Will Work for Education

Originally published in USGBC+
March-April 2015

Starbucks takes the lead in social responsibility at home with a college program for its workforce.


Starbucks is often touted as one of the more enlightened corporations in the U.S. that’s working hard at shrinking its carbon footprint and pursuing global social responsibility initiatives. Those goals are achieved through innovative green building programs, sustainable operating practices, and sourcing fair trade coffees to improve the lives of coffee growers (and their workers) around the world.


It should come as no surprise that Starbucks’ leaders recently expanded their efforts in social responsibility—only this time a lot closer to home. Last summer, the Seattle-based company established a college education program in a unique partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) that encourages its own employees to finish college. The carrot for that nudge to go back to school is tuition reimbursement so individuals who start out at Starbucks can aspire to even greater opportunities and achieve improvements in their quality of life. Starbucks estimates about 70 percent of its workforce are students or individuals who would like to go to college, and many of them would do so if they could find an affordable and manageable work/life balance to make that happen.

U.S.-based Starbucks employees who work 20 hours per week or more can sign up to earn a bachelor’s degree in one of 40 undergraduate degree disciplines offered by ASU’s prestigious online program, according to Starbucks. Degrees are awarded for majors that include education, engineering, business, psychology, communications, and retail management. The program is open to workers (called “partners” internally) at all company-owned stores nationwide, which includes its other affiliates: Teavana, La Boulange, Evolution Fresh, and Seattle’s Best Coffee. Employees at support centers and company plants also are eligible.

Employees who are already en route to acquiring a bachelor’s degree and enroll as juniors or seniors will get full tuition reimbursement from Starbucks for every semester of fully completed courses, the company says. Freshmen and sophomores who enroll at ASU online through the program can receive partial tuition payback and need-based financial aid, according to Starbucks.

No strings attached

Perhaps most surprisingly, Starbucks employees who graduate aren’t obligated to continue working for the company once they’ve received their bachelor’s diploma. They can move on to pursue a career in their area of study or go after any opportunity that could improve their standard of living, notes Starbucks CEO and President Howard Schultz. He explains the motivation for initiating the College Achievement Plan, or CAP, was to encourage more individuals to finish college who couldn’t otherwise afford to do so.

“There’s no doubt, the inequality within the country has created a situation where many Americans are being left behind,” observes Schultz. “The question for all of us is, should we accept that, or should we try and do something about it. Supporting our partners’ (employees’) ambitions is the very best investment Starbucks can make.”

The motivation for initiating the College Achievement Plan was to encourage more
individuals to finish college who couldn’t otherwise afford to do so.


The CAP program, which launched officially last June, has been wildly popular. By spring semester 2015, which started in January (2015), about 1,500 Starbucks employees across the country had enrolled and nearly all 40 majors were represented among the degrees being pursued, says Carrie Lingenselter, a spokesperson for ASU online. The most commonly selected degrees among the group include psychology, organizational leadership health sciences (healthy lifestyle coaching), mass communication and media studies, and English.
Shawn Walker, a barista for Starbucks in New York City, was a year away from completing his bachelor’s degree in graphic information technology, but quit a few years back because he couldn’t afford to repay mounting student loans. Now he’s back in school at ASU, working part-time and hoping to move on when he graduates.

“Now I see that it’s possible for me to move my life forward,” says Walker. “I am confident I will be successful doing something I love and this opportunity is a new beginning for me.”

Abraham Cervantes, another Starbucks barista, is now studying music at ASU as part of the CAP program while he continues to work. “I want to teach at a university, and for that, you need a college degree,” he explains. “For me, the opportunity to earn my degree means I have the chance to teach others and make a better life for myself and my mom, who raised me and my three siblings on her own.”

Two-tiered reimbursement, extra support

The program has two levels of reimbursement. Starbucks is offering maximum incentive to individuals who are closer to completing their degrees, but also gives partial reimbursement to freshmen and sophomores as a motivator to get on the path to higher education. Students receive a small scholarship from Starbucks when they first enroll, which never has to be repaid. Participating employees pay upfront for the rest of their tuition and other fees, but then are reimbursed by Starbucks every time they complete 21 credits (the estimated equivalent of a full semester of classes).

While financial support is critical for employees who participate, Starbucks and the university assembled a support system of professionals to ensure students have a better chance of making it to the finish line. An enrollment coach will be assigned to each student, as well as a financial aid counselor and an academic advisor who makes sure they are taking the right courses and staying on track toward graduation.

In addition to the 40 existing majors available at ASU online, Starbucks and the university created a new Retail Management Degree that’s geared toward employees who are interested in expanding their skill set for a retail environment and staying with the company after acquiring their degree, says Dayna Eberhardt, Starbuck’s vice president of Global Learning.


Eberhardt, who helped design the new retail degree with professionals at ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, says there are five general categories incorporated into the curriculum for the degree that are important to Starbucks. They are: people and team leadership; critical thinking and problem solving; business management; customer service; and sustainability.

Launching the Starbucks’ CAP program has naturally boosted enrollment for ASU, but Michael M. Crow, the university’s president, says the incentive for collaborating with Starbucks was not about numbers. It was more about fulfilling the university’s mission to widen diversity among its student base and encouraging more individuals who don’t have the luxury of attending college full-time to find ways to obtain their degree, he asserts.

“ASU is pioneering a new university model focused on inclusivity and degree completion, and Starbucks is establishing a new precedent for the responsibility and role of a public company that leads through the lens of humanity and supports its partners’ life goals with access to education,” says Crow.

So far, ASU hasn’t collaborated with any other corporations to create a similar program, but is already receiving calls from other interested companies as Starbucks broadcasts success stories about the alliance, says Lingenselter.

First graduate will inspire others to follow

Kaede Clifford, a 13-year Starbucks veteran, claims the spotlight as the first company employee to report success in the College Achievement Plan program. She graduated summa cum laude in December with a bachelor of arts degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

Clifford started college years ago while she was working for Starbucks, took a semester off and never returned—until last year, she says. In the interim, she moved with various company positions from Seattle to Arizona and Germany, and then back to Washington state.

“It was important to me to finish my degree,” Clifford emphasizes. “I wanted to finish something I started and also I know it will provide more opportunities to further my career.”

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