Starbucks To Offer Free College Tuition To 135,000 Employees

Image via Flickr/ Chris McClanahan

As an occupation, the barista may be the punchline to many jokes, but Starbucks’ employees are getting the last laugh. The coffee juggernaut has long been lauded for its exceptional employee benefits, including health insurance—even for part-timers—retirement plans and stock options, rare in the food service and retail industries. Now, it has announced a groundbreaking program that will assist all of its 135,000 U.S. employees with tuition through the University of Arizona’s online program, provided they work a minimum of 20 hours each week.

Starbucks is going where no other major corporation has gone,” Jamie P. Merisotis, president and chief executive of the education-focused Lumina Foundation, told the New York Times. “For many of these Starbucks employees, an online university education is the only reasonable way they’re going to get a bachelor’s degree.”

According to Starbucks, more than 70 percent of its U.S. employees are either students or aspiring students. And even though they may move on to higher-paying jobs once they obtain their degrees, Starbucks still wants to help. Unlike many companies that offer tuition assistance, Starbucks will not require its employees to remain with the Seattle-based company upon graduation in order to receive the tuition reimbursement, they are eligible beginning their first day of work, and they won’t be limited to certain courses or majors.

The rules of engagement for running a company that is people-based like Starbucks, and so many other companies: you just can not continue to leave your people behind and only focus on shareholder value,” Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz told CNN’s Poppy Harlow. “I feel so strongly this is the right thing to do and Starbucks as a company is going to benefit in ways that probably we cannot identify today.”

Under the new Starbucks College Achievement Plan, employees in their junior or senior years of college will qualify for full tuition reimbursement, regardless of their areas of study, while freshman and sophomore students will qualify for scholarships and other partial assistance. Although the overall cost to the company will vary depending on how many employees actually participate in the program, Schultz says the benefit is equal to about $30,000 per employee. Plus, those students already enrolled at another institution can apply to transfer their credits to Arizona State University.

This is going to give our partners hope, opportunity and the freedom to believe in themselves and their careers for the long term,” said Schultz. “The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is part of the answer to the question ‘what is the role and responsibility of a public company,’ and for me it demonstrates the heart and the conscience of Starbucks.”

Arizona State has one of the largest online degree programs in the United States. It currently boasts 11,000 students, studying 40 undergraduate major areas of study. Not only did the university rank as the second-most innovative school in the country by U.S. News and World Report, but it was also ranked fifth in the nation for producing the best-qualified graduations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Every person should have an opportunity to advance on their own,” said Dr. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. “I fundamentally believe in an education model where individuals have an equal chance in a merit-based society where your parents’ income or status is not the determiner of your fate. That is what we have been building at ASU.”