Bringing Higher Education to Students

While Starbucks was luring more of its employees to college, AT&T was taking its job training degree alternative out of college. Both initiatives involved online learning opportunities.

Starbucks announced a plan to pay most or all of college tuition for employees who enroll in online courses offered through Arizona State University. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show the program is an effort to make access to college easier for employees from families on the lower rung of the U.S. income scale.

AT&T teamed up with Udacity, an online education company created by former Google whizkid Sