Starbucks offers workers a free online degree

Starbucks workers will be able to study for a free online bachelor’s degree via Arizona State University, reports the New York Times. Employees anywhere in the U.S. are eligible if they work at least 20 hours a week.

Starbucks will pay ASU Online’s full tuition for a barista with at least two years of college credit. Those in their first two years of college will get a partial scholarship and need-based financial aid for two years of full-time study. Employees will not be obliged to stay with the company after completing a degree.

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

Arizona State’s online program is one of the largest in the U.S. with 11,000 students and 40 undergraduate majors. Tuition typically costs $500 per credit with 120 credits needed for a bachelor’s degree.

Seventy percent of Starbucks employees do not have a degree but want to earn one, the company reports. (The other 30 percent earned degrees in film studies . . . No, that’s unkind.)

“My dad lost his job during the recession, in my first year of college, and my parents were really struggling for money,” said Tammie R. Lopez, 22, who would also be the first in her family to finish college. “They were on the verge of losing their home, so I stopped going to school so I could get a second job and help them.”

Ms. Lopez, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, got a full-time job at Starbucks and goes to a community college at night. “I could never see myself finishing school because it’s taken me so long to get where I am,” Ms. Lopez said. She is studying to be a sign language interpreter, but is also weighing other possibilities, such as a business degree.

What Starbucks has planned, she said, completely changed her outlook. “I could be done with school in a couple of years — I can see it, that financial burden would be lifted,” she said.

Michael Bojorquez Echevarria, 23, another barista in the San Fernando Valley, is working toward an associate degree in sociology while working 60 hours a week at two Starbucks locations.

“My ultimate vision, what I’m striving for, is to work with children who have gone through physical or emotional abuse,” he said. “Imagine just waking up one day and knowing that your whole degree would be paid for, and the only thing you have to do is enroll and study and be a good student,” he said. “It would change my lifestyle, the whole dynamic of what I do every day.”

Limiting tuition aid to a single online university is “incredibly problematic,”  said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor. While Arizona State is a public university, “ASU Online is a profit venture,” she said.

In addition to limiting student choices, online-only courses don’t work well for low-income students, said Goldrick-Rab, citing recent studies.