Starbucks plans to announce on Monday that it will cover college tuition for its workers if they take online classes with Arizona State University (ASU).
The program is open to any employees who work at least 20 hours a week and have the grades to gain admission to the university. The company will pay full tuition for those who enter as juniors or seniors, and those who enter as freshmen and sophomores will get partial payment and need-based financial aid, although many also will attend free of cost thanks to aid. Yearly tuition at Arizona State can range from $3,000 to $10,000 depending on the course load and degrees, but it’s usually about $500 per credit with 120 credits needed to earn a bachelor’s degree. Starbucks estimates that employees who enroll in the program will pay less than half of their tuition.
All of the company’s 135,000 employees will be eligible. ASU expects about 15,000 to 20,000 employees will enroll each year. Workers won’t keep getting the assistance if they leave the company but they don’t have to stay with it after they get their degrees.
Other companies offer college tuition assistance, but the share is on the decline: 54 percent offer it now, down from 62 percent in 2010. And while Starbucks’s program could help thousands of its employees get a free college education, they have to work there to get the help.
There’s a way for everyone to get a free college education, however. The government could take the $69 billion it already spends to subsidize the cost of a college education through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funding and simply cover the $63 billion tuition spent at public colleges. This would mean anyone could avail themselves of a free college degree and it would also likely incentivize private universities to lower their prices in order to compete.
College tuition is becoming a heavier and heavier financial burden: it rose by more than 8 percent in 2012 to hit a record of $5,000 on average a year. The total price of attending a four-year public college has risen 27 percent faster than inflation over the past five years and has gone up 24 percent at community colleges and 13 percent at private universities.
Many students take on loans to cover these costs, and total student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion. Those loans can end up being difficult to pay back: one in eight borrowers is in default. The debt can’t be discharged in bankruptcy and may be holding young graduates back from buying their own houses.