Or, You Know, We Could Just Make a College Education Affordable Again

No doubt Starbucks’ new tuition reimbursement program is better than a kick in the teeth, and I suppose the company deserves some credit for doing more than many of its competitors. But forgive me for not sharing in the credulous headlines. First of all, the program isn’t nearly as generous was first reported. Second, if limiting low-income students’ options to taking online courses from a single university is the “new model” for higher education that Arizona State University president Michael M. Crow envisions, I seriously doubt it will do much to address our nation’s growing opportunity gap.

It’s hard to suss out the exact details of the program from Starbucks’ publicly available documents (pdf), but it appears that the cost to the company will be far less than the $30,000 per employee benefit some headlines have touted. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Starbucks expects to spend an average of $3,250 per student per year in upfront scholarships (presumably per academic year rather than calendar year, as these are per credit grants), plus reimbursements to juniors and seniors of “however much it needs to cover any other unmet tuition costs.” Tuition reimbursements will only be paid to employees after completing 21-credit blocks—the company says that the “vast majority” of employees will receive less than $5,250 in tuition benefits in any given year.

But at between $480 to $543 per undergraduate credit, ASU’s online classes don’t come cheap. The 120 credits necessary to get a four-year Bachelors degree, comes to about $15,000 a year for a full-time online student—a couple thousand dollars a year more than resident tuition and fees at the University of Washington. So it’s not a bargain. Starbucks and ASU expect that most students will qualify for federal grants and other financial aid—hence the lower than sticker price cost to Starbucks for juniors and seniors—but even upperclassmen expecting full reimbursement will likely have to take out student loans to cover upfront costs.

If you’re a Starbucks employee just a semester or three shy of a college diploma, this program could prove a boon. But for freshmen and sophomores, not so much. Community college credits are cheaper, even accounting for the Starbucks subsidy, plus come with the added benefit of a live classroom and campus experience. Nothing against distance learning as a supplement to a traditional college education, but it hardly seems worth paying a premium for online courses.

I doubt most Starbucks executives would choose an online-only college education for their own children. So why should that be good enough for their employees?

So yeah. Starbucks’ “College Achievement Plan” is better than a kick in the teeth. It’s not nothing. And other highly profitable companies should be ashamed for not making at least as much effort to better the lives their workers. But it does relatively little to address the core problem facing low-income youth today: Low wages and skyrocketing tuition costs.

To put this into perspective, Starbucks’ estimated average cost of $3,250 in tuition subsidies per student per academic year would be the equivalent of paying a full-time student an additional $3.12 an hour on a part-time 20-hour week. But for a full-time barista earning only 3 credits per term (ASU tells students to expect to put in 18 hours a week in work per 3-credit class), Starbucks’ tuition benefit drops to only $0.78 per hour. The benefit for most Starbucks workers who take part in the program will be somewhere in between.

By comparison, Starbucks baristas average less than $9 an hour in pay nationally, a little higher here in Washington State. Thus a $15 minimum wage would do far more to make college affordable than Starbucks’ complicated tuition benefit program, while giving workers the choice of which college or university to attend, and more than just the 40 areas of study that ASU offers online.

The flip-side to this equation is that programs like this wouldn’t be necessary at all if we had not abdicated our responsibility to adequately fund our state college and university systems. “If it’s all about state legislatures appropriating more money, guess again,” says Crow cynically, but that’s awfully self-serving coming from the president of a university that just signed an exclusive deal with Starbucks to provide online degrees to potentially tens of thousands of workers.

Many of today’s lawmakers worked their way through college at a time when one could. Higher pay and lower tuition is the key to making college broadly affordable again, not corporate altruism.

The only thing keeping us from making a public university degree affordable again is the will to tax ourselves to pay for it. The revenue isn’t there because taxes as a percentage of income are at an all time low. We can afford to pay to properly educate our young the way we did in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s if we once again choose to adequately tax the wealth and incomes of billionaires like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Skyrocketing tuition is the result of a policy decision, not a natural disaster. If we as a society choose to make higher education affordable again, we can.

But we don’t.

And that is why, far from excited by Starbucks’ announcement, I came away rather depressed. For however altruistic Starbucks’ intentions may be, and however many workers might ultimately take advantage of the program to complete their degrees, this is a model that ultimately takes away options from America’s youth, while easing pressure on the current generation of decision makers to give future generations the same educational opportunities that we enjoyed.


