NEW YORK — Starbucks is giving its baristas a bargain on an online college education.
The coffee chain is partnering with Arizona State University to make an undergraduate degree available at a steep discount to 135,000 U.S. employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
It's an unusual benefit in an industry where workers earn low wages, don't have much job security and are accustomed to barely scraping by, often by holding down more than one job. The program underlines the stark disparities in advancement opportunities among the rich and poor. It also highlights how traditional college educations are a near financial impossibility for many.
At an event in New York City on Monday, CEO Howard Schultz recounted growing up in federally subsidized housing and said the issue was personal for him because he was the first one in his family to attend college.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined him on stage to tell the crowd of about 340 Starbucks workers and their family members that given the disappearance of many blue-collar jobs that pay decently, education has become increasingly crucial to succeed. Duncan urged workers to take advantage of the program and show other companies why they should offer similar benefits.
"Think of the example you can set for the rest of the nation," Duncan said. "If you guys can do this well ... you're going to change the trajectory of the entire country."
Starbucks Corp. said it doesn't know how many workers will apply or how much the program will cost over time.
One worker from Los Angeles, Michael Bojorquez Echeverria, said he works up to 75 hours a week, including at another job, and attends community college at no cost. But he plans to apply for the Starbucks program because he thinks it will offer greater financial security.