Is the Starbucks-ASU partnership helping or hurting higher ed?

In the five years since Starbucks launched a college-support partnership with Arizona State University (ASU) Online, nearly 3,000 Starbucks employees have earned bachelor’s degrees, reports EdSurge. The Starbucks College Achievement Plan pairs scholarships with tuition reimbursement to help Starbucks employees, including part-time workers, earn their first bachelor’s degree. Program participants can choose among 80 majors and have no obligation to remain with the employer after graduating. Over the past few years, a number of similar employee education benefit programs have sprung up at companies including Walmart, Disney, Taco Bell, and JetBlue.

While proponents say the arrangements demonstrate employers’ desire to invest in their workers and universities’ creativity in expanding access, others are urging caution. Geoffrey Cox, senior associate dean for administration and finance in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, recently outlined potential drawbacks in The Chronicle of Higher Education, warning that the growing popularity of corporate-college partnerships could lead to reduced job mobility, higher tuition rates, and even greater educational inequity.

Exacerbating a ‘vicious cycle’?

Cox draws a parallel between the emergence of corporation-university arrangements and the trajectory of employer-sponsored health care. The intertwining of employment and health insurance, he says, has reduced workers’ ability and incentive to change jobs, made other health care options unaffordable, “effectively privatize[d] an important public-policy issue,” and impeded health care reform.

Looking at the employee education benefits offered by corporations like Starbucks, Cox suggests that rising demand for those entry-level corporate jobs in pursuit of education benefits could crowd low-income workers out of those jobs and widen gaps between the educated-employed and the undereducated-underemployed. “Linking access more closely to employment could well exacerbate a vicious cycle that is already unacceptable,” he writes.

In addition, he cautions that private arrangements between corporations and universities could lower colleges’ incentives to provide financial aid to students outside the partnership programs and may erode state and national lawmakers’ sense of responsibility for making college more affordable.

Or creating educational opportunity?

In contrast, Lisa Young, executive director of Starbucks Initiatives for EdPlus at Arizona State University, says Starbucks-style university partnerships can make college seem less exclusive to students who might otherwise think that “a college degree is meant for a certain group of individuals who can afford it.”

Starbucks and ASU point to the program’s evolution across the past five years. As of spring 2019, 12,000 Starbucks employees were enrolled in ASU’s online degree program, almost 500 stores had at least five workers enrolled, and Starbucks employees accounted for 27 percent of ASU’s online students. Starbucks aims to graduate 25,000 students from the program by 2025.

Noting that the program has required frequent iteration and dedicated support, Young says scaling Starbucks’ model at other corporations and schools is “not something you can do really easily.”

Cox further emphasizes the potential complications associated with corporate forays into higher education without a thoughtful, systemic roadmap. “Well-intended innovations often have unintended consequences, particularly in the absence of a coherent policy framework supporting clear purposes and goals,” he writes.

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