Starbuck’s & a ‘Free College Education’: The Devil’s in the Details

starbucksAs someone who worked in the financial and headcount management sectors of corporate America for quite some time, my “Spidey Sense” is always heightened when I hear about announcements from corporations who are supposedly “doing new things” as it pertains to their employees. And, while Starbuck’s is now offering a “free education” to over 135,000 employees, I am absolutely sure there are some hidden motives to doing so.

It was announced today that the company will be offering education assistance to new employees who work over 20 hours per week starting the day they hire in at the company. Potential students must meet the requirements to gain admission like decent grades and test scores. If the barista already has two years of college credit, their tuition will be paid in full. If they possess less than two years of college credit, they will only receive partial assistance. The expectation is that those who receive partial assistance will subsidize their remaining costs via university aid and governmental assistance.

Now, this all seems well and good. But, several features drew a red flag from me.

First, the courses are only offered through Arizona State University’s online program. Students who are looking for assistance but attend another school (perhaps one they attend in person) will have to transfer to ASU to receive the assistance. We all know how I feel about for profit and online colleges. While many students are now opting for online degrees because of life needs, family responsibilities, or economic concerns, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding how well online programs stack up to traditional four year programs. This, to me, seems like the “Any College is Better Than No College” route.

I can’t even imagine how much ASU paid or bargained away to become the college associated with Starbucks’ new college program. The boundless ass kissing, elbow rubbing, and Old Boy’s Networking at play is mind-boggling.

Second, Starbuck’s CEO, Howard D. Schultz, has out-rightly indicated that he hopes that the new program will be “accreted” to their brand and business. Even if people get their degrees paid for and then leave the company, he hopes that helping them along the way will make Starbuck’s look better. And, he wants Starbuck’s to be associated with helping folks get an education. You know, cause they need this to help their reputation. He also said he hopes it “will lower attrition, it’ll increase performance, it’ll attract and retain better people.” Whenever I hear this combination of words, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. This was recited to me over and over when I worked at Disney.

Let me translate this for you. This means: “We are doing this because we are sick and tired of our younger staff having obligations which affect our bottom-line like going to college and stuff. Folks leave too often because they want to go and be better human beings. This new program should entrap them just a bit longer. Meanwhile, we’ll get all the credit. It’s a win-win-win!”

Why did I say entrap? Well, because folks may come to Starbuck’s specifically for this program. And, if they can’t pay to go anywhere else, quitting their job will also mean dropping out of school. See, that part-time job just became that much more entrenched in their lives. Now, Starbuck’s will own these kids for at least four years (or five or six since online programs typically take longer).

Lastly, when companies pull out their education, healthcare, and economic Band-aids like this, it pisses me off. This is like when Walmart put out bins for food collection for employees instead of offering higher salaries. Or, like McDonald’s telling employees how to eat healthy – by not eating McDonald’s. Starbuck’s  – a company which made $4.2 billion dollars in Q1 2014 alone – has a lot more muscle than simply operating within an oppressive system which harms the less fortunate. Why not use it?

Why not work to change the system itself? Why not call on Congress to ease structural and educational barriers excluding entire classes of people from the hallowed halls of universities and colleges across this country? Why not team up with philanthropists  and give away scholarships to deserving students who need them? If it were really free, wouldn’t it not require working there?

This program points to the fact that those in leadership there know that it is very difficult, if not seemingly impossible, to get a college degree nowadays. There are just so many better ways to really make a difference. This one seems so…so…meh.

I’m not saying this new program won’t make a difference. Quite the contrary, it will. But, it seems more like a veiled attempt to gain popularity from millenials than an effort to assuage class and educational disparities. I’m simply not here for that.

Starbuck’s is just a corporation and corporations benefit from the status quo. Let’s not jump out into the streets and throw our Equality Parade for this one yet, or ever. It really just isn’t worth it.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.