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Editorial: Starbucks is investing in the future

Seattle’s Pike Place Market is a bizarre bazaar. It’s as close as America comes to achieving the frenetic excitement of the colorful, madcap markets of foreign lands.

Hawkers shout, fish – really big fish – fly through the air into the arms of their buyers, buskers play, artists display, the air is alive with scents strange and familiar. One of those scents is coffee.

The market is the birthplace of Starbucks, an innovative company that, with its partner, Arizona State University, has embarked on an experiment to rethink both corporate responsibility and higher education. Together the company and the college are doing something unprecedented and great, something smart employers should emulate.

Last week, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz announced that any of his company’s 135,000 U. S. employees, if they work at least 20 hours per week and have the grades to get in, can complete the last two years of a four-year college degree with help from Starbucks.

The company will grant partial scholarships, that will be to some degree needs-based, to employees who are freshmen and sophomores.

There’s a catch, of course, but not the one you might expect. Many large companies, among them Home Depot, UPS and Comcast, provide limited tuition assistance or reimbursement, but typically only for course work that relates to the employee’s job and usually with the requirement that the worker stay with the company for a given number of years. Starbucks employees can study whatever they want and leave for a better-paying job the day they get their degree.

The catch is that the offer is good only for online courses taught by faculty of Phoenix-based Arizona State University, which offered Starbucks a big discount on tuition. As an incentive to complete their education, employees will have to pay out of pocket or borrow the money to enroll in the courses and be reimbursed later, after they’ve completed 21 credits.

The school expects to enroll up to 15,000 Starbucks employees, but that’s not the only reason its president, Michael Crow, jumped at the deal.

Like Schultz, Crow comes from a working-class background. Both innovators fear that America is losing its competitive edge. Rapidly escalating college costs and huge debt loads carried by many students means fewer young people find college affordable. Unless they get one, however, few acquire the skills needed to land good jobs in the global economy.

Arizona State’s online courses, which have won top scores from educators, are an effort to make college affordable for anyone willing to work. Online education can’t duplicate the experience of attending a bricks-and-mortar university, and it has its critics. But to succeed in this new economy, not just the top quarter or third of every high school class but virtually everyone needs more education. Online learning, especially online education paid for by one’s employer, may be the way to make that happen.

Starbucks employee education benefits are good for its employees, good for the company’s image, good for America and who knows, though the perk could cost Starbucks $50 million per year, may be good for its bottom line.

As one coffee drinker said when learning about Shultz’s pioneering program, Starbucks coffee is expensive and McDonald’s coffee, which is now pretty good, is cheap. But given the choice of shopping where employees are happy because their employer has invested in their future or a place where employees are striking because they can barely feed themselves, let alone a family on the earnings from their full-time job, she knows where she’ll go for coffee.

So do we.

This is what free enterprise can and will do if government gets the Hell out of the way.

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