America Can't Afford College That's Unaffordable

This time of year, thousands of newly minted high school graduates are preparing to head to college in the fall. They seem like they are on the right track -- dreaming of the future even as they fret over their new roommates and class schedules.

But the reality is that only about half of them will graduate. Today, America's graduation rates significantly lag behind those of other developed countries. In the U.S. today, the biggest predictor of a student's success isn't their GPA, or their commitment, or their hours of hard work.

It's their parents' zip code.1

As the President of one of the nation's largest universities and CEO of one of the largest retailers in the country, we work with extraordinary young people every day. They all deserve their shot at earning a degree, and the more than $1 million in additional lifetime earnings that go along with it.2

We asked ourselves: what if any Starbucks barista could finish a bachelor's degree with full tuition reimbursement through Arizona State's research driven and scholarship enhanced top-ranked online degree program, choosing from among any of 40 majors with no commitments after they graduate? Wouldn't that represent an important step forward in enabling the kinds of life-changing opportunities their parents and grandparents had?

We sure think so. And that is why today we teamed up to announce a first-of-its-kind partnership: the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.

We read the same headlines, and see the same deeply entrenched status quo, that all of you do. For years we've heard about a lost generation, saddled with an average debt of nearly $30,0003, more than half of them without a degree to show for it. And as a result, students are turning away from higher education -- only 66% of high school graduates enrolled in any kind of past high school training in 2013, the lowest percentage in a decade.4 This dynamic is producing an inequality of opportunity that doesn't serve our country well today, and doesn't position it to compete in the future.

But when we look at the 135,000 Starbucks partners in more than 7,000 stores across every state in the nation, we see America. And all the hope and promise this represents. People like Tammie, a barista from Los Angeles who started college in 2009 but dropped out in order to use her college fund to save the family home when her father lost his job. We want to make it possible for Tammie to fulfill her promise.

ASU is one of a handful of forward-looking universities across the country that is successfully finding ways to increase access to higher education while enhancing quality. By putting support services in place to monitor students' progress, engaging every faculty idea and technological tool and intervening when they stumble. And through recognizing the power of online learning to create an educational experience as flexible as the lives that working students lead.

Ideally, the best way to extend ASU's reach is to find ways to make its scholar driven degrees more accessible to more qualified students. If you're seeking to move the needle on graduation rates, a great place to start is working adults with some college experience but who haven't completed their degree. There are more than 19 million of these bright, high-potential candidates between the ages of 20 and 35 -- many of them working in Starbucks stores -- which nearly equals the total enrollment of all U.S. college students5. They're motivated. And a high quality online education lets them balance work and life. And America benefits by enhancing our human capital for greater national competitiveness.

At Starbucks, approximately 72% of our 135,000 U.S. employees have not yet completed their degrees.6 Many of them are working students who represent, in a nutshell, the challenges of completing a degree for many young Americans today.

Starbucks has long believed that the best investment we can make is in our own people and their futures. Through this partnership with ASU, we'll be setting thousands of employees on the path to becoming some of the best-qualified workers in America. In addition to receiving an excellent education at ASU, they are gaining valuable experience in business, leadership and customer service, and showing their grit as working students. We want our partners to thrive wherever they go, and to become Starbucks best future leaders -- or customers, if their career takes them elsewhere.

We hope more employers will join us by making an investment in tomorrow's workforce by increasing access to a college degree. We need a new approach from leaders who will join us in taking up the mantle to do the right thing: for our companies, for our communities, for our country.

Just as it always has been in America, the future of our nation will come from all social strata, and a college degree is their ticket to upward mobility. Take it from a former Navy brat and Brooklyn street kid, whose scholarships were the key to unlocking a world of opportunity.


1. Zip Codes Continue to Determine Upward Mobility in America (2013). Retrieved from

2. U.S. Census, 2012: Work Life Earnings by Field of Degree and Occupation for People With a Bachelor's Degree: 2011. Figure 1: Synthetic Work-Life Earnings by Field of Bachelor's Degree and Occupation Group for Full-Time, Year-Round Workers Whose Highest Attainment is a Bachelor's Degree (2012) by Tiffany Julian ([ACSBR/11-04]). Washington. Retrieved from

3. U.S. Department of Education: The Condition of Education. Chapter 4; Section 41: Fig. 1: Percentage of students seeking a bachelor's degree at 4-year degree-granting institutions who completed a bachelor's degree within 6 years. (2013) by Susan Aud ([NCES 2013-037]). Institute of Educational Science: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

4. U.S. Department of Labor: College Enrollment and Work Activity of 2013 High School Graduates (2013) Economic News Release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from

5. U.S. Department of Education: The Condition of Education (2013) by Susan Aud ([NCES 2013-037]). Institute of Educational Science: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

6. Starbucks internal source