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5 years later, still going strong

More than tuition: Trailblazing Starbucks College Achievement Plan continues to offer partners support, flexibility with ASU Online

Sparky and Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson point at each other at a fifth-anniversary celebration
October 15, 2019

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2019.

Thousands of Arizona State University graduates will forever associate the heady aroma of piping hot coffee with their hard work in completing college. At the fifth anniversary of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, more than 3,000 people have earned their bachelor’s degree while working at Starbucks.

More than 80 degrees are offered through ASU Online. For many, the plan — in which Starbucks employees, called “partners,” are reimbursed for tuition every semester — was a chance to get back on track with a dream that was temporarily delayed.

One of the proud graduates is Robert Lamb, who had to put college on hold in order to go to work.

“My parents had always told me from a young age how important education was, and I had an opportunity to go to Howard University right out of high school,” he said. After five years, he was close to graduating but had to leave school to work.

“I was always determined to go back,” he said.

He started working at Starbucks in 2010 and last year joined the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. He was able to transfer more than 100 credits, but he was still a little nervous about returning to school.

“I liked the flexibility of online classes, and having eight years of real-life experiences helped me to be structured and disciplined,” he said.

After three semesters, Lamb graduated with a degree in liberal studies and is grateful for the help he had along the way.

“I had the support of my district manager, my regional director, the other partners,” he said. “We have the Workplace Scholar Group, with encouraging messages to each other. That combination helped me get through it. Starbucks has a really great structure and support system, and there’s someone to support you every step of the way.”

Lamb recently finished a temporary assignment with the SCAP program in Seattle and now is a store manager in Baltimore.

“It was amazing to be able to give back to the program that gave me and my family so much,” he said.

ASU President Michael Crow accepts coffee trees from Starbucks partners

Starbucks partners Alexa Kerege (center) and Amber Lawson — who are pursuing their ASU Online degrees in community health and communications, respectively, through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan — present ASU President Michael Crow with seedling coffee trees at a surprise celebration for the fifth anniversary of the Starbucks-ASU partnership Oct. 9 in Tempe. Photo by Alisha Mendez/EdPlus at ASU

Kaede Balazs was the first Starbucks partner to graduate using the program, the first classes for which began in mid-October 2014.

“I originally began college in 2002, and that’s also when I applied to work at Starbucks because I heard they were really accommodating with school schedules and I could have access to benefits even working part-time, which was great for a college student,” Balazs said.

She earned an associate degree and then decided to pause her education while working to save up for a bachelor’s degree.

“That turned into six or seven years,” she said. “But I always wanted to go back to school.”

In 2011, she moved to the Valley and the following year began classes at ASU’s Tempe campus. She wanted more flexibility, so she switched to ASU Online.

“It was perfect because we moved to Germany for a temporary work assignment and I could go to school while living abroad,” she said.

She was in her last semester when the Starbucks College Achievement Plan began. Because she needed only a few credits to complete her mass communication and media studies degree, she graduated in December 2014, after only one ASU Online half-semester session. She now works on the team at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle that handles communications with retail stores.

“It’s so rewarding because it feels like I came full circle. To do work in my degree field and support the stores, where I started, is great,” Balazs said.

“I was kind of hesitant to go back to school because it had been so long. I was worried about whether I could keep up, was I too old, did I miss my window? But it really helped me to grow as a person, and it’s so special to fulfill a promise I made to myself so many years ago.”

Corporations and universities working together

When ASU and Starbucks announced the plan in 2014, it was one of a kind. Since then, other companies, including Uber, have partnered with ASU to provide tuition assistance to their employees. That’s important because increasing the number of college graduates is vital to the economy. According to data from the Department of Education, bachelor's degree-holders typically earn 66% more than those with only a high school diploma and are far less likely to face unemployment.

More than 13,000 Starbucks partners are now in the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, according to Lisa Young, executive director of Starbucks initiatives for EdPlus at ASU.

“Our partnership with Starbucks is the exemplar of how corporations and universities may come together to create real impact at the individual, community and macroeconomic level,” she said.

Over the years, the program has flourished.

  • In 2015, Starbucks expanded benefits to family members of veterans who work at Starbucks.
  • Starting in 2016, graduates were given a “stole of gratitude” to wear at commencement, with the ASU and Starbucks logos on them. The company also started a contest for partners to win an all-expenses-paid trip to graduation at ASU.
  • Starting in 2017, partners who wanted to pursue a degree but who didn’t qualify were offered Pathway to Admission, in which they could take up to 10 college-level courses, with costs covered.
  • Also in 2017, the company began the Workplace Scholar Group for students who wanted to connect and support each other.
  • Earlier this year, ASU added Starbucks-specific support teams in the enrollment and success centers.

After 20 years away from school, Diane Trimble was nervous about resuming classes. She had started college years earlier but dropped out when she had a family. Then in 2015, her manager at Starbucks encouraged her to sign up for SCAP.

“At that time, my son was asking me about college and what he should major in,” she said.

“And I had to think, ‘How can I be an advocate for college if I didn’t finish myself?’”

She was able to transfer a lot of credits, so she set a goal of finishing her degree before her son graduated from high school. And she did it. By taking 18 credits a semester, she was able to earn her degree in organizational leadership in December 2016.

But that wasn’t the end.

“I fell in love with Arizona State University, and I fell in love with education and I wanted more,” said Trimble, who is a Starbucks store manager and lives in Victorville, California.

So she enrolled in a master’s degree program in sustainability leadership and finished that last year. Now, she’s pursuing a doctorate of education.  

“I realized there was a big gap in our education system when it comes to our youth, and I wanted to do more in my community,” she said.

Trimble also is a leader of the new SCAP Alumni Association and is an ambassador for the Starbucks program, visiting high schools and attending career fairs.

“I’m continuing to do the work to move the needle one partner at a time to educate them and help them become a SCAP partner.”

Top photo: Sparky visits Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson for a fifth-anniversary celebration Oct. 8 in Seattle. Photo by Connor Surdi

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