Starbucks’s higher-ed benefit should be a model for other companies

The barista wants a baccalaureate. And suddenly online education, along with the hopes and dreams of many Starbucks employees, got a big boost after the coffee chain announced that it would offer discounted tuition to thousands of its employees. (The initial announcement misleadingly stated that the chain was offering free tuition.) Starting this fall, Starbucks baristas who work more than 20 hours per week will be able to enroll in any of Arizona State University’s 40 online educational programs, a first-of-its-kind partnership made possible through tuition discounts from ASU.

In exchange for Starbucks bringing students to ASU, the university will charge the baristas less than the sticker price for its online tuition, estimated at $30,000 for a four-year degree. The coffee chain is not putting money upfront; instead, Starbucks’ workers who enroll as freshmen and sophomores will be offered a reduced tuition, an average of $6,500 over those two years. For juniors and seniors, the tuition discount amounts to about $12,600, and the coffee chain will then reimburse those employees for whatever tuition they had to cover once they complete 21 credits. So the last two years of college are essentially free, an incentive for baristas to complete their college degrees.

The Starbucks program is not merely generous philanthropy, it’s also a smart, strategic business decision that will keep talent in the workplace. According to Starbucks, 70 percent of its 135,000 US employees do not have a college degree but want to earn one. No other organization with Starbucks’ muscle is negotiating on behalf of tens of thousands of potential students to drive down the cost of higher education.


More companies should follow Starbucks’ lead and bring their purchasing power to colleges and universities. In the process, they will help themselves maintain an ambitious — and grateful — workforce.