Starbucks Commits to Employees and Technology With ASU Partnership

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow announced that Starbucks and ASU will team up to offer the Starbucks College Achievement Plan to put an affordable college education within the reach of thousands of full-time and part-time Starbucks employees.

U.S. employees who work 20 hours per week at any Starbucks-operated store, including Teavana, La Boulange, Evolution Fresh, and Seattle’s Best Coffee locations, will receive full tuition reimbursement to finish a bachelor’s degree through any of the more than 40 undergraduate programs that ASU offers online. Students admitted as juniors or seniors will receive full tuition reimbursement, while those admitted as freshmen and sophomores will be eligible for partial-tuition scholarships and need-based aid for the first two years of full-time study. (Starbucks didn’t reveal the financial terms of the partnership.) Employees won’t be required to stay at Starbucks after they graduate.

The partnership with ASU brings the latest in a series of headlines demonstrating Starbucks’s interest in using technology to innovate everyday experiences. The chain has been innovative on that front, launching free Wi-Fi in 2010, accepting mobile payments, testing an app to take mobile orders, and now deploying Duracell Powermats to offer free phone charging in Starbucks and Teavana stores (even if few phones actually have the capability for wireless charging built in, as Bloomberg reports.) The announcement of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan shows not only that Starbucks is willing to make an impressive investment in its employees, but that the company’s interest in technology extends beyond the needs of its own stores.

The Starbucks/ASU announcement states that about 72 percent of Starbucks’s 135,000 U.S. employees haven’t completed a college degree. Starbucks sees the online degree programs that ASU offers as a great match for those students who need a combination of flexibility, support, and easy access to high-quality education as they work at Starbucks and work toward their degrees. Online learning is an immensely practical solution not only to achieve that accessibility and flexibility, but also to equally provide a college education to thousands of employees nationwide. The move also shows that Starbucks is confident in the quality of the education programs offered by ASU, a public university that in turn has looked to technology to make higher education more innovative, accessible, and convenient.

According to its online learning website, ASU was one of the first universities to integrate Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Apps for Education with its learning platform. It partners with TechShop, a DIY facility, to provide students with prototyping and fabrication equipment and to keep entrepreneurs in school. ASU is also one of the first universities to adopt data-driven innovations that could revolutionize online learning, making it more effective for the increasing numbers of students who enroll. ASU partners with Knewton, a private company that combines data science and machine learning to personalize students’ learning experiences in online courses. Knewton’s data-driven software provides what’s called “adaptive learning,” and gauges how well students are learning each concept presented in a course. The software relays that information to the instructor, who can then help individual students or rethink the way an entire course works.

The technology works best when used with a large number of students, because it can collect more data to analyze, learn from, and use to make predictions. Inside Higher Ed reported last year that ASU has partnered with Knewton to pioneer the use of adaptive learning technology in its online classrooms, and ASU said that during its first semester using the technology, it placed over 4,000 students in classes running on Knewton software and saw professors switching roles from lecturer to mentor to work with the new way the courses were run.

The Starbucks College Achievement Plan is an unusual move for a company employing so many retail workers. The large-scale program can benefit a large number of students, help Starbucks attract better workers, and increase revenue for ASU. The program could also draw more attention to companies that, like Knewton, are developing solutions to make online learning more effective — which could potentially spark major changes to the online learning industry farther down the road.

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