Sorry, Starbucks: Coffee for college is not a fair trade

ASU’s and Starbucks’ joint announcement Monday that Starbucks employees would receive discounted bachelor’s degrees from ASU Online seemed like a shining beacon of a new era in education.

Starbucks would fully reimburse its employees for online classes they take as juniors and seniors at ASU and provide partial scholarships for students taking freshman and sophomore credits. Even better, once they graduated, these employees would have no commitment to the company — they can walk away with an almost entirely free bachelor’s degree.

However, like all good things, this deal has its downfalls. The program applies only to online classes, not in-person ones. As The New York Times reported in 2013, study after study has shown that online courses have significantly higher failure and withdrawal rates.

Online classes, the studies say, work best for “highly skilled, highly motivated people” — your college professor or CEO taking a Massive Open Online Course on the side. There are certainly many highly skilled, highly motivated people working as baristas, but how many of the 70 percent of Starbucks employees CEO Howard Schultz said would use this program will have the time and motivation to power through one of ASU’s condensed online courses?

ASU Online expects students to spend six hours per week per course credit for each 7.5-week session (while most on-campus courses are given in the full 15-week C session, online classes are primarily offered in the 7.5-week A and B sessions). That’s 18 hours a week for one regular three-credit class, on top of 20-plus hours at Starbucks and possibly a second job or raising a family. Starbucks, though, won’t reimburse students until they’ve completed 21 credits.

Online classes also pose a barrier for those who don’t have access to computers, as one employee brought up during Monday’s presentation. He wanted to do the program, but making minimum wage or slightly above at Starbucks wouldn’t pay for a computer. The nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center found in September that 15 percent of Americans don’t use the Internet at all, while another 9 percent is only able to use it outside of home. Many of these individuals were unemployed or working in minimum wage jobs like food service.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is a step in the right direction toward eliminating some of the exclusivity of education, which Schultz, ASU President Michael Crow and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan all cited as goals. However, it also ignores the plight of Starbucks baristas who already attend ASU.

The Tempe campus has four Starbucks locations, and the Downtown and West campuses both have one. Food contractor Aramark licenses these stores, along with all dining locations on the four campuses, which means the students who give peers their frappucino fix each day are technically not employed by Starbucks. For the students who work on campus, this new deal is as bitter as straight black coffee.

Tip your barista next time you stop at a campus Starbucks. They’re not getting any help from their company.

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