  1. 1

    LeftyCentrist spews:

    “We Could Just Make a College Education Affordable Again”
    – Goldy

    I was hoping to find actionable ideas on how to do that somewhere in the article.

  2. 2


    @1 I’m pretty specific. We need to tax ourselves to pay for fully funding higher ed. This is a choice legislators have made. They could unmake this choice.

  3. 3

    Sloppy Travis Bickle spews:

    I hate it when you write shit like ‘The only way to …’.

    It’s rarely true.

    Here, you do it again. “The only thing keeping us from making a public university degree affordable again is the will to tax ourselves to pay for it. ”

    Well, no, not really.

    What about undoing much of the bloat that has filled universities in the past couple of decades?

    “According to the Chronicle of Higher Education”,

    Robert E. Martin, a professor emeritus of economics at Centre College who has studied the effect of administrative bloat on college costs, said that the role of student services has been growing since the early 1990s, when colleges believed that they had to provide more services outside the classroom.

    Those services aren’t necessarily central to the mission of most institutions, Mr. Martin said. “At what point,” he said, “does that ratio of nonacademic staff to tenured faculty become completely untenable?”

    Other industries have found ways to outsource services that are not central to what they do, but higher education has invested more and more—as part of a strategy, he contended. Just as a cable company bundles channels together and makes you pay for them all, whether or not you watch them, colleges have bundled counseling, athletics, campus activities, and other services with the instructional side to justify charging more.

    “All of those things they are bundling are adding to the price of attendance,” he said.


    And a little higher in that piece is this gem:

    What’s more, the report says, the number of full-time faculty and staff members per professional or managerial administrator has declined 40 percent, to around 2.5 to 1.

    If one were to focus on reducing college bloat and on making colleges at least in part liable for unpaid student loan debt, that would go a long way to reducing tuition.

    No higher taxation necessary.

    People like Mitch Daniels, currently running Purdue University, have different ideas about controlling costs than simply soaking the taxpayer some more. He’s not the only one.

    Societal problems discussed on this blog are almost never simple. Same goes for solutions.

  4. 4

    Sloppy Travis Bickle spews:

    Making College More Affordable
    The President’s Plan to Lower College Tuition Is a Good First Step but More Can Be Done


    Not exactly from a right-wing source. Not a word in there about jacking up taxes. A fair amount about unchecked tuition increases, however.

    Here’s their summary of Obama’s plan:

    The president’s plan acknowledges this by addressing three main issues surrounding college affordability: providing financial incentives for colleges to lower tuition; giving students better information about their college choices; and improving federal financial aid programs.

    Nope, no increase in taxes there, either.

  5. 5

    sally spews:

    There are a number of college graduates at my two local Starbucks stores. They don’t need this; they need to make a little more per hour.

  6. 7

    Better spews:

    Blaming bloat is all well and good, I’m against it also. Nobody wants to pay for bloat.
    What programs and people would you specifically cut to get tuition to say… half of what it is now?
    I don’t need numbers, just departments or job positions that you know of that would likely drop the price when added up?

  7. 8

    Puddybud - The ONE and Only spews:

    Damn Travis Bickle@3, That was my link. Good job there! There is the definite DUMMOCRETIN leaning of almost all major universities. Didn’t Ex-Mayor Bloomberg cover that? http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/29/.....rd-speech/ Yes he did!

    So why do college DUMMOCRETINS heads try to screw the little guy who usually is a low information voting DUMMOCRETIN? It seems these universities want to keep the uneducated dumb masses on their asses by educating those who can afford university education to continue supporting government handouts for the poor and indigent. Instead why not offer education at lower prices? Look at some of these endowments of these libtard leaning universities? Hmmm…?

  8. 10

    Ralph Hurley spews:

    Ol’ SLAPPY WHAPPY DUMMOCRETIN Goldy been suckin’ on the ol’ GUMMINT WOLF TEAT so long, he plain forgetted what side that teat was BUTTERED on!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    An’ DATS de truf!!!

    Sorry fellows, but I’ll have to drop out of this conversation now as I have to go to work as a highly paid consultant for Microsoft.

  9. 11

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    And after America loses its competitive edge in the global economy because college is no longer affordable for the middle class, conservatives will blame the kids who were priced out of education for being “lazy” and “stupid” and “lacking ambition.” You can count on it.

  10. 13

    LeftyCentrist spews:


    “Tax the rich” makes a good soundbyte, but it isn’t actionable. It doesn’t happen. It’s been a good, solid argument for a huge number of societal issues since the Reagan administration started, it has the advantage of the moral high ground, and *it hasn’t happened*.

    Any thoughts on approaches to the problem that can actually be pushed through our political process? I don’t think you’re wrong exactly, I just think we have a better chance of getting something done if we quit waiting for the pigs to fly.

    Can we legislate a tuition per credit hour cap? Cap tuition increase %? Mandate that colleges with endowments use more of those endowments to provide scholarships or assist with student loan repayment?

    Some harm amelioration seems to be in order while the larger battle with a corrupt political system that has lead to the wealthy paying 18% tax while the middle class pay over 30% is fought.

  11. 14

    Better spews:

    “Teachers, the classic example goes, are like musicians. You can’t get a string quartet to play faster to larger audiences, or replace its members with recordings, without eroding the value of a concert. Barring other sources of funding, you can only get cheaper labor—hence the growing numbers of underpaid adjunct instructors—or charge more.”

  12. 15

    Better spews:

    “There has been an explosion in the number of support staff in many institutions: Deans, officers for a variety of social initiatives, personnel to support all the extra facilities and services provided to the students, marketing and admissions staff, administrative support, and career-placement staff. This adds considerably to the overhead. Finally, faculty teaching loads have gradually been reduced, on average, from six or five courses per year to four or three, or less, to provide faculty additional time for their research and other administrative activities. Inasmuch as student tuition is a major component of institutional revenue to cover faculty and staff, as well as overhead costs, many faculty don’t teach enough students to cover their own costs, let alone the many additional supporting costs. ”
    There you go.

  13. 17

    Puddybud - The ONE and Only spews:

    Ahhh yes,,, rujaxoff posted nuthin from the reservation. The other bottom feeder of HA! So racist to claim stepin fetchit! Another useless post!

  14. 18

    Better spews:

    My favorite snippet: “For most liberals in the arts (there are very few conservatives in the arts)… “

    It’s a “conservatives are the real victim” piece. If the media wasn’t biased for making society better, then the black democrat would not have won. It wasn’t that conservative ideas and especially the conservative candidate was not viable for a majority of Americans, it was teachers and judges and reporters fault for not propagandizing how great conservatives are.

  15. 19

    Better spews:

    He sees it as… “History — and English and political science, and sociology and other liberal arts — teachers must use their classroom to produce young people who will wish to engage in society-transforming work for social justice. ”

    I assume conservatives then want the opposite. They want teachers who will use their classroom to in no way empower the students to think they have influence over their lives and the community They want to teach the students to be helpless. That seems kind of bleak.

    Or maybe it’s this? They want teachers who use their classroom to produce young people who will wish to actively resist any notion of social justice and society change. That can’t be what they want is it?

    The way I understand it, Social Justice that he seems so terrified of, is rooted in New Testament christian values and the Declaration of Independence ( All men are created equal…) so why are conseratives so bothered by it?

  16. 20

    Jack spews:

    I would like the kids to get skills they can use to make money to enrich themselves, support themselves, maintain solvency for their entire lives, and fund good retirement plans for themselves.

  17. 22

    Better spews:

    @20 Apparently your world view sees it that people should be taught skills that can support themselves or have an interest in Social Justice, but not both.
    That is a false dichotomy and not even accurate.
    You obviously don’t have kids in lefty Seattle school system. They are trying very hard to teach the skills kids will need, without an agenda, unless you think tolerance and cooperation is an evil lefty agenda.

  18. 23

    Pamela N spews:

    “Making college more affordable” was the stupid mantra used to open up the purse strings for propagating college loans back in the late 90s.


    When more money (in this case through loans) is made available, tuition goes up….way more than inflation.


    Please do less…in fact, do NOTHING. It’ll make everyone’s life better…and college more affordable.

  19. 24

    Better spews:

    I cannot see the flaw in that logic. It seems that tuition loans ARE making cost rise since there are still only a limited number of slots for students.

    If we stopped tuition loans, would the high price keep middle class and poor kids for college for a generation or so, until prices dropped.
    Is that an acceptable consequence?
    Can we go back to scholarship quotas if tuition loans go away.