Starbucks pledges to pay for employees’ college tuition—as long as they enroll in one online program

Aprons need not be worn during class.
Aprons need not be worn during class.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee shop chain, is offering to fund four years of college tuition for employees in the United States working at least 20 hours a week—but only if they enroll in the online program of Arizona State University (ASU).

The initiative is an expansion on a previous program that offered Starbucks staff two years of tuition at ASU Online. The company says the update not only offers more money—the school costs about $15,000 per year—but reimburses students after every semester, instead of every year as was the case in the previous scheme. CEO Howard Schultz told Reuters that the company is also open to expanding the scheme to fund master’s degrees.

It’s not all that revolutionary for a company to offer tuition reimbursement as a recruitment tool or perk. What is unique, according to Starbucks’ critics, is that the company is restricting its employees to one online university program. Education experts say online universities are often the least suited for low-income students—the exact group that Starbucks says it wants to help.

ASU Online is ranked as the 8th best online university in the country by US News & World Report. But the program has been criticized as a for-profit venture that makes up for shrinking funding at its parent university. The program is affiliated with the for-profit company Pearson, and university officials have compared it, at least in terms of potential reach, to that of the troubled University of Phoenix—the poster child for the drawbacks of for-profit online programs.