Starbucks College Achievement Plan welcomes its 1,000th graduate

Greg Vickers was staring down the finish line, just an assignment or two away from completing his college degree. He sank onto the sofa in his home in Ocala, Fla., where he works as a shift supervisor at one of three Starbucks in town — his wife is store manager at one of the others — and succumbed to the temptation of technology, taking a quick peek at his email.

One message stood out. It was from Arizona State University, where he was about to earn his bachelor’s degree, informing him that he had earned the highest grade point average in his mass communication and media studies major at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The school will recognize him on stage during its Dec. 11 convocation, held in the Grady Gammage Auditorium following ASU’s fall commencement earlier that morning.

“I knew my grades were good, but I was shocked when I opened that email,” said Vickers, an 11-year partner.

Vickers, 36, completed his degree entirely online, thanks to the Starbucks College Achievement Plan (SCAP), which pays full tuition for all eligible part- and full-time U.S. partners in ASU’s online program. The program began three years ago and celebrated its first graduating class of three partners in May 2015. As of this week’s commencement, more than 1,000 partners have diplomas in hand and more than 9,000 partners are working toward their degree.

Close to 60 percent of U.S. stores have at least one SCAP scholar, which has contributed to an uptick in enrollment because participating partners support one another and encourage each other to enroll. Some partners are initially skeptical, said SCAP director Mary Dixon, suspecting that such a meaningful freebie must come with at least some strings attached. But that’s not the case. “This is full tuition coverage, any degree, and you can be at any level of the organization,” said Dixon. “You just need to be benefits-eligible and not have a bachelor’s degree. There is no ‘give back’ to Starbucks. There is no better investment we can make than in our partners.”

Starbucks hopes that 25,000 partners will obtain ASU degrees by 2025. When the SCAP program began, that goal seemed very far away. “Crossing the 1,000-graduate mark makes it seem much closer,” said Dixon. “It’s so impactful for these partners. It’s changed their lives.”

Success coaches help students stay on track

In addition to full tuition coverage, partners can also take advantage of comprehensive services that include enrollment and academic support. All students are assigned a “success coach” who helps connect them with ASU resources and troubleshoot problems.

Chelsea Pacheco is the first person in her family to graduate from college. She credits her success coaches with smoothing her transition to ASU, where — inspired by her two years at a Starbucks in Hilo, Hawaii — she decided to study business with a concentration in retail management. “My success coaches took a lot of time to get to know me and see what I need,” said Pacheco, a shift supervisor. “They made sure my transition to ASU and SCAP was seamless.”

As part of the program, Pacheco, 24, studied abroad in Costa Rica, where she visited Hacienda Alsacia, a Starbucks coffee farm and global agronomy center.  She also participated in a supply chain immersion at the Starbucks Support Center – the company’s Seattle headquarters – led by an ASU supply chain professor.

The partnership between Starbucks and ASU gives rise to unique opportunities such as those that Pacheco experienced. But for RobBob Hogan, SCAP’s biggest appeal was its flexibility.

Hogan, a 10-year partner, had taken classes at community college and at a four-year university before enrolling at ASU but found that the on-campus classes didn’t work with his schedule — or his love life.

Several years ago, he was working at a Duluth, Minn., Starbucks when a woman walked in with pay-attention-to-me spiky red hair. She ordered a half-caf skinny vanilla latte and sat down to read Moby Dick. Sensing an opening, Hogan sauntered over and shared a fun fact about his workplace. “One thing I knew about Starbucks is that it was named after the first mate in Moby Dick,” said Hogan, 29. “I mentioned that when I brought over a croissant sample. She seemed to think it was interesting.”

Popping the question at the original Starbucks

They built a relationship centered around books (Crime and Punishment and Jurassic Park were also on the reading list that summer) and Starbucks, so it seemed fitting that Hogan proposed in front of the company’s first store at Pike Place in Seattle. They got married last summer (no, not at Starbucks) at the Minneapolis library, an elegant building with a vast atrium.

Hogan will be graduating with a degree in liberal studies, an amalgam of humanities and social sciences, and hopes to rise through the company ranks to become a district manager. With the chaos of the holiday season, he won’t be able to pick up his degree in person.

Across the country in Florida, Vicker also hadn’t intended to travel to Tempe for the graduation ceremony, despite his highest-grades honor. But as it turns out, he will attend the commencement after all. He’s getting some help from his district manager, who is contributing toward the cost of flying to Arizona. He’ll have to do some deep breathing to center himself when he’s recognized on stage, as the spotlight is generally a space he steers clear of. But he feels he owes it to himself — and to his company, which paid the tuition bill.

Without the financial plum, Vickers would not have completed his degree. “It’s one of the best benefits of working for Starbucks,” said Vickers, who may pursue a master’s degree in media and teaching. “They make this investment with no expectation that you will even stay with the company. To me, that’s awesome.”