Acton Institute Powerblog

Coffee and Cronyism: Guess Who’s Really Paying for Starbucks ‘Free Tuition’

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starbucksWhen most people think of Starbucks they think of overpriced coffee, free wifi, and omnipresence. Starbucks are everywhere. The company was founded in 1971 and since 1987 they’ve opened an average of two new stores every day. In the U.S. alone there are 12,973 locations.

When most people think of “big business”, though, they don’t often think of the Seattle-based coffee company. But they should. Starbucks has 151,000 fulltime employees, $15 billion in annual revenues, and three times as many locations as Walmart. Starbucks is one of the biggest of big businesses. And, not surprisingly, a big proponent of cronyist policies.

Cronyism occurs when an individual or organization colludes with government officials to create legislation or regulations that give them forced benefits they could not have otherwise obtained voluntarily. Those benefits come at the expense of consumers, taxpayers, and everyone working hard to compete in the marketplace. A prime example is minimum wage laws. Almost without fail, big businesses tend to support higher minimum wages.

Since they could just choose to pay higher wages, why would they support federal mandated wage floors? One reason is because it helps to eliminate the competition from small business who don’t have the size and scale to absorb higher-than-market wage increases.

In a recent interview with CNN, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he supports an increase to federal minimum wage even though he admits the $15 wage in Seattle could have “traumatic effects” on small business owners and employees.

But notice what else Mr. Schultz says. He mentions that the company surveyed employees and asked what the “number one benefit” they wanted from Starbucks. The overwhelming request was for access to college education. He claims they now offer “free tuition for college” as part of their total benefits package. But is that true?

Last week the company unveiled a program that included a scholarship it described as “an investment” between Starbucks and Arizona State University. The program is designed to allow Starbucks workers to earn an online degree at the school at a steeply discounted rate. But the “free tuition” is based on the federal government picking up most of the tab:

Initially, Starbucks said that workers would be able to offset the costs through an upfront scholarship it was providing with Arizona State, but declined to say exactly how much of the cost it was shouldering. The chain estimated that the scholarship would average about $6,500 over two years to cover tuition of about $20,000.

Following the announcement, however, Arizona State University president Michael Crow told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Starbucks is not contributing any money toward the scholarship. Instead, Arizona State will essentially charge workers less than the sticker price for online tuition. Much of the remainder would likely be covered by federal aid since most Starbucks workers don’t earn a lot of money.

Workers would pay whatever costs remained out of pocket for the first two years, and Starbucks would bear no costs.

Starbucks had previously declined to say how much it was contributing to the scholarship. But in a subsequent email Wednesday evening, Starbucks said that the scholarship is being “funded by ASU.”

The “free tuition” is based mostly on students getting federal aid in the form of Pell Grants and federal student loans. Starbucks may eventually pay some of the out-of-pocket expenses of the student (perhaps even up to $1,000 a year) but they aren’t directly paying for tuition.

Overall, it’s a great deal for both Starbucks and for ASU. The school gets federal money for students who would not normally be enticed by their online programs. And Starbucks gets to claim a “benefit” that cost them almost nothing. The primary people who will be paying are American taxpayers (though they would have likely foot the bill anyway), the taxpayers in Arizona, and students who attend ASU.

Students who don’t work for Starbucks will be paying the normal tuition rates in order to subsidize the education for out-of-state baristas. That “free tuition” Starbucks claims as a “benefit” is actually being paid for not by coffee profits but by the students in Phoenix who don’t get the benefit of working for a crony in Seattle.

For a lesson in how crony capitalism works, ASU students don’t even need to take Econ 101; they just need to look at their tuition bill.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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