By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant
Last month’s The Atlantic magazine caught my eye at the airport newsstand. Next to a tattooed barista wearing a green Starbucks’ apron and matching green mortarboard, in huge white letters, the cover asked boldly “Can Starbucks Save The Middle Class?” I don’t usually buy magazines at the airport, but I bought this one. I wanted to know the answer and I wanted to know how they proposed to do it.
The article was about Starbucks’ partnership with Arizona State University to offer all Starbucks employees a free four-year college degree through ASU’s online program, which was first announced last June. Starbucks says it’s about creating access to the American dream. ASU says they’re not trying to save the world, but merely trying to show that the world can be saved.
It’s some soaring rhetoric to be sure and although no one comes right out and says it, the implied answer to the question on the magazine’s cover is, in a word, yes. Even if Starbucks can’t do it alone, they’re blazing a trail that others may follow.
The program has been up and running for a year (an academic year). There are far fewer students enrolled than Starbucks predicted, but so far their retention rate is good, 87 percent (three percent higher than ASU’s typical online student rate). At least part of the credit for that goes to the innovative strategy of assigning each enrolled employee an enrollment counselor, a financial aid advisor, an academic advisor, and a success coach who calls at regular intervals throughout the semester to check in and see how things are going, to offer advice, and just to listen.
As I finished the article, I found myself agreeing with the implied answer. This is a very interesting model and they’re innovating quickly and incorporating what they learn about how students best perform and what services are most helpful in seeing them through to graduation. If even some of these strategies were applied at institutions of higher education across the nation, I bet we’d see significant increases in college completions. This program is small enough to be nimble, and smart enough to innovate when the numbers don’t bear out their working theories.
I thought, wow, they really are doing something important and valuable and they’re developing a model others could implement. I wanted to toast Starbucks and ASU for just getting up and jumping in and doing something to try and solve a problem we all acknowledge, but don’t do much about.
But, I also found myself thinking that there’s a BIG assumption lurking behind that question “Can Starbucks Save The Middle Class?” and behind its answer. An assumption that doesn’t quite seem right: a bachelor’s degree is necessary if you’re going to make middle class wages.
I am not saying that assumption is wrong. We’ve all seen the statistics. It seems that in America at the moment (and for the foreseeable future) that’s just reality. What I am saying is that maybe it shouldn’t be reality. Can a college degree save the middle class? Maybe, but at what cost? A bachelor’s degree is an expensive ticket to the middle class.
Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, said his company’s partnership with ASU is about creating access to the American dream. We all used to have access to the American dream. And, that we all had access to it was what made it the American dream—the dream that hard work and perseverance were all it took to be successful in this country. Somehow, and without fanfare, the American dream seems to have become pay-to-play.
Starbucks and ASU are, in a small way, for a small number of people, making the American dream accessible again by covering the cost of tuition and providing some much needed support services to make it easier for Starbucks students to complete their degrees.
This is a big step, especially if other public and private entities see the social value of a program like this and follow suit.
This is America. The American dream is a fundamental part of our understanding of what America is. It’s a problem if it’s no longer accessible to all of us. Is the only way to make it accessible to make a college education free? If you buy the assumption that a bachelor’s degree is necessary to make middle class wages, then you might think so.
But, there are plenty of jobs that pay middle class wages that require skills and knowledge that don’t correspond to the skills and knowledge one typically takes away from a bachelor’s degree. It may be true that many of these jobs still prefer to hire candidates with bachelor’s degrees, but perhaps that’s an artifact of this country’s focus on college education to the detriment of any other sort of program for acquiring skills or knowledge.
If we could revise our system, take stock, shift some of our focus (and funding) towards technical and vocational programs like those in Germany, we might find an alternative route to the middle class through technical skill development. But, this kind of education isn’t cheap to provide either. So, if we were to make this a viable alternative route to the middle class for large numbers of Americans we would still need to make sure that the cost of this sort of education also isn’t prohibitive.
If we want to save the middle class, we’ve got to save the American dream. We have to make sure that the route to the middle class is accessible to anyone who’s willing to work hard and persevere.
 When it was originally announced last year, the program would pay for the last 2 years of a student’s 4-year degree. Students who already had 2 years of college credit could finish their degrees for free. Students with less would get a 22% tuition reduction for the credits needed to get them up to the 2 years worth of credits mark and then the rest of their degree would be free. Starbucks recently announced that the program would now cover the cost of all four years of a bachelor’s degree.