Arizona State University of Starbucks

On Monday, Starbucks announced that it was launching a new program through which it will help many of its employees pay for undergraduate education at Arizona State University’s ASU Online program. Here are some of the details of how it would work:

Tuition for an online degree at ASU is about $10,000 a year, roughly the same for its traditional educational programs. For the freshmen and sophomore years, Starbucks and Arizona State say they will put around $6,500 on average toward the estimated $20,000 in total tuition.

To cover the remaining $13,500, workers would apply for financial aid. Since Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money, many would likely qualify for a Pell grant, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college. If a worker qualified for a full Pell grant of $5,730 a year — or $11,460 over the two years — he or she would theoretically be left with about $2,040 to pay out of pocket.

The program would work similarly for the junior and senior years, except that Starbucks would reimburse any money workers end up having to pay out of pocket. Starbucks said most of its workers have already started school, so could potentially finish off their degrees at no cost if they applied for the program.

At first, it piqued my interest to hear that ASU was involved in such a project. ASU has long been involved in efforts that purport to expand access to quality university education, but has also engaged in moves that collapse schools and programs (which eliminates jobs and takes power away from faculty), demote staff to the status of at-will employees, and continually raise tuition.

But agreeing to pay for employees’ education is a good move, even if it does nothing to salvage the crisis of public education. And yet there are hidden aspects of this deal that are important to shed light on. Firstly, the program hopes to offer a diverse education to Starbucks employees, but having the selection of majors offered at one university’s online wing is actually quite narrow. As this piece finds, even the students featured in an NYT article about the program may not actually be able to study what they want.

In addition, online-only education is not a tried-and-true provider of education, especially for working students who have not been exposed to higher education before. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, linked to this 2011 study [pdf] on online education and its effectiveness for low-income and underprepared students by Shanna Smith Jaggers. In short, online classes saw more low-income and underprepared students withdraw, and many of these students were less likely to return to continue their education. Learning online is as much of a learned skill as learning in the classroom, only online degrees and courses often come with less support for students. I took at least four online classes while at ASU, and only one was as rigorous as in-person courses and provided similar levels of support.

But the more important point here is that Starbucks employees are not being offered free education at Arizona State University, my alma mater and an arguably decent school from which to earn a Bachelor’s. The Starbucks program funnels workers through ASU Online, a joint-venture between ASU and Pearson, the for-profit publishing and ed tech company. The venture overcharges online students, students who may be receiving less support and less freedom in their studies and cost the university less money, but who pay roughly the same tuition as on-campus students. As one article mentions:

Arizona State University Online, a revenue-sharing relationship between Pearson, a for-profit company best known as a publisher, and Arizona State University (ASU), yielded $6 million in profit in 2011 for ASU. Projections are that it will yield $200 million in profit by 2020. Many other non-profit colleges with large online programs tout the substantial profits generated by online programs that are re-invested in on-ground facilities. Thus, online students are being substantially overcharged to generate profits that subsidize face-to-face learners, faculty and administrators.

This type of revenue-sharing happens a lot at universities between departments (the humanities often subsidize the sciences), but the inclusion of a for-profit company makes this deal smell of something far worse. Pearson has long-been a part of the ed reform movement, standardizing and assessing real education into oblivion. That it operates as a “partner” in ASU Online is a shame and a sign of how the top echelons at ASU view education.

This agreement between ASU and Starbucks is supposed to be about providing free education to lower class workers. But according to Starbucks CEO, about 70% of Starbucks workers are current in college or aspire to go. These students, working at Starbucks across the country, will now have to transfer to ASU Online if they want to take advantage of their employers’ benefits – and Starbucks is eliminating its tuition reimbursement program for the City University of Seattle and Stayer University next year in order to commit to the ASU Online endeavor.

As Melissa Byrne points out, this is mostly as PR stunt for Starbucks, whose executives have come straight out and said that they hope this will attract a better class of workers. And ASU hopes to continue to expand its growing online presence and push President Michael Crow’s “New American University” vision one step further. For many of Starbucks’ workers, this program will expand access, but access to what? And what will happen when they fail to finish because they were pushed into a program that was ill-suited for them?

Update: Be sure to check out Tressie McMillan Cottom’s piece on this, in which she links ASU-Starbucks endeavor to what for-profit universities have been doing for decades.

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Starbucks as Fiction

Today, a message from Starbucks President and CEO, Howard Shultz, was posted. That message starts like this:

There are moments in our lives when we have an opportunity to ignite tremendous positive change—not just in the lives of the customers and communities we serve every day, but in our country. This was evident in the outpouring of support in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary that claimed 26 innocent lives.

And, after citing a tragedy in which a gunman took so many lives, he continues like this:

In the spirit of the Holiday season and the Starbucks tradition of bringing people together, we have a unique opportunity to unite and take action on an incredibly important topic. As many of you know, our elected officials in Washington D.C. have been unable to come together and compromise to solve the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt. You can learn more about this impending crisis at www.fixthedebt.org.

Rather than be bystanders, we have an opportunity—and I believe a responsibility—to use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials to come together and reach common ground on this important issue. This week through December 28, partners in our Washington D.C. area stores are writing “Come Together” on customers’ cups.

It’s a small gesture, but the power of small gestures is what Starbucks is about! Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing such a simple message, one cup at a time.

This is ridiculous even if you don’t consider the fact that the fiscal cliff is a fake crisis made by politicians, and even if you don’t consider that “fixing the debt” is code for slashing service after service in lieu of raising taxes on rich people – rich people like Howard Shultz. Even if you don’t consider that Fix the Debt, the organization Shultz links to, is run entirely by politicians and corporate executives, and doesn’t care about who is actually affected by austerity policies. Even if you don’t consider the fact that most debt-conscious policies include things like cutting funding to mental health facilities and other social services and not raising taxes on gun purchases or gun manufacturers. Even if you don’t consider that if you’re going to frame your stupid write-notes-on-cups campaign as a response to a shooting, it should at least address things that pertain to the victims. Even if you forget all this and are cracked out on low-wage-blended, fair-trade-marketed coffee, this is ridiculous.

It can’t be real.