Starbucks will pay for employees to complete college

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Starbucks Coffee Company today announces an unusually large tuition reimbursement for employees. It's in partnership with Arizona State University's highly ranked online program.

Starbucks employees who sign up for ASU's online courses as freshmen or sophomores will get a partial scholarship plus need-based financial aid; entering juniors and seniors with previous college credits will be able to finish their degrees with the public university for free.

Employees have no obligation to keep working at Starbucks once they secure that diploma. Plus, Starbucks says it is working with ASU to make sure its employees have a dedicated team to help them succeed, including help from an "enrollment coach," financial aid counselor and academic advisor. Starbucks says the program could cost the company several million dollars; they expect thousands to enroll, and ASU is preparing for a surge in enrollment.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is scheduled to announce the program today at its first-ever "Partner Family Forum." That's a large public meeting of employees — "partners" in company parlance — and family members, in Manhattan. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and ASU President Michael Crow will attend.

"In the last few years, we have seen the fracturing of the American Dream," Schultz said in a statement. "Everyone who works as hard as our partners do should have the opportunity to complete college, while balancing work, school and their personal lives." That's going to be a tough balance to strike. In order to claim the benefit, students must be enrolled full time on top of working at least 20 hours a week at Starbucks.

The Starbucks emphasis on upperclassmen is notable. This program is clearly designed especially to entice students to complete their degrees. Higher education experts are increasingly focused on the problem of "swirling," in other words, working adult students who transfer from institution to institution to accumulate credits for several years without getting a degree.

In all, there are 37 million Americans with some college and no degree. And a large subset of these "swirlers" may be swirling Frappucinos by day. The company says that of its 135,000 U.S. employees, 70 percent are either current or "aspiring" students.

This move is part of a trend. Online education programs are increasingly pursuing corporate partnerships and vice versa. The colleges get a ready pool of students. The corporations get an enticing perk, plus the benefits of a more educated workforce.

College For America, a nonprofit, low-cost online degree program, works with McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. Wal-Mart and Costco offer a 15% discount to folks who enroll at American Public University, a for-profit online college, plus the chance to earn college credit on the job.

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