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Starbucks free tuition plan comes at a cost

Those working 20 hours per week at Starbucks can now complete their junior and senior years at ASU Online for free. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a Starbucks coffee house in Sydney on May 28, 2014.
Pedestrians cross a street in front of a Starbucks coffee house in Sydney on May 28, 2014.

Any Starbucks employee who works at least 20 hours per week will soon be able to complete his/her junior and senior years of college at Arizona State University (ASU) Online, thanks to a deal between the coffeehouse colossus and the institute of higher learning. But not everyone thinks that the new plan is such a great deal for Starbucks employees. 

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which replaces an earlier tuition assistance program in the company's benefits package, was officially unveiled at a public forum in New York's Times Center. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put in an appearance at the forum during which he told Starbucks employees, "I urge you to take advantage of this."

A joint statement from Starbucks and ASU hailed the new tuition reimbursement plan as "a powerful, first-of-its-kind program designed to unleash [a] lifetime opportunity for thousands of eligible part-time and full-time U.S. partners (employees)." Under the new plan, employees who complete their freshman and sophomore years at ASU Online would receive a major discount, and the remaining two years would be totally free.

Sounds great, right? Not according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who said she found it "incredibly problematic" that Starbucks has decided to limit its tuition assistance to a single online university.

"ASU Online is a profit venture," said Goldrick-Rab. "And basically, these two businesses have gotten together and created a monopoly on college ventures for Starbucks employees."

Although ASU is a public university, its online wing is definitely a revenue-generating enterprise, helping the university manage its finances in an era of declining state aid. Online courses are taught by ASU professors, but much of the technical and administrative work that goes into managing ASU Online has been handed over to a private company, Pearson.

In addition to limiting student choices, Goldrick-Rab said she believes it will leave them with a shoddier education. Recent research has suggested that online-only classes may leave low-income students at a disadvantage. Those are precisely the people, said Goldrick-Rab, who are mostly likely to enroll in ASU Online through the Starbucks program.

"These studies indicate that online education not only doesn't work well for them, but can also propel them backwards," she said. Students would also expected to become full-time students, while still working an average 20 hours per week at Starbucks.

In response to a question regarding the effectiveness of online-only education, Starbucks spokesperson Zack Hutson wrote that ASU Online courses "are taught by the same award-winning faculty, but are re-designed especially for effective and rigorous online learning, with the traditional semester broke into two 7.5-week sessions so that students' progress is assessed continuously."

"We spent considerable time looking for the right collaboration for our partners. ASU’s mission, values and brand are a good match to our own," wrote Hutson in an email. "Arizona State is the only university that could stand side-by-side with Starbucks to offer a high-quality education, at scale, to all of our U.S. partners."

Although Starbucks is the first company to partner with a public university in this way, its new benefits program is not entirely unprecedented. In 2010, Walmart inked a deal with American Public Education (APE, actually a for-profit company which runs two online-only universities) to provide $50 million in APE-specific tuition assistance to Wal-Mart employees.