The ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks has received a great deal of positive media attention for its announcement that it will provide full reimbursement for tuition and fees of employees at company-owned stores who enroll in one of Arizona State University’s online bachelor’s degree programs. Education Secretary Arne Duncan even made an appearance at the program’s unveiling, alongside Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State President Michael Crow. But, while I applaud Starbucks for providing financial assistance to students who want to continue their education, the conditions in the model will result in fewer employees successfully completing bachelor’s degrees. Below are the reasons not all employees will benefit.
Only juniors and seniors will get a full reimbursement. The frequently asked questions document on the Starbucks website notes that there will only be a “partial scholarship” for employees who have not at least achieved junior status (likely 60 credits earned). ASU Online’s tuition rates are between $480 and $543 per credit hour, meaning that credits taken at the local community college will probably be a fraction of the cost of the ASU Online credits after partial reimbursement. This means that students are less likely to use the Starbucks program for the first 60 credits, although the promise of future reimbursement may be enough to induce Starbucks employees to go back to college.
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Students are not reimbursed until they complete 21 credits. This policy was designed in order to encourage completion, as the goal is to motivate students to continue their studies until they are reimbursed. However, given the per-credit cost, a student not receiving any grants from the federal government would have to pay about $10,000 out of pocket (or borrow that amount) before being reimbursed. ASU Online recommends that students take two or three 3-credit classes during each 7.5-week class window, meaning that a continuously enrolled full-time student who started in August would probably complete seven classes by March or May of the following year. Students can also qualify for reimbursement by enrolling part-time, but they may take two years to complete the 21 credits necessary for reimbursement. This also provides a strong incentive for students to stay at Starbucks to claim the benefit, which can limit their mobility as employees but may be worthwhile given the potential value of the benefit.
The delay between paying tuition and fees and being reimbursed introduces substantial risk for students. A student who is willing to pay up to $10,000 and get reimbursed later only if successful likely has a higher tolerance for risk, is more willing to borrow, and is more likely to complete courses than a student who is hesitant to participate in the program. This means that the Starbucks employees who participate in the program as currently constructed are probably from higher-income families with more social and cultural capital — potentially minimizing the social mobility the program offers. Reimbursing students after each successfully completed course would help mitigate this risk and reduce the amount of money students have to pay upfront.
Reimbursements by Starbucks take place after other grant aid is applied, making the company’s contribution smaller. Students are required to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to participate in the program and any grant aid received will be applied before Starbucks makes its contribution. Consider the case of a student with a zero expected family contribution, representing the greatest level of financial need, who enrolls for 12 credits in a semester. Her tuition at $500 per credit would be $12,000 for the academic year. She is eligible for the maximum Pell Grant of $5,730 in the 2014-15 academic year, which is applied before any aid from Starbucks. This leaves $6,270 uncovered by the Pell Grant, but Arizona State is offering scholarships of $4,840 per year to all Starbucks employees. The resulting $1,430 would be paid by Starbucks if the student didn't receive any other grants or scholarships. This is an admirable contribution, but most of the burden of financing the student is not on Starbucks.
Students have to work at least 20 hours per week to maintain program eligibility. While Starbucks is extremely generous in providing many benefits to part-time employees, working 20 hours per week is a significant hurdle for full-time students. Some amount of work is often considered beneficial to students, but working more than 20 hours per week is commonly seen as a negative. Students’ hours in service industries are often volatile, meaning they may drop under 20 hours per week for a while. Rachel Fishman of the New America Foundation notes the potential problems with staying above that threshold.
Online education may not be right for everyone, yet it is the only option funded. It is far easier for Starbucks to work with one college than hundreds for administrative purposes. However, the lack of choice in the program may not be best for all students. ASU Online does offer about 40 majors, but they are all online — and research suggests that online courses may not work as well as face-to-face courses for students from lower-income families. While I don’t know enough about ASU’s programs to pass judgment on their quality, some students may not be interested in enrolling online even if the quality is high and the cost to the student is low.
All of these factors suggest that the percentage of Starbucks employees who successfully complete a bachelor’s degree as a result of the tuition reimbursement program will be fairly low. Starbucks should be commended for offering this benefit to its employees, but policymakers shouldn’t expect this program to substantially move the college completion rate dial in its current form.
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