Starbucks, Disney & the indomitable power of corporate college courses

SOURCE: Khadeeja Yasser/Unsplash
As college fees continue to rise, employer-sponsored degree programmes like Starbucks' are a lifeline for many.

By Emma Richards 

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A debt-free college degree is somewhat of an elusive unicorn of educational attainment for most Americans. Until recently, there was really only one route to achieve this – a convoluted collection of grants, financial aid, and scholarships, and even then graduates were likely to be left out of pocket.

It is only in the last half-decade or so that another route has opened up to mature students and high school leavers alike. It’s a new wave sweeping across corporations, one that is seeing employees walk from the coffee shop to the commencement stage without paying out a dime.

In an increasingly tough labour market, big business is finding a new way to attract and retain the right staff – and in some cases, repair damaged reputations. Some of the biggest corporations in the world are finally understanding that a fulfilled and educated workforce is a better workforce and they’re dipping their hands in their deep pockets to make sure it happens.

Like a domino effect, corporation after corporation has been jumping on the employer-sponsored degree programme bandwagon.


In a country like the United States where college is financially out of reach for many, the offer of a debt-free education is a big draw.

The idea hasn’t been without its detractors, with critics accusing companies of using employer-sponsored degrees as another tactic to avoid paying workers a decent living wage.

That being said, such programmes have enabled thousands of Americans to gain postsecondary qualifications that they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

Working in collaboration with some of America’s top universities, companies are pouring millions into the upskilling of their workforce. Most have ambitious targets to grow their schemes, expanding to help more employees reach their education goals.

They are trying to bridge the huge gulf between working-class jobs and insurmountable college fees, allowing their employees to leave debt-free and qualified.

While a great opportunity, it’s far from easy for the working students, with study often squeezed between shifts and after hours. But if we’re judging success, it’s hard to argue with the figures and the tangible impact such schemes have had in the lives of many.

Here’s a breakdown of some of America’s big hitters in the world of employer-sponsored degree programmes.

Starbucks College Achievement Plan

It’s been five years since Starbucks started its College Achievement Plan and it is well on its way to meeting the ambitious target of 25,000 of its employees graduated by 2025.

The company partnered with Arizona State University to over 80 different degree programmes, all of which are online.

The coffee giant was one of the first to offer such a generous employer-sponsored degree scheme to employees – or “partners” as Starbucks refers to them – after only a few months of work when it launched in 2014.

Although other big names quickly followed suit, Starbucks remains one of the best packages available, giving partners the opportunity to earn their bachelor’s degree with full tuition coverage all the way to graduation.

Partners in the program receive an upfront College Achievement Plan Scholarship worth 42 percent of their tuition costs. This is funded by ASU and applied at the time they enrol in classes. Partners will also have access to financial aid grants and Starbucks will reimburse any remaining tuition and mandatory fees not covered at the end of each semester.

This equates to full coverage of tuition meaning Starbucks partners leave debt-free.

It’s not hard to see why there are currently 12,000 Starbucks employees enrolled in classes, accounting for 27 percent of all ASU online students in April this year.

According to EdSurge, Two-thirds of Starbucks retail stores have an employee participating in the programme, and nearly 500 stores have five or more workers enrolled.

While the offer is open to all American partners, it still comes with admission standards to sign on to an ASU degree course, just like any other college admission. In other circumstances, this would discount many employees from participating, but Starbucks along with ASU want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to achieve their goals. Between them, they offer a bridge programme that allows workers to take feeder classes to get them up to the required standard to take the full bachelor’s course.

This all sounds great for the students of course, but what are Starbucks getting from their collaboration with ASU?

While there’s no requirement for employees to stick around at Starbucks after they’ve completed their studies, figures show participants stay at Starbucks 50 percent longer and are promoted at three times the rate of US retail employees who don’t use the programme.

Not only does it help them retain staff, it also helps them attract new staff – no small thing in a competitive labour market. Nearly a fifth of all job applicants now cite the college programme as one of their main motivators for wanting to join the company.

Disney Aspire Education Investment Programme

Disney’s workforce has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent years. Accused by Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of not paying a living wage, the entertainment powerhouse was at loggerheads with union reps for much of 2018 to rectify the issue.

The company eventually yielded in August and agreed to a wage hike for Walt Disney World Resort workers up to US$15 an hour by 2021. Despite this, the air of distrust is yet to dissipate.

It may be no coincidence then that they chose to launch its employer-sponsored degree programme, Disney Aspire Education Investment Programme in the same month.

To entice new staff – and possibly assuage the anger of current staff – the company is offering to pay 100 percent of tuition costs upfront. Recipients don’t even have to be longstanding employees, qualifying for the scheme just 90 days after joining the role.

Staff can choose from 280 courses that go well beyond just the Bachelor’s degree offerings of others. The programme is run in collaboration with a network of schools that offer courses from learning a trade or a language, right up to postgraduate degrees.

Knowing the challenges that many working students face, Disney have put a support network in place, providing flexible schedules and coaching for every student right throughout the process. The company works in collaboration with Guild Education, a Denver-based company that works with mature students to ensure they reach their education goals.


It doesn’t just cover tuition either. The additional costs that come with studying, such as textbooks and course materials, can mount up fast, but Disney has that covered. They have set aside US$150 million over the next five years to cover those costs, with estimates that will go up to US$25 million annually as the programme becomes more popular.

So far, it appears to be having the desired effect. According to Disney, more than 40 percent of its 90,000 eligible staff members have signed up and around 8,000 have already enrolled.

Walmart Live Better U

The American multinational made headlines when in June 2018 it announced in June 2018 that its employees could attend college for just US$1 a day, while the retail powerhouse picked up the rest of the tab.

So, one year on from the Live Better U pledge, how’s it working out?

By all accounts, very well. In 12 months more than 7,500 Walmart employees – or “associates” – have been accepted onto the programme, covering all 50 states. Walmart expects this to rise to more than 60,000 joining over the next five years.

Marking one year, the company announced it was expanding its employer-sponsored degree programme to include more courses as well as introducing a pathway for high school student employees to get their higher education qualifications.

Walmart associates and high school students can attend one of six non-profit universities to earn a degree online while working. Working in conjunction with the University of Florida, Brandman University in California, Bellevue University in Nebraska, Southern New Hampshire University, Purdue University Global in Indiana, and Wilmington University in Delaware.

The scheme was initially set up to only include degree courses that were relevant to an employees’ work at Walmart, with a focus on business and supply chain management. But the recent expansion has grown the scope to include in-demand subjects like cybersecurity and computer science.


Guild Education also plays a part in Walmart’s programme, providing the courses and guiding students through the studying process.

While these three may be some of the biggest, they are far from the only corporations branching into education to grow their appeal, upskill their workforce, and help employees reach their full potential.

Taco Bell, in partnership with Guild Education, gives their staff access to a network of 80 online non-profit universities and learning providers, offering qualifications from high school completion, right up to Master’s degrees.

JetBlue launched its JetBlue Scholars’ Employer-Sponsored College Degree Programme in 2016 and has just expanded it to include Master’s courses.

As the battle to retain staff gets more challenging, the spread of corporate supported college courses is likely to grow.

Regardless of its critics, in an economy where many are struggling and college fees continue to rise astronomically, schemes like these are a lifeline for many. They allow literally hundreds of thousands of Americans to achieve what many thought impossible – fresh opportunity and a debt-free college degree.