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The Atlantic has a long piece looking at Starbucks' experiment with Arizona State University in which it is looking to make a college education accessible to company employees working for 20 hours or more a week.

The article looks to put the experiment in a broader context, noting that "when it comes to college, the central challenge for most Americans in the 21st century is not going; it’s finishing. Thirty-five million Americans now have some college experience but no degree. More Americans than live in Texas, in other words, have spent enough time at college to glimpse the promised land - but not enough to reap the financial bounty. Some are worse off than if they’d never enrolled at all, carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt, not to mention the scar tissue of regret and self-doubt."

The story goes on: "We like to think of college as a meritocracy, a place where only the dedicated and smart survive. But it seems to be something else. Between 1970 and 2012, the proportion of American 24-year-olds who came from affluent families and had a bachelor’s degree rose from 40 percent to 73 percent—quite an enlightenment period for privileged kids. But over the same period, the proportion of American 24-year-olds who came from low-income families and had a bachelor’s degree rose from 6 percent to just 8 percent. The country’s uneven public-school systems cannot be blamed entirely for this state of affairs. Too many people come to college unprepared academically, it’s true. But even those low-income students who outperform their affluent peers on tests are less likely to graduate from college."

When Starbucks announced its partnership with ASU, "the goal was not to print a pile of get-out-of-tuition-free coupons. It was something less expensive and possibly more important: to help more students finish what they’d started ... The most revolutionary part of the program had nothing to do with tuition and got far less media attention. In their announcement, Starbucks and Arizona State also committed themselves to providing all enrolled employees with individualized guidance—the kind of thing affluent American parents and elite universities provide for their students as a matter of course. Starbucks students would each be assigned an enrollment counselor, a financial-aid adviser, an academic adviser, and a 'success coach' - a veritable pit crew of helpers. Like a growing number of innovative colleges around the country, Starbucks and Arizona State were promising to prioritize the needs of real-life students over the traditions of academia."

To be clear, the experiment has not been embraced to the extent that Starbucks and ASU might have expected, and they plan to continue to promote it within the company and figure out ways to make it more accessible and more successful. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said that the effort could cost the company tens of millions of dollars a year, which is a lot of money, though not even close to the $250 million a year the company spends on health care.

"Since Starbucks announced the program in June, 20,000 people who have applied online for jobs at the company have cited the college benefit as a reason for their interest. One barista I interviewed had quit her office job in Dallas and taken a $4-an-hour pay cut to attend college for free through Starbucks. The company does not have data yet on whether employee retention has increased, but so far, it has spent very little and received significant PR and HR returns."

It is a fascinating piece, because it contrasts the Starbucks/ASU experiment against the crushing economic realities of modern higher education ... and you can and should read it in its entirely here.

To be sure, the experiment is unfinished and the experience is far from perfected. But I can't help but think about one of the statements made in the story: that Starbucks "is acknowledging an awkward truth about working at Starbucks: no one wants to be a barista forever."

And there's another line, from Arizona State’s president, Michael Crow: “We’re not trying to save the world. We’re trying to show that the world can be saved."
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