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Free College for Baristas? Fine Print in Starbucks Deal Says That’s a Tall Order

News of the plan for Starbucks to educate thousands of its employees through a partnership with Arizona State University broke on Sunday, and was met with celebration. “Bravo,” “Game changer,” and “Impressive” were some of the comments on Twitter. Even Oprah weighed in with praise.

But there are some caveats worth noting amid the public-relations party.

1. It’s not exactly free.

Participating employees will get reimbursed only for every 21 credits they complete (the equivalent of about seven courses) and only after the fact. Starbucks says the rule is meant to encourage completion, rather than having employees sporadically take a handful of classes. But for someone living off a barista’s wages, that’s a pretty hefty chunk to pay upfront.

Access dominated much of the Twitter conversation:


Ms. Fishman, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, elaborated further on cost concerns in a blog post.

2. Among those who are eligible, only some get it free.

You have to work roughly 20 hours per week at Starbucks to be eligible. In addition, only juniors and seniors get the full reimbursement.

Starbucks says it will pay about half the amount of tuition for freshmen and sophomores, on average.

The cost per credit, which ranges from $482 to $543, could discourage those who have to pay some of their way. But one Twitter user offered a defense:

(Mr. Wildavsky is director of higher-education studies at the State University of New York’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.)

3. Only employees in the United States can participate.

Starbucks has roughly 135,000 employees in the United States, a fraction of its international work force. A large proportion of international employees, thanks to the web, would probably be able to pursue an online degree. But a domestic-only program is better than nothing. The U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, definitely thinks so:

Correction (6/16/2014, 4:06 p.m.): This post originally stated that Starbucks employees must be enrolled full time in classes to participate in the scholarship program. That is incorrect. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.

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