Why Starbucks Baristas Should Be Wary of the Education the Company Is Offering Them

By Michelle Chen

There’s a potential downside to the coffee chain’s plan to offer a partial tuition discount to its non-union workers.

The genius of the Starbucks brand is that it makes the mass produced seem totally personal. Go to any Starbucks anywhere and your unique, personalized double-shot vanilla Frappuccino will come out with the exact same consistency and taste as it would at any other Starbucks locale, with your name scrawled lovingly – if often incorrectly – on the cup.

Starbucks’ newest innovation is a blend of private capital, public higher education and neoliberal technocracy: the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which the company and its CEO have been advertising all week as a clever recipe for making college “free” for its upward-striving baristas. The plan offers employees a partial discount on tuition and at the same time, polishes the Starbucks brand as a player in the online college industry.

With the same modern convenience that fuels their coffee empire, Starbucks scholars can obtain their liberal arts education via wifi, on demand, through a cutting-edge online program designed to maximize “inclusivity”. And by funneling workers into a new commercial model for distance learning, the company, in partnership with Arizona State University (ASU), is helping reshape the business of higher education, industrializing the college degree the same way Starbucks industrialized the corner café. But the results smack more of academic mass-marketing than educational inclusion.