• Baylee

How I Got my Degree for FREE with the Starbucks College Achievement Plan

Disclaimer: I have been a Starbucks Partner (employee) twice over the past few years and am currently employed by them. However, Starbucks did not pay me or sponsor me in any way to write this article. This is a reflection of my experiences only and in no way an official statement on behalf of the company. Refer directly to Starbucks for up-to-date information regarding the benefits they offer.

After high school, should I go straight to college or should I try working first?

It’s a huge question for high schoolers, and the exact question I was mulling over in my mind in the Summer of 2014. I had already decided I’d be going to college, but the specifics of how it’d be paid for and whether it was even worth it still weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Some of my friends had parents who wanted them to go to college so badly that they paid for everything, free and clear. Others I knew were taking out loans of up to 60k a year to attend their choice private school. And some I knew had chosen to forego college altogether, jumping into full time work as quickly as they could.

The Dream:

I remember it as if it was yesterday. My dad is a tall, black-haired businessman who has always encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit in all of his kids. We were driving lazily down the I-15 freeway in California, surrounded on both sides by rows of boxy furniture stores and storage centers, with nothing but rocky desert behind them. College was a hot topic between me and my parents. I wanted to go away to college, mostly because I really valued education. But like many teenagers, college also gave me a legitimate reason to leave my hometown. My parents, on the other hand, saw that I was a little directionless in life. They thought that traditional college was the most expensive way I could possibly procrastinate while I figured out what to do.

“I’m telling you, Baylee,” my dad said, “just find a company that pays for your school! That’s what I did. You can avoid the whole tuition mess altogether.”

I was sulking. My dad was always the corporate climber, and it was a tech company that paid for his degree. My work experience as an 18 year old was babysitting and cleaning ballet studios. Who would want to invest in me?

My parents thought that traditional college was the most expensive way I could possibly procrastinate while I figured out what to do.

That’s when the deep voice of a radio talk show host broke the news: in the first of its kind, Starbucks was offering “free tuition” for its employees to seek bachelor’s degrees from Arizona State University. It was called the CAP Program, or the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. My dad’s hand reached for the dial to turn the volume up and beamed a huge smile at me, “See? Wait long enough and some problems just solve themselves.”

It was a no-brainer for both of us. I had no problem working my butt off for a college degree and my parents had no problem letting me do whatever the heck I wanted- as long as it was paid for. The more we talked about how easy it’d be to work at Starbucks and finish school online, the more solidified my plans felt. College finally seemed attainable for me for the first time EVER.

The College Achievement Plan Since Then:

Within a week of Starbucks’ and ASU’s big announcement came big backlash. Media outlets questioned whether Starbucks was really providing a benefit to employees or was just engaging in a manipulative marketing campaign. Others were quick to point out the limitations of the program.

But as soon as the program was actually implemented, the noise quieted down. Yes, Starbucks was really paying for degrees for their partners (even entry-level baristas). And no, there really were no strings attached.

Yes, Starbucks was really paying for degrees for their partners (even entry-level baristas). And no, there really were no strings attached.

My time in the CAP Program was fantastic, but like any company program there are rules. So if you’re considering this program in particular, here are 5 big things you need to know.

5 Things to Know About the Starbucks College Achievement Plan

1) It is for first-time Bachelor degree seekers ONLY. This is important. If you already have a Bachelor’s degree you won’t receive any educational benefit. You also won’t get any tuition benefits if you’re looking to get a Master’s degree. Trust me, I’ve tried. And tried again. Sorry!

2) It is only for degrees through ASU Online. If your dream is to get a degree from a specific school, then this program probably isn’t for you. But if you’re not, then ASU is a fantastic option. ASU has existed for over a century and they’ve always been an accredited school. In fact, they’re more than accredited- they’re renowned. There are currently over 400,000 alumni around the world, and in 2009, sitting president Barack Obama gave the commencement speech to a crowd of roughly 70,000. ASU was also a frontrunner in online education and they currently offer 133 Bachelor's Degree programs to choose from (check them out here!). And if you’re wondering if your diploma will say "ASU Online"- like I was- just know that it WILL NOT. It will say "Arizona State University", just as if you'd attended their Tempe campus in person.

3) You only need to work 20 hours a week to be eligible. This is something that sets Starbucks apart from other companies that offer tuition reimbursement. They don’t just say they want their employees to go to college, they really make it possible. At Starbucks, all partners are eligible for benefits while working only 20 hours a week. Anyone who has clung to a full-time work schedule “for the benefits” knows that that’s a huge benefit! You don't have to burn yourself out if you really want a college degree.

4) You must still be admitted into ASU. Starbucks makes college achievable, but hey- it’s still college. You still need to fill out your FAFSA and actually apply to the program you’re interested in well in advance of its start date. You also need to meet ASU’s requirements for being a student in academic good standing. You can find those here. If this feels a little intimidating- don’t worry. ASU’s acceptance rate as of 2020 was around 85%. You don’t need to be the class Valedictorian to get in- they just want to be assured that you’re dedicated to taking the program seriously.

5) However, tuition is still covered even if you fail a class. I had to look this up for myself under less than ideal circumstances! There’s nothing worse than giving a class your all, failing it (I didn’t know I could take PRE Calculus before Calculus, okay!), and then getting an enormous tuition bill in the mail a month later. Luckily, that is NOT something you have to worry about with the Starbucks CAP Program. Just don’t fail too many classes, because ultimately you might no longer be considered a student in good standing with ASU, and you may lose the benefit again.

6) Only tuition is covered, not any other expenses for school. This is fairly standard for companies that offer tuition reimbursement. I was an English major, so luckily my “textbooks” were usually just regular old classics I could buy on Amazon. But anyone considering college for the first time should know that the costs of supplies can really add up. It’s not abnormal for books for just one class to cost over $100! The good news is that most schools now list the required textbooks upfront before you register for the class, so you won’t be surprised on your first day of class.

You can find more detailed information on the CAP Program here and on Starbucks Partner benefits here. Before committing to any program, I highly encourage you to find the most up-to-date information. Luckily, Starbucks knows that they have something good going on and have most of the information available online. Try Googling, “Starbucks CAP Program info” and “Starbucks Partner Benefits” any time, and all of the information you need is readily available!

My Experience:

I think I followed the Starbucks plan to the letter. I moved to my grandma’s house and enrolled at a community college in Orange County, California. If I’d had to pay tuition, I would’ve paid a few hundred dollars per course, significantly less than I would have for a regular university. However, California makes it exceptionally easy to get through school as a low-income student, which I was at the time. During the enrollment process I simply checked a box to apply for the Board of Governors Fee Waiver (now known as the California College Promise Grant) and my tuition was waived. I took a full course load at school and made sure that I met the transfer requirements for ASU. In the Fall of 2016 I successfully transferred to ASU, and in May of 2018 I finally graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English! Woohoo!

I even got to visit Germany with my class!

Even though I faced severe educational drawbacks growing up, I became the first woman in my family to graduate from college. I know for sure that my company made the college dream attainable for me, where it otherwise would have been extremely difficult- if not impossible. In fact, thinking back to how the news of the CAP Program actually seemed to “break” in my high school town warms my heart. I was not the only student who suddenly saw a future with an education but without student loans, something the generation just before us would have killed for!

I know for sure that my company made the college dream attainable for me, where it otherwise would have been extremely difficult- if not impossible.

I’m so glad that students today have even more options than I did at the time. Today, you can find countless lists, such as this one from The Balance, detailing which major companies offer tuition reimbursement and how much. The good news is that companies are also offering tuition assistance for part-time employees as well. Recently, both Target, Chipotle, and Walmart joined the fray in offering tuition benefits to their part-time employees!

There are also degrees offered online that didn’t even seem possible before! ASU offers traditional online subjects like History and English, but they also offer programs like Biochemistry, Electrical Engineering, Forensic Science, and so many more programs that used to exclusively be hands-on.

What it all means for you:

Higher education is probably ultimately the biggest personal financial decision that most people will ever make. Not only is there the initial cost to consider, but also the ripple effect of everything thereafter. For instance:

If you must take out student loans, as over half of students do, then what other goals will they hold you back from, and for how long? For instance, is it worth it to delay buying your first home or begin investing while you’re paying off student loans?

Higher education is probably ultimately the biggest personal financial decision that most people will ever make.

On the other hand, if you don’t go to college, will your lifetime earnings suffer? Research shows that men who earn bachelor’s degrees make nearly $1 million more over the course of their life than men who only earn high school diplomas.

College, in general, is a big decision made more complicated by a million other tiny factors. But I’m a huge fan of companies that offer tuition reimbursement because they can take one of the biggest complexities around college (money) and help take it off your plate.

This post was originally written for Life@23K Blog and has been updated and modified to be shared on Up at an Angle.


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