Starbucks’ Free College Gimmick Clouds the Real Problem

student drinking coffee

As we’ve reported here and here, the state of higher education in this country has reached a crisis. The cost of tuition has risen substantially faster than any other good or service over the past 40 years.  There are many that are calling the student debt crisis the next financial bubble.

Under the Starbucks plan, employees would receive a discounted tuition rate for the first two years from Arizona State University’s online program. The discount amounts to roughly $6,500 over two years on $30,000 retail price. The remainder of their tuition is expected to be paid by the employee, through personal savings or federal Pell Grants or scholarships.

While this promotion may be somewhat helpful for struggling low-wage Starbucks employees, it does little to fix structural deficiencies in the higher education system. They are deficiencies that Starbucks directly causes and benefits from. As a key member of the Fix the Debt organization Starbucks funded groups that were lobbying for lower corporate tax rates.  These tax cuts are a direct cause of the disinvestment we’ve seen over the past 40 years in higher education.

Demos’ report “The Great Cost Shift” illustrates the one of the driving forces behind skyrocketing college tuition costs is states pulling back their support for public schools.

Tuition paid by students used to cover about 30 percent of the cost of a college education, now it’s closer to 75 percent.

This corporate cognitive dissonance isn’t unique to Starbucks. Staying in Seattle, Boeing’s Sr. Vice President and General Manager of Airplane Programs, Patrick Shanahan is on the Board of Regents for the University of Washington. Ironically, at a press conference announcing the largest state tax break in U.S. history, that he was instrumental in orchestrating, Shanahan said, “Boeing is concerned about state funding for education and for transportation.”

These tax breaks – this lost revenue for the state – are the reason the state Supreme Court has ruled the legislature needs to dedicate an additional $1.2 billion toward education.

This is the case of putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. There’s not going to be a private solution to a public problem. The only adequate solution is reversing decades long trends infrastructure and human services disinvestment in infrastructure and human services. Until that happens, get used to corporate gimmicks that don’t hold water under scrutiny.