No strings attached: Starbucks College Achievement Plan grads launch into next careers

Since Starbucks began offering an online bachelor’s degree program through Arizona State University, with full tuition coverage, more than 2,400 have graduated and 500 more are graduating this May. With no requirement to stay with the company, graduates are free to pursue their dreams, wherever they take them.

The afternoons and nights were the hardest. As a child, that’s when Melanie Wood would grapple with her homework, trying to solve math problems that didn’t make sense and understand lessons that were confusing, all the while falling more and more behind.

Melanie Wood
Melanie Wood earned her college degree, with 100 percent of the tuition reimbursed, through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. As a Starbucks store manager and an Army veteran, her husband, Patrick, was able to extend the benefit to a member of his family.

“Homework was a tearful struggle,” she said.

Wood’s dad was in the military and the family moved often. What she learned in one school didn’t always translate to the next. When she was in sixth grade, they returned from several years abroad and she struggled to bridge significant gaps in her education.

“I didn’t have any confidence in my academic abilities. I was in school because I had to be,” she said.

Not only did her grades suffer, but so did her self-esteem. “It’s hard to feel real good about yourself when you are getting Cs and Ds,” she said.

She longed for a teacher who could encourage her, tell her that she’s smart and help her find a way. It was in the midst of that longing that a dream began to take hold. What if, someday, she could become that kind of teacher herself?

Fast forward more than 20 years and Wood is now an elementary school teacher with a degree from Arizona State University. She earned her degree online with 100 percent tuition coverage as part of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan for Starbucks partners who work 20 hours a week or more.

Wood’s husband, Patrick, is an Army veteran and a Starbucks store manager. The couple took advantage of the option Starbucks gives to partners who are veterans or military spouses to extend an additional SCAP benefit to a family member.

Many people don’t know that’s an option, said Mary Dixon, director of the SCAP program. They also often don’t know that when a Starbucks partner graduates from ASU, there isn’t any requirement to remain with the company. They can leave and take a job outside the company the day they graduate, if they want. That’s a unique feature and is unlike the requirements of many other companies, Dixon said. While Starbucks would like as many SCAP grads to stay with the company as possible, she knows it wouldn’t be feasible for Starbucks to hire all the SCAP graduates for jobs in their fields of study.

“We didn’t want to limit what people could do,” she said.  “This is about enabling people to fulfill their dreams.”

From three to 3,000

Dixon keeps a yellow Post-It Note on her desk at the Starbucks Support Center in Seattle. At the top of it is written “May 2015.” Next to that is the numeral 3, for the number of graduates that first spring. In columns below are the years since, paired with a running total of graduates. This spring, the latest batch of SCAP students graduating from ASU will bring that number to nearly 3,000, she said. More than 12,000 are currently participating and the company has a goal of 25,000 graduates by 2025.

Today, almost 20 percent of people who apply to Starbucks say that SCAP is a driving reason, she said. Partners who are in the program stay about 50 percent longer than average and are promoted at almost three times the rate, which means it’s good for business too. “Longer partner retention makes for deeper customer connections,” Dixon said. “You attract and retain purpose-driven partners.”

At the time the program launched, in June 2014, about 70 percent of Starbucks partners were in college or aspired to be. The company saw the need and responded, said Kevin Johnson, chief executive officer of Starbucks. Now, two thirds of the 30,000 stores in the United States have at least one partner studying for ASU – often the first member of a family to earn a degree.

“As a company we are always focused on taking care of our partners. We saw many who were struggling under loads of student debt to pay for education,” Johnson said recently during a panel on education at the 10th annual ASU GSV Summit.  “Our purpose goes far beyond the pursuit of profit. It’s about taking care of partners and giving them an opportunity.”

Caitlyn Johnson, marketing operations specialist, Hunt Marketing Group, Seattle

Caitlyn Johnson has a vision for her future. She pictures herself in an office with sweeping windows, surrounded by a diverse team that she leads as they strategize about marketing and she helps “lift everyone up to the next level.”

She’s less than two years into her new career with Hunt Marketing Group in Seattle and has already been promoted once, crediting great mentors and her supervisor for their help along the way. Someday, she wants to do that for others.

Johnson, 25, comes across as someone who is confident and who knows what she wants. When she was in high school, recognizing she had a talent for science, she planned to go to college to become a genetics counselor. She was accepted to an out-of-state college where she began to take classes – and quickly realized the field just didn’t excite her the way she thought it would. That first semester cost $19,000 – and knowing that she needed time to discover what she wanted to study, she made the hard decision to return home to Lakewood, Washington.

“I felt so much anxiety,” she said. “I thought I had it all figured out and I didn’t.”

Needing a job, she was hired as a barista and worked at Starbucks in Pittsburgh and then Los Angeles before returning to the Tacoma area.

After she’d worked for the company several years, she heard Starbucks was starting a program which offered partners 100 percent tuition coverage for a first-time bachelor’s degree – and that there wasn’t any requirement to stay with the company after graduation.

She straight up did not believe it.

“I just thought ‘this is not real. This is a scam’,” she said. “I was sure there was a way I’d end up having to pay back the money.”

When she was finally convinced it was true, she enrolled, becoming the first in her store. She graduated in 2017 with a degree in mass communication and media studies and set out applying for jobs in her new field. Seeking experience, she applied for an internship at Hunt. While she wasn’t hired as an intern, she was surprised when the company reached out a few months later to invite her to interview for a full-time position instead – and quickly hired her.

“It’s important to be ambitious,” she said. She’d encourage all Starbucks partners to earn a degree through SCAP. “Why would you not take advantage of an opportunity to improve the quality of your life?"

Fidel Igama, Starbucks store manager, Upland, California

On a recent Tuesday morning, Fidel Igama walked the streets of Manila in the Philippines, revisiting memories. He was on vacation in the country where he’d been born and grew up, surrounded by five siblings and a large, extended family. It was where he worked summers as a tour guide for his parents’ travel agency. And it was where he attended the University of the Philippines.

He was two semesters away from earning a degree in economics and psychology when his father got word that the petition that he’d filed more than 20 years earlier for the family to move to the United States, where his uncles lived, had been granted.

“I hadn’t even been born yet when they filed the petition,” he said.  But it was now or never, and so he chose to leave with his family in pursuit of a better life. “It was my first time riding in an airplane, my first time leaving the country. Everything was so surreal.”

In Los Angeles, he started looking for work. He applied everywhere but he was new to the country and lacked experience. He and a cousin went to Starbucks for drinks and he figured he’d ask if they were hiring. They were. He introduced himself to the manager who arranged to interview him that afternoon and hired him.

It quickly became more than a job. “I really love the culture of Starbucks. Since I’m an immigrant I didn’t have any friends, but I not only made friends there, they became another family,” he said.

Occasionally, he thought back to the dream he had of finishing college and how close he had been to graduating. “To me, education is the key and is an advantage,” he said.

But the cost also put it out of reach. He knew others who had taken student loans and were drowning to pay them off.

In 2014, two years after he started working a barista, he heard about SCAP. “It seemed too good to be true,” he said. “I thought, am I supposed to be with them for the next 10 years or five years? But then I realized you could earn your degree and walk away.”

He got his transcripts from the Philippines and embarked on earning his degree, working two jobs and studying late at night with little sleep. “I thought about giving up a lot of times. But I thought I could do it.”

Last spring, he graduated with a degree in technological entrepreneurship and management. His family was there to see him cross the stage at ASU.

“When I got recognized, my mom started crying,” said Igama, 26. “It was an achievement. My parents’ dream for me was to earn my degree. I granted my own wish – and granted my parents' wish.”

Along the way, he also realized that Starbucks is where he wants to be for the long term. “Working for Starbucks is my calling. It’s not just my job but it is also my career,” he said.

Earning his degree helped him gain the confidence to become a store manager – the youngest manager in his district, he said. Down the road, one of his goals is to work at the company’s headquarters in Seattle. He thrives on hiring and helping develop talent and is an advocate for the SCAP, participating recently in two SCAP open forums for Starbucks partners. He’s particularly proud of the fact that five partners at his store are currently enrolled in SCAP.

“My definition of success is to be able to share my blessings and my knowledge with my family and my friends,” he said. “I want people to know they can achieve their dreams. It’s possible.”

Melanie Wood, second grade teacher, Dr. Joseph Fowler Elementary, Killeen, Texas

On a recent evening, Melanie Wood paused after spending the day escorting her excited second grade students on a field trip.

Dr. Joseph Fowler Elementary, where she began teaching in the fall after earning her degree at ASU through SCAP, is near Fort Hood, one of largest Army bases in the U.S. Most of her students are the children of active members of the military or veterans. One of them just left a few weeks ago after his parent was transferred from Texas.

From Wood’s experiences, she knows what that’s like, having to start over and hope that what you learned in one school applies to the next.

Wood and her family
On a recent weeknight, Wood and her family, including (L to R), son Jordan, 12; husband, Patrick; son Jaxon, age 8; and her daughter Brooklynn, 6, relax at home.

For many years, her goal of becoming a teacher and helping students who struggled like she did seemed out of reach. After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in community college, but then her husband, Patrick, whom she met when they were 17, got transferred with the Army and she had to quit. Over the years, they had three children, now ages 6, 8 and 12, and Patrick was deployed twice to Iraq. With him gone, it was up to her to keep things on track at home.

“He always knew it was one of my regrets that I’d never finished college,” said Wood, 38. “It’d be put on hold for this or that or I’d think I’m too old or do we want to take out student loans at this age when we’ll have kids’ college to pay for.”

After Patrick left the Army and became a Starbucks store manager, he came home one day to tell her about the SCAP program. Since he was a veteran, he could gift an additional benefit to her.  He had earned a degree in 2002; the couple is still paying off his student loans, she said.

When she heard about SCAP, her old fears came up about not being able to manage academically. She was afraid she’d struggle like she had as a child, all those years ago. But she enrolled anyhow in 2016. She worked as a church secretary during the day and took classes and did homework at night, often studying at the table next to her children.

But unlike her experience as a child, she felt she had the support of her teachers. “ASU was wonderful and the professors were so kind, wanting to teach you and broaden your horizons,” she said.

Last spring, she graduated, just shy of academic honors. She didn’t travel to ASU for the ceremony because one of her sons had a baseball tournament that weekend and she wanted to be there to support him. But she wore her cap and gown to her job, and they ate cake. “It was one of the capstone moments of my life that I was finally able to put a lid on that pot and call it done,” she said.

Now, she is the kind of teacher she always hoped to have. She wants each of her students to know that even if they struggle and in whatever ways they struggle, “you are smart enough and you can do it,” she said. “What you do matters, even if you do something small. You don’t have to grow up and be the president to have an impact, you can still do something spectacular with your life.”

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