Starbucks Students Find They’re Up to the Test at ASU

When Arizona State University’s Phil Regier looks at students who are taking advantage of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, he sees a particular characteristic that bodes well for scholastic success: they’re workers.

“The most important thing for studying in this new digital learning environment that we’re creating is to show up for work,” observed Regier, University Dean for Educational Initiatives at ASU. “One thing we’ve found is that online coursework actually requires more maturity and self-discipline than the face-to-face classroom.”

Since the first-of-its-kind Starbucks College Achievement Plan kicked off in June 2014, more than 2,000 people who show up to work at Starbucks have shown up for online classes offered by ASU. According to Joe Chapman, director of student services at ASU, that number could swell to 4,000 by the end of the year toward a target of graduating 25,000 Starbucks partners by 2025. Starbucks will invest $250 million in the effort, which dovetails with its push to hire 10,000 Opportunity Youth – 16- to 24-year-olds who face systemic barriers to meaningful jobs and education – by 2018.

The Starbucks/ASU program creates an opportunity for all U.S. partners (employees) working an average 20 hours per week to earn a bachelor’s degree with full tuition reimbursement. Nearly 50 undergraduate degree programs are available, including new fall 2015 offerings in sustainability, public service and public policy.

A Flexible and Friendly Alternative

Online education is progressing rapidly around the nation, but with particular velocity at Arizona State. The largest public research university in the nation launched its online program in 2010 and now boasts more than 13,000 online students out of a total enrollment of more than 83,000. Chapman anticipates that online scholars will account for 50 percent of the total ASU student population in five years.

“For 18- to 23-year-olds who can afford it, there’s a reason to go on campus,” said Regier. “It really doesn’t have as much to do with education as it does with acculturation – making the transition from being a teenager to being an adult."

“I do think there are going to be increasing numbers of adults who reach out to online education as a very viable mode of completing a degree," Regier continued. "It’s far more flexible and it’s far friendlier than they think. It’s not staring at a computer screen and answering some questions. It’s very social and, at the same time, it’s very intimate.”

The average age of Starbucks students participating in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan is 26, and more than 60 percent are women. The most popular online degrees for Starbucks students are psychology, criminal justice and criminology, health sciences, English and Spanish.

Smoothing Out Bumps in the Road

Much of the success ASU has seen on the online front can be attributed to a focus on simplifying processes, so that students can concentrate on their studies. A one-week non-credit course was created for Starbucks students to address practical basics, ranging from technology requirements to scheduling. Eighty percent of Starbucks online undergrads have participated in the course and the results have been so striking (a near full grade point higher for participants) that ASU has rolled it out to the general online undergraduate population.

In addition, personal success coaches as well as academic and financial-aid counselors regularly check in with students as part of a concerted effort to see them through to the finish line.

Noting that 50 percent of Americans who enter the world of higher education never get a degree, Regier contended that extra help in navigating the sideline elements of a college education are essential, and are paying dividends.

“Students don’t quit universities because they don’t have the talent,” he said. “They quit the university because of some flaw in the process that the university has put in place. That’s true in face-to-face campuses as well as online campuses.”

When Starbucks reached out to ASU partners to describe their experiences, many volunteered that they were relieved to find the impediments they’d encountered in earlier forays into college life no longer existed.

Meghan Gorgonne Robinson, a 10-year Starbucks partner in Alpharetta, Georgia, who was in her junior year when she dropped out years ago, doesn’t sugarcoat the demands of balancing work, family and studies now that she’s back working on a degree and boasting a 4.17 GPA. But she credits efforts to smooth bumps in the road for busy undergrads with putting her on a path to graduate.

“Between the staffs at ASU and Starbucks,” Robinson noted, “I have personal contacts at every touch point: professors, teachers, aids, financial aid and two coaches who contact me weekly to provide guidance, info, tools, resources and assistance with goal setting.”

Innovation and Expansion Ahead

Regier anticipates a period of fine tuning, innovation and rapid expansion ahead as online studies become a greater part of higher education.

“Increasingly, we’re going to see the rise of adaptive software in education,” Regier said. “I think what will happen with new learning technologies is that we’ll be able to differentiate in the same way that Amazon can know what I’m interested in."

“Really what we should be looking for is a class where everybody gets an A – where everybody has mastered the material,” said Regier. “The reason we don’t is that we’re kind of slaves to a calendar and we have to measure outcomes at a point in time and then move students on. I think with adaptive learning we have the chance to say, ‘You can move on when you’ve mastered the coursework.’”

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Workforce Diversity at Starbucks