NEW YORK - Starbucks is giving its baristas a shot at an online college degree, an unusual benefit in an industry where higher education is often out of reach for workers.
The coffee chain is partnering with Arizona State University to make an online undergraduate degree available at a steep discount to any of its 135,000 U.S. employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
The program underscores the predicament of many workers who earn low wages, don't have much job security and often hold down more than one job. It also highlights the stark disparities in advancement opportunities between the rich and poor, and how a traditional college education remains a near impossibility for so many.
In this April 2012 file photo, Starbucks barista Linsey Pringle prepares a cup of coffee at a Starbucks Corp. store in Seattle. Starbucks on Monday announced a new partnership with Arizona State University to make online degrees available to its 135,000 U.S. employees who work at least 20 hours a week. (AP photo)
At an event in New York City on Monday, CEO Howard Schultz told an audience of about 340 Starbucks workers and their guests that the issue was personal because he was the first in his family to attend college.
"I could care less about marketing. This is not about PR," he said of the cynicism he's already encountered about the program.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also appeared on stage to tell the crowd that education has become increasingly crucial to succeed, given the disappearance of blue-collar jobs that pay well. Duncan urged workers to show other companies why they should follow in Starbucks' footsteps.
"Think of the example you can set for the rest of the nation," Duncan said. "If you guys can do this well ... you're going to change the trajectory of the entire country."
Tuition and room and board has climbed over the years, reaching an average of $18,400 last year for local students at public schools, or $40,900 for private universities, according to the College Board.
With prices rising, student loan debt has tripled since 2003 and is now the highest form of household debt after mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve Board of New York.
Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, said college has moved in a direction "where it's all about exclusion" and that public universities need a new approach to making education accessible. He shot down the notion that an online education is an easy way out.
Starbucks Corp., based in Seattle, said it doesn't know how many workers will apply for its prokgram or how much it will cost over time.
One Starbucks employee from Los Angeles, Michael Bojorquez Echeverria, said he works up to 75 hours a week, including at another job, and attends community college at no cost. But he plans to apply for the Starbucks program because he thinks it will offer greater financial security.
He said he will miss is the socializing that comes with attending school in person. "But hey, if they're going to be paying my fees, I can manage," he said.
Zee Lemke, a Starbucks worker and union organizer in Madison, Wisconsin, said she thought the program could benefit some workers.