Transformation and competition in higher education: The Starbucks/Arizona State University partnership

Update 8/12/2016 ASU Online contacted us and asked that we provide this link to the latest information on the ASU/Starbucks partnership. We are glad to do so.


Original post follows:

Significant changes that are based on online instruction are becoming apparent at the post-secondary level, as exemplified by the recent announcement of a new partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University to offer a path to a college degree for Starbucks employees. With very few limitations, Starbucks is offering to reimburse employees for courses taken at ASU’s digital campus, ASU Online. The headline from the New York Times was Starbucks to Provide Free College Education to Thousands of Workers. Although other companies have offered tuition support to employees, the Starbucks program is unusual in its lack of restrictions. In particular, employees do not have to agree to remain with Starbucks after they complete their degree.

This partnership has the potential to be consequential– not only for the 100,000+ current Starbucks employees but also for many others if other companies follow suit. It builds on two key factors that allow and create incentives for change: online learning and competition.

The involvement of ASU Online is crucial, because online courses provide the flexibility in time and place that working adults require, and likely because online courses can be delivered at lower cost to the University. In addition, previous statements by Michael Crow, the president of ASU, suggest that the university is responding to the competitive pressure from for-profit colleges. Crow is transforming ASU to become a model of the “New American University,” and he wants the standard of excellence and access to be a public institution.

The ASU/Starbucks partnership also holds lessons for K-12 education about online learning and competition.

Digital learning advocates believe that online and blended learning will change K-12 education more than previous types of classroom technology because the newest tools are “disruptive.”   Most educators and researchers agree that adding technology to classrooms, as in Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) or 1:1 programs, won’t achieve increases in student outcomes if they don’t change the instructional model that is used. Online schools and courses are reaching fewer students than blended options, but online learning is more disruptive than blended learning—at least at this point—because of the ways that online learning is creating opportunities that did not exist previously. For example, online Advanced Placement courses may be the only AP course option for many students, and online dual credit courses are logistically easier for most students to take because they do not require the student to leave the high school campus or schools to find teachers who hold credentials for both K-12 and post-secondary instruction. The ASU/Starbucks partnership builds on similar transformative elements of online learning.

Competition is also a key element of the ASU/Starbucks program, because of the way that ASU appears to be healthily responding to the competition from for-profit online schools. At the K-12 level, new instructional approaches are appearing in charter schools and other schools/courses of choice at higher rates than in traditional public schools. However, for these approaches to be scaled, public non-charter schools that educate the vast majority of students will need to respond to the competition by implementing their own innovative instruction.

Are these changes in higher education likely to be replicated in K-12 over time? The answer is unclear. A key difference between these two systems is choice. One interpretation of the changes occurring at the post-secondary level is that they are the result of the combination of student choice and funding leading to the growth of online learning options provided by private institutions, and spurring a competitive response from public universities. In post-secondary education, all students are able to choose from among many course and school options, and use their funding (often including government-backed loans) with any provider. The same situation does not exist in K-12 education, because choice is limited for most students.