Starbucks proves it can deliver a jolt.
In this case, it was the announcement of an unprecedented new employee benefit that offers free college tuition to all workers — full time and part time — for their junior and senior years.
The coursework would be completed online through Arizona State University in one of 40 degree fields. There would be no conditions attached about staying with the company after the worker finished college.
Credit the company’s leadership and CEO Howard Schultz with a revolutionary concept that should challenge other employers to think broadly about how they can open doors for their workers and be transformative in their communities.
Schultz said the benefit fits into Starbucks’ goal of being a “company with a conscience.”
In recent years, he said, the American dream of access to opportunity has been an empty promise to many. The cost of college has either been out of reach for millions or left them with suffocating debt.
Schultz said company leaders wondered: “Should we accept that, or should we do something about it?”
Starbucks executives chose the latter, and good for them. As Schultz put it, “We can’t be a bystander. We can’t wait for Washington.”
Other businesses have offered tuition breaks for employees, but they are rare in the retail industry. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has provided workers partial grants for online courses since 2010.
Starbucks appears to be alone in the industry with the offer of two free years of school, and Schultz concedes there are many unanswered questions.
Overall, a full four-year college degree could be obtained at a huge discount through the company. It could be discounted to zero for a worker who already had enough college credits for the junior or senior years, as long as he or she kept on track to graduate.
American industry learns things from the bold, the experimenters, the disrupters. Starbucks tuition program fits those descriptions. It will be interesting — and we hope even exciting — to see what kind of impact it has.