Developing a compelling employer brand

Starbucks’ new U.S. tuition aid program reflects a savvy talent strategy

By Claudine Kapel

Starbucks’ new tuition reimbursement program illustrates what it means to have a masterful employer branding strategy.

The company recently unveiled its new program, called the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which is expected to help thousands of Starbucks U.S. employees obtain an undergraduate degree.

The program is designed to support college completion by offering full tuition reimbursement for employees who have already completed two years of college. Those just starting college will receive a partial tuition scholarship.

Eligible employees will be able to get a Bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s (ASU’s) on-line program. Participants will be able to choose from more than 40 undergraduate programs offered by ASU.

The program suggests Starbucks has a good understanding of its workforce – and what its employees value. The company notes more than 70 per cent of its U.S. employees are students or aspiring students.

It adds nearly half of college students in the U.S. today fail to complete their degrees due to mounting debt, a tenuous work-life balance, and a lack of support.

Given the rising costs of education and Starbucks’ need to attract and retain capable young talent, the tuition reimbursement program reflects a savvy talent strategy. It positions Starbucks as both a desirable place to work and a good corporate citizen. It also helps the company to lock in talent for several years, while an employee works toward his or her degree.

The program doesn’t require employees to commit to staying with Starbucks once they’ve earned their degree. But that likely doesn’t matter. They probably would have moved on any way to pursue their chosen career.

In an interview with the New York Times, Starbucks Chairman and Chief Executive Officer noted that even if employees leave when they get their degree, the program will still be good for the company’s brand, reputation, and business.

What’s especially interesting is how Starbucks has positioned the new program, making an emotional connection not only to generous tuition assistance, but also to the fulfillment of the American Dream.

As the company notes on its website: “Starbucks believes in the promise and pursuit of the American Dream. This fall, we’re making it possible for thousands of part-time and full-time U.S. partners (employees) to complete a college degree.”

Highlights of the program include:

  • All benefits-eligible employees who are based in the U.S. and do not yet have a Bachelor’s degree can apply to participate in the program
  • Employees admitted to the ASU on-line program as a junior or senior, based on the ASU’s admission requirements, will earn full tuition reimbursement for each semester of full-time coursework they complete toward a Bachelor’s degree
  • Freshman and sophomores will receive a partial tuition scholarship and need-based financial aid for two years of full-time study
  • Employees will not have to make any commitment to stay with Starbucks after they graduate

Starbucks says it recognizes that money isn’t the only barrier to getting a college education. To that end, Starbucks and ASU have developed an “innovative retention model” to support the unique needs of working students. Program participants will have a dedicated enrollment coach, a financial aid counselor, and an academic advisor to support them through to graduation.

Such a program may not be every organization’s cup of tea. But it certainly makes for a distinctive cup of joe.

Claudine Kapel

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a human resources consulting firm specializing in compensation design, performance management, and employee communications. Claudine is also the co-author of The HR Manager’s Guide to Total Rewards and Straight Talk on Managing Human Resources.
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