The announcement this weekend that Starbucks is partnering with Arizona State University to offer free online college degrees to thousands of its baristas raised a number of questions. First and foremost: Arizona State who?
In unveiling its new “College Achievement Plan,” Starbucks put the spotlight on ASU, calling it one of the “most forward-looking universities in the country.” It illuminated an aggressively growing public university in the Phoenix metropolitan area that has been quietly earning academic standing and a reputation for innovation. What probably helped cement the deal is that the university’s sense of civic responsibility matches that of the coffee company.
We don’t want to heap too much praise on Starbucks Corp., as it still make a tidy fortune on the backs of thousands of low-paid workers slinging extracaffeinated beverages and baked goods. The company reported a profit for the three-month period that ended March 30 of $427 million. But still, not all – or even many – money-making concerns are as interested in the welfare and future prospects of their employees. Starbucks also offers health benefits to employees who work at least 20 hours a week, and stock options. The effort to be a good corporate citizen is appreciated.
No more so than by the some 135,000 U.S. employees (Starbucks calls them “partners”) who will be eligible to finish their final two years of a four-year degree through one of ASU’s 40 online degree programs, assuming they have the grades to get in, on the company’s dime. It’s a perk worth about $30,000. Students who are academic freshmen and sophomores can get a partial ride. Considering that 70 percent of Starbucks’ workforce, according to the company, are either students or want to be students, that’s a hefty investment that is potentially far more valuable than even a raise of a couple bucks.
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It’s also a tremendous boost to the school that scored this huge new student body.
ASU has about 75,000 students – 10,000 of them in online programs – and is becoming one of the West’s academic powerhouses. It’s significant that Starbucks turned to ASU, rather than the comparatively gargantuan California State University or University of California, both of which are still reeling economically and spiritually from the recession.
“Arizona State is the only university that could stand side-by-side with Starbucks to offer a high-quality education, at scale, to all of our U.S. partners,” Starbucks spokesperson Jaime Riley wrote in an email to The Bee in response to the question: Why ASU? “Plus, ASU is ranked the second-most innovative school in the country by U.S. News & World Report, and ranks 5th in the U.S. in producing the best-qualified graduates.”
What that means is that the school can handle the influx of what is expected to be 4,000 to 15,000 new applicants this fall.
Philip Regier, executive vice provost and dean of online, told The Bee’s editorial board that the university has been preparing its online faculty for the onslaught. And ASU had already re-engineered business rules and processes that will help, such as significantly shortening the time from application to admission from six weeks to 48 hours. Also, it used to take as long as eight weeks for the university to determine whether a student’s credits transferred. That process takes about five days now.
But, more importantly, ASU is a school already committed to the promises of online education and expanding the access to higher education well beyond the borders of its own state.
“We are very aggressively focusing on inclusion, not because we want to be big,” Regier said, “but the problems are massive.”
However this particular partnership fares, we expect that it will bring a new national prominence to ASU as one of the West’s most interesting universities.