Okay, enough with the bad puns from the Parent Brag Book of 2020. (I thank my Facebook friends for contributing to them, btw.)
You’ve probably heard by now that on Monday, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz announced “The Starbucks Achievement Plan.” A revolutionary corporate benefits program, it will allow the majority of the Seattle-based company’s workers (those who put in 20 hours a week) to get substantial financial help to attend Arizona State University online until they receive a degree, with no commitment attached to stay at Starbucks after graduation.
Actually, getting the support that allows these “partners” to graduate is the key distinction. We are still feeling the effects of the recession of 2008, resulting in a semi-permanently weakened middle class, with the underwater mortgages and job losses that go with it. Combine that with the double-digit rise in the price of college tuition during that same time, and a whole generation of kids who expected to go to college have had to adjust their plans. (To make the “we wuz robbed” analogy even more bitterly 99%-ish, this comes at a time when colleges, to justify the mad tuition raises, have increasingly installed spa-retreat-like features like climbing walls, gyms with gleaming exercise machines, and rooftop pools.)
By contrast, 72% of Starbucks’ 135,000 U.S. employees have not completed their degrees. The more typical story for these baristas and other types is that they have been able to dip into college life from time to time, or take courses here and there at community colleges, but with their other jobs and responsibilities, they were never able to finish. There’s a nice little video on the Starbucks website that explains the particulars.
In announcing the deal on “The Daily Show” on Monday evening, Schultz said, “We are the first company to provide free college tuition for all employees.”
Well, that declaration has to come with a few qualifiers and disclaimers. Turns out that those who have enough credits to register as juniors and seniors can get the bulk of their tuition paid by the ‘Bux -- while first year and sophomore peeps might have to mix the assistance they get from the now literal bean-counters at Starbucks with some other jobs, and maybe even some Sallie Mae-type government-sanctioned student loans (the kind of loans a student tends to be saddled with for life).
Still, there’s no doubt that this is a watershed move that will democratize the options for working-class and immigrant kids, and others whose family has experienced a bad patch.
Not surprisingly, the critics have already weighed in, noting that AZU is a for-profit university, and kids who take the tuition reimbursement are limiting their choices and future to an unproven online experience. They also wonder why the company chose to put all its (hypercaffeinated) eggs into the AZU basket, rather than any number of online possibilities. Critics also complain that online-only classes may leave low-income students at a disadvantage.
Sure, everyone would prefer the plasma-TV-filled student lounges and halls of academe. But are online courses a disadvantage compared with no classes?
Really, let them venti.
Even Stewart admitted he was having a hard time with the announcement, because it was a “lovely” thing to do and he didn’t want to be a suck-up, when normally he hates stuff. So he made fun of Shultz’ enlightened business jargon. Schultz said, “We are a people-based company.” And Stewart responded, “I thought you were a coffee-based company.”
After hearing the Brooklyn-born CEO, who himself got a life-changing football scholarship to Michigan State, say “We embrace humanity as a core competency,” Stewart responded, “Corporations are people. But generally they’re sociopaths.”
The point Shultz is making with his enlightened, people-based language and actions is that there’s terrible inequality in the country now that is leaving many Americans, through no fault of their own, behind.
“Should we accept that, or should we try to do something about it?'" he said on “The Daily Show.” "We can't wait for Washington."
This is Starbucks’ version of the G.I. Bill, the historical legislation that allowed millions of returning World War II veterans a free ride at any college and all through graduate school, along with a stipend. (And low-cost mortgages on their homes.) Its revolutionary effects allowed an entire generation to catapult themselves, via a free education, to the ranks of the solid middle class and above. Before then, a majority of the Americans had only graduated from high school, if that. They had come from families who farmed or worked in factories or coal mines. College was not even a remote possibility.
At the time, the deans of some Ivy League schools worried that mixing these guys (mostly guys) in with their well-heeled younger students would result in violence and a “hobo jungle.”
Instead, it resulted in the greatest sociological experiment of that century, and the people who created the space race, Silicon Valley, and any number of breakthroughs in science and medicine.
Back to Starbucks’ new program. There’s no doubt that in the end, it's a business decision, and a brilliant one. For a long time, Starbucks didn’t advertise, in the traditional sense. It was like Apple in that the store itself, with all its carefully planned signage and packaging, right down to the napkins and straws, was its own ad.
And it worked. We don’t hear those complaints much anymore that Starbucks is encroaching on neighborhoods, driving the mom and pop shops out. Instead, we have grown used to, and even depend on, the public services that Starbucks provides. Giving even part-time workers access to health care was huge, and generated its own brilliant PR.
And at the other extreme, never underestimate the power of a clean public bathroom. I remember when then-New York City Mayor Bloomberg was asked at a press conference about providing more public restrooms. His answer was a half-joking “That‘s what Starbucks is for.”
Not to mention the free WiFi, charging units, and places to gather for an unrestricted amount of time. We take them for granted now, but they’ve had an enormous effect not only on the culture, but also on the existence of Match.com.
Already it’s not that easy to get a job at Starbucks, with all those recent college graduates filling places while they wait for something more in line with their expectations. So imagine how this announcement will affect applications. In the next few years, admission at Starbucks for an entry-level job will be as competitive as getting into the Ivies, maybe.
How to sort all those candidates? Maybe the Starbucks Achievement Tests are next. And parents will then have to get Starbucks Achievement tutors for their kids.
I myself would love to go back to school and get an advanced degree -- maybe Phi Beta Cappuccino, with a grande macchiato in advanced Americano studies.
Seriously, if we are going to have a future that allows the younger generation the same opportunity to be educated and successful that previous ones had, it’s going to take corporate philanthropy like this to do it.
This is the best continuing PR and advertisement a brand can get.
Bravo to the beaniacs.