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 as 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.