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Starbucks to offer workers free online college education

NEW YORK — Starbucks Corp. 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 Monday.

The program is open to any of the company's 135,000 US employees who 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 when government and university aid is included.

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"Starbucks is going where no other major corporation has gone," said Jamie P. Merisotis, chief executive of 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 often the full cost is not paid, workers must stay for years afterward, or reimbursement is limited to work-related courses.

Starbucks is, in effect, inviting workers to study whatever they like and leave whenever they like — knowing that many of them, degrees in hand, will leave for better-paying jobs.

"I believe it will lower attrition, it'll increase performance, it'll attract and retain better people," said Howard D. Schultz, chief executive.

Starbucks has for decades provided health insurance, even for part-timers, and given employees stock options.

The president of Arizona State, Michael M. Crow, was scheduled to join Schultz and Arne Duncan, the US education secretary, to announce the program Monday in New York.