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Starbucks Expands College Tuition Program For Workers to 4 Years

pouring samples of Starbucks

Sandy Roberts pours samples of Starbucks Reserve Sun Dried Ethiopia Yirgacheffe coffee during the company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle, Washington. David Ryder / Reuters

Starbucks is making its tuition reimbursement program for its workers a double.

The coffee chain is expanding the eligibility for its program from just those with junior and senior amounts of college credits to allow for a full four years of paid tuition for an online degree from Arizona State University.

The tuition program is a collaboration between Starbucks and Arizona State University, which charges roughly $30,000 for two years of its online degree program. The annual cost of an online education at ASU for an out-of-state student is $11,713.

As part of the agreement with Starbucks, ASU is providing an upfront discount or scholarship of about 42 percent of the standard tuition for eligible workers at the chain's company-owned U.S. stores. That means Starbucks would be responsible for up to 58 percent.

The amount Starbucks pays stands to be less, however, since many workers are expected to qualify for federal Pell grants and other aid as a result of their limited incomes. Workers would pay whatever costs are leftover, upfront, and Starbucks would reimburse them at the end of each semester.

Previously, Starbucks had said it would pay back workers after the completion of 21 credits, which had prompted some criticism that workers were being forced to wait too long for reimbursement.

Critics further charged the program as it was initially presented was misleading.

"They called it free college but students had to front a lot of the money," said Rachel Fishman, an education policy analyst at New America, a public policy think tank. In a press release, Starbucks referred to the new program as a "benefit for Starbucks partners."

Experts say that in general it's a great deal for students, with an important caveat.

"The main aspect that's still problematic is they're working while going to school," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors.com, a website about paying for college.

He cited conflicts between work, school, and home as a difficult balance, and the main reason why students drop out of college. That would then make workers ineligible for reimbursement and responsible for any debts they incurred to pay for the courses.

Those students who are successful at going to work and going to school, said Kantrowitz, do one or the other part time.

"You can't bend time," said Fishman.

To be eligible for the program, a Starbucks employee must be working 20 hours a week or more.

So far, Starbucks Corp. says nearly 2,000 workers have enrolled for the program; the chain has more than 140,000 workers at its company-owned U.S. stores and support centers.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report

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