The Barista Bubble

Today’s RepMan post is by WalekPeppercommer Dmitriy Ioselevich.


This “free college” announcement is undeniably a boon for Starbucks and Arizona State University in the PR department. But before we award Howard Schultz and Dr. Michael Crow the Nobel Prize, let’s talk about the real victims here—students.

First, three important facts:

  • To be eligible for the program, Starbucks employees must first earn 21 credits from ASU’s online program at an estimated cost of $10,000, which they would then reimburse a portion of. However, these online courses are of dubious value to begin with.
  • Second, Starbucks employees must also work at least 20 hours per week in addition to carrying a full course load, taking time away from extracurricular activities, which some would argue are the most important parts of college anyway.
  • Finally, Starbucks is now canning its previous tuition reimbursement program, which provided $1,000 in financial aid per year to employees studying at any college or university. Instead, ASU becomes the sole beneficiary of a horde of needy students.

It sounds like a decent tradeoff in theory, but what is the value of the education that students are getting? Sure, a few thousand Starbucks employees get to slap “college graduate” on their resumes, but will they acquire any other skills besides how to make a cappuccino? Or will Starbucks and ASU just pump out an army of highly-qualified baristas to compete in a job market already saturated with low-skill laborers?

To be fair, these types of corporate tuition programs used to be quite common before soaring costs made them financially unfeasible, so the Starbucks program is at least an improvement over the status quo (i.e. saddling students with over a trillion dollars in debt). But let’s not act like one coffee company is going to single-handedly upend the entire higher education system.

Shultz says we can’t “wait for Washington,” but the truth is that this is a Washington-sized problem. Helping a few thousand students earn a degree debt-free isn’t going to move the needle—it’s just going to push more students into online programs.

If Shultz really wants to elicit change, then he should shut down every Starbucks in the D.C. metro area until government and college leaders agree to cut costs and build a more equitable system. Until then we’ll just have to wait for the Barista Bubble to pop.

One thought on “The Barista Bubble

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