Employee Benefits

Starbucks clears path for tuition revolution

The Starbucks Corp. logo sits on cardboard coffee cups inside a Starbucks Corp. shop in London, U.K., on Monday, June 9, 2014.
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

What do tuition-reimbursement plans for lower-wage workers, like Starbucks' recently revamped program, mean for the future?

Contextually, maybe not as much as you think—such programs have already been in existence, though not quite to Starbucks' new level.

"There are lots of programs like this that exist in most corporations: They range in everything from funding junior executives to go back to school for higher education and masters programs to these other types of programs that target lower-wage or lower-level workers," said Gregory Fairchild, an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia.

"They're a way that the company can attract a more personally motivated type of worker rather than one that is less interested in expanding their own developmental potential," he said.

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Although companies such as Gap, Home Depot, Target, Staples and Best Buy have similar tuition-assistance programs for workers, Starbucks takes it a step further, allowing employees to graduate debt-free from Arizona State University's online program. Other companies may follow, expanding their own programs.

"They're realizing that their employees, who've been working for them for over a year, might be thinking about moving over to Starbucks," Fairchild said. So, it is causing them to take a closer look at how their own programs hold up against it, he said.

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Meanwhile, companies such as UPS, which has long-offered a tuition-assistance program with multiple college partners, already see the benefits of offering well-rounded programs to workers.

"It's an incentive for the students, and we get a motivated work force who is excited about advancing their education," said Susan Rosenberg, director of public relations at UPS.

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UPS's program includes partnerships with the University of Louisville and Jefferson Community and Technical College. It allows employees who work part-time night shifts for the company's one-day air operations in Louisville, Kentucky, to get a free education at either of the partner schools. Housing assistance is also available, Rosenberg said.

Fairchild said that partnership programs such as this and Starbucks' ASU partnership provide companies with a competitive advantage in the fact that they can better understand and evaluate the education their employees receive, as opposed to having to compare course structures from a multitude of colleges.

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Although Starbucks and UPS have publicly disclosed details of their plans, other companies remain more guarded about their tuition-assistance policies. Best Buy, Target, Nike and Staples, are among the companies that don't disclose the specifics of their programs — but this may be for a reason.

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"They don't want to offer a blanket policy because they may win or lose the attraction they may have in making case-by-case decisions," said Fairchild. "Also, people who are interested in programs that are outside of what is offered by their program may not look for jobs there."

But, should more companies expand their tuition-assistance programs to compete with Starbucks, the public may see a shift in that trend.

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"It brings an employee that's going to be more self-motivated, and they're trying to say that even in a fast-food operation, we're going to attract the best people possible," said Fairchild of Starbucks' transparency.

"It's become a competitive advantage that different companies have — not just in recruiting better talent, but in keeping their talent involved in their organization for a longer period of time," he said.

—By CNBC's Bo McMillan