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Coffee & College: How Starbucks Is Investing In Its Employees’ Future

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Starbucks is serving up more than just hot coffee and on-the-go eats. The global coffee giant offers employees the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree with 100% of the tuition covered. In a first of its kind collaboration with Arizona State University (ASU), all part- and full-time benefits eligible U.S. partners can receive full tuition coverage for a bachelor’s degree.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan launched in 2014 and is graduating its largest class of scholars this May — 470 graduates in nearly 70 different academic disciplines from 40 states across the U.S. “The opportunity to nurture and inspire the human spirit is what the iconic green apron represents,” says Mary Dixon, Director of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. “And we wanted to create an opportunity for partners to reach the goal of becoming college graduates, and remove the financial barrier that often blocks their path.”

Over 10,000 partners are currently participating in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, with 62 percent of stores in the U.S having at least one partner in the program. Additionally, 20 percent of Starbucks scholars are first in their family to attend college.

We caught up with Dixon to discuss Starbucks’ commitment to providing employees with this “life-changing” opportunity.

Glassdoor: Congrats on the largest class of graduates. Take me back to 2014, what is the Starbucks College Achievement Plan?

Mary Dixon: The inspiration for the Starbucks College Achievement program really came from our partners (we call our employees partners). We are continually listening to partners about what would be most valuable to them in the way of benefits. We know that any investment we make in our partners is a good one because of the relationship they have with the customers – and that relationship is the essence of our brand. We knew that 70% of our partners were either in school, or aspiring to be in college – so we knew achieving a college degree is something that was important to our partners.  At the same time, there were so many barriers in the way of students completing their degrees. We knew this was a space where we could make a difference. We were fortunate to partner with Arizona State University and together created this first of its kind partnership. Creating an opportunity for all U.S. partners to earn their bachelor’s degree with full tuition coverage.

What is so unique about this program is the comprehensive design. There is no other program like this. We cover 100% of tuition, partners can pursue any of the more than 70 degrees offered, there is no ‘give back’ to Starbucks, they can leave after graduation, and there is robust team of counselors and a dedicated success coach for each partner. This is available to every level of the organization, the only requirements are that a partner is benefits eligible (which means working an average of 20 hours a week) and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree.

Susana Mojica The 2017 Starbucks Arizona State University Graduation
Susana Mojica-The 2017 Starbucks -Arizona State University Graduation on May 8,2017.(Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Glassdoor: Many companies receive feedback from employees about benefits and perks they’d like to have, however, Starbucks acted upon this very core interest. What was it about an investment in education that made sense for Starbucks as an employer of over 200,000 people?

Mary Dixon: By giving our partners access to a full, four-year college education, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity. When our partners are satisfied and engaged, the result is deeper customer connections and an elevated Starbucks Experience for everyone.

Glassdoor: Tell me about some of the students you’ve met who are in the program. Any stand out stories?

Mary Dixon: There are so many inspirational stories that we hear, and I know that those are just a small sampling of the experience out there. The themes I constantly hear are around partners who either didn’t go, or had to leave college because they couldn’t afford it, or had to put their school aside because something got in their way. They are now back on track and pursuing this goal. Markelle, one of our first graduates is a good example. She was in college when her family was impacted by the recession. She dropped out of school to help and didn’t know if she’d ever return. She was a strong student, but lack of funds got in her way. Through the program, she returned to school and graduated. She has been promoted and is working with the technology team.  

I consistently hear that the flexibility to fit school into their life is remarkable and the level of support from ASU and Starbucks truly makes a difference. Getting their degree is a life-changing achievement.

Glassdoor: Why or how does this program really personify Starbucks’ employer value proposition?

Mary Dixon: The opportunity to nurture and inspire the human spirit is what the iconic green apron represents. And we wanted to create an opportunity for partners to reach the goal of becoming college graduates, and remove the financial barrier that often blocks their path.

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Glassdoor: How does Starbucks decide on the benefits and initiatives it offers? What’s the process?

Mary Dixon: We are always listening to our partners to learn what is important to them – through formal surveys and informal feedback. We want to continually offer benefits that are value to them.

Just as we listen to determine what benefits we should offer, we are continually listening to feedback on what is and isn’t working with this program (and all benefits) and adjust as we learn.   

Glassdoor: Venturing into new territory can be challenging. What lessons did you learn along the way? How has the program evolved?

Mary Dixon: In 2014 when we launched Starbucks College Achievement Plan, we thought that partners just needed help getting to completion, so we treated juniors and seniors differently than freshman and sophomores and set the program up to reimburse partners every 6 months. We heard this was too complicated and 6 months was too long to wait for reimbursement. So, we expanded in 2015 and treated every academic level the same and changed to direct reimbursement after each session, directly into the partner’s paycheck before the next tuition bill is due.

In support of our Veteran partners, as they have access to the GI bill for education, we expanded to enable them to gift their education benefit to a family member

1 in 5 of our partners had past academic history which prevented admission to ASU. We worked together with ASU and launched “Pathway to Admission’ to customize a solution for partners to work towards admissions into Arizona State University.

Glassdoor: How does this program work with employees to achieve both their educational and professional goals?

Mary Dixon: Wide, unrestricted choice of majors. Partners can choose from more than 70 undergraduate degree programs from Organizational Leadership to Mass Communication and Media Studies.

No commitment after graduation. There is no obligation for partners to stay with Starbucks after graduation, or pay back any of the costs associated with their degree.

Excellent student services to help navigate college. A personal enrollment coach along with academic and financial aid counselors will help partners navigate the entire process of applying, choosing the right major, applying for financial aid and selecting the right classes to meet their academic goals. Each partner has their own ASU ‘success coach’ who supports them holistically through to graduation.

We have launched a career course to support partners in identifying their next path and of course partners have access to ASU’s full career support resources.

starbucks asu

Glassdoor: What are your/Starbucks’ goals around the next class of graduates? Future classes?

Mary Dixon: This week nearly 470 partners will be graduating from ASU. We have partners graduating from 40 states across the U.S. and they join the over 1,280 who already have their degrees.

With over 10,000 partners currently participating in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, 62% of stores in the U.S have at least one partner in the program. 20% are first in their family to attend college.

All this brings us closer to our goal of 25000 graduates by 2025.

Glassdoor: If you were speaking to Starbucks employees or job applicants, what would you tell them is the reason they should take advantage of this program?

Mary Dixon: All U.S. based, benefits-eligible partners, regardless of role, who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree are eligible. Education is the best investment you can make in yourself – there is no reason not to!


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