Starbucks really wants its baristas to have a shot at a college diploma.
The coffee company just announced that it is expanding its tuition reimbursement plan to cover the cost of four years of college instead of just the two years it began covering last summer.
People who work full- or even part-time in the company’s U.S. stores can now earn a bachelor’s degree, from start to finish, online and free of charge through Starbucks’ partnership with Arizona State University.
“I’d definitely be interested in it,” said Renita, a 23-year-old barista at a downtown Washington, D.C. store.
The program will let people who work at least 20 hours per week at company-owned stores choose from 49 different degree programs through ASU.
Managers at several other locations would not permit employees to discuss the announcement and referred questions back to corporate, but youth advocacy groups immediately hailed the decision.
“The coffee giant is giving a jolt of hope for tens of thousands of working students across the country who can’t afford college on their own and deserve a shot at the American dream,” Sarah Lovenheim, spokeswoman for the group Young Invincibles, wrote in an email to Fusion. “If more companies follow Starbucks’ lead, we could see fewer student loan borrowers and a brighter economic future for tomorrow’s young adults.”
That’s a big “if,” however. While it’s certainly not uncommon for companies to help employees out with getting their degrees, it’s usually for a master’s, and those businesses generally require a years-long commitment to the company after graduation.
Starbucks won’t demand any such loyalty. Nearly 2,000 employees have already taken advantage of the company’s two-year tuition reimbursement, and Starbucks hopes to increase that number to 25,000 by 2025.
Why would Starbucks make a move it estimates could cost $250 million or more (a four-year degree at ASU Online is around $60,000) over the next 10 years?
“Everyone deserves a chance at the American dream,” Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said in a statement. “The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree, particularly disadvantaged young people, and others are saddled with burdensome education debt. By giving our partners access to four years of full tuition coverage, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity.”
While that’s all true, the announcement will likely also bring the company some positive attention in the wake of their recent, and largely disastrous, “Race Together” initiative, which aimed to spark conversations around racial divisions in the country but drew ire on social media and elsewhere as ill-conceived.
The move will additionally give Starbucks, which saw profits rise a whopping 82 percent to more than $983 million in the final quarter of 2014, a chance to set itself apart from other companies entering the tuition-reimbursement realm. McDonald’s recently announced that it would cover up to $1,050 in tuition for workers who have been with the company at least a year and work at least 20 hours per week.
The partnership will allow ASU to position itself as an innovator in the higher education sphere, too.
Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment regarding the average age of current two-year program participants, but Schultz has said repeatedly that, as the successful son of a blue-collar worker who struggled to get ahead, he wants to help everyone, not just 18-year-olds from well-off families, achieve their college dreams. And so far, he’s put his money where his mouth is.
Kevin Joyce contributed reporting.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.