Starbucks, College Access, and an Unquestioning Media

I live near the original Starbucks and often have to walk through the crowds of people taking selfies, standing in long lines for the same coffee drinks they can get anywhere, and taking endless photos of one another.   I’m often asked for directions to this Starbucks as I’m walking nearby.   The accents and languages suggest that people make this pilgrimage from all over the world.

They spend precious time of their vacation to come there, even while there are several others Starbucks — and, more importantly, several other excellent local coffee shops — within a few blocks.

There’s just a mystique about Starbucks.

And that may explain why so much of the media simply reported the carefully orchestrated press release about Starbucks’ subsidizing college tuition for its employees rather than actually reporting.  The story was everywhere on Monday — in print, on TV and radio, and even on The Daily Show, in which  even Jon Stewart claims that though it’s out of character, he can’t “hate” Howard Schultz’s announcement that Starbucks will be “the first U.S. company to provide free college tuition for all employees”.  Schultz talks at length about Starbucks as a company and explains that “we can’t want for Washington” to solve the problem of college indebtedness.   Schultz goes on to argue that private businesses have to step in when government does not.

Yet it turns out that the Plan depends more on Washington than on Starbucks’ bottom line, as was clear by midweek.   Just a sample of the pushback that began showing up on social media:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the deal was actually highly subsidized by the for-profit on-line sector of Arizona State, that students would likely be getting federal Pell grants and subsidized loans,  and Starbucks would actually be shelling out  relatively little.

Tressie McMillan Cottom placed this deal in the broader context of for-profits targeting education for lower-income workers whose education will be subsidized from public coffers. She writes:

My read of that is Starbucks gets to minimize its contribution to tuition assistance by funneling aspirational student-workers into the student aid system and ASU gets to extract profit from student aid on a sliding scale where lower income students are the most profitable human widgets.

The New York Times simply reported that critics were pointing to drawbacks of the “scholarship” program.

Matt Reed at Inside Higher Ed noted that college might well be less expensive if Starbucks employees just went to their local community college for their first two years and then transferred to a four year school.

The Pell Grant program that would in fact pay much of the costs of attending the profit-generating ASU program is already on precarious footing.

Starbucks, meanwhile, joins other huge corporations in seeking tax breaks.

But no one was reporting any of this at first on Monday.

Everyone in the media instead seemed to be lining up and smiling within Starbucks’ orbit, just like all those tourists down the street.

 

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