanism for the average person to obtain a college education at no cost. Universities such as Harvard and MIT put their lectures and course materials online, for anyone to use, free.

Udacity spokesman Shernaz Daver expounded Thrun’s vision: “Our mission from the start has been to democratize education.”

Thrun ran into a wall, however, when he found that completion rates for his free online courses were very low. And students also weren’t doing well on tests. As a for-profit company, Udacity had to make a switch.

Try a Nanodegree
Udacity’s most recent innovation is the “nanodegree,” which allows students to complete courses for a specific career. Udacity now works with AT&T to train workers for entry-level programming positions at AT&T.

Regardless of the company’s original intent, Udacity is now focusing on worker training rather than higher-level education. In a blog post announcing this decision, the company stated, “We are designing nanodegrees as the most compact and relevant curriculum to qualify you for a job. The sole goal is to help students advance their career.”

In this way, online education is shifting to a form of worker training for specific careers. The courses in the nanodegree program teach students only what they need to know to perform a certain job.

Daver explained that Udacity no longer offers humanities classes, but is instead focusing solely on technical skills classes: “That is our forte and we need to do that right…Our classes have always been designed for people to be educated in technical fields.”

Companies work with Udacity and other online education providers to design specific programs that can train their workers online.

“We know we still have a long road ahead, but today is the first step on a new path for education by industry,” Daver said.

Starbucks Allows For Humanities
Although Starbucks claims their employees are free to pursue other career opportunities upon completing their online degrees, could Starbucks have this same sort of employee training in mind?

Keeler differentiated between the kind of worker training programs Udacity offers and the online degree programs of Arizona State: “Partners are able to enroll in whatever program they like. Some of the programs are humanities-based, many of the programs include humanities classes, and most have that elective component.”

She noted that Udacity is not accredited to offer college degrees or credits like ASU, but instead offers free online classes that build more discrete skills. 


Image by Susan Sermoneta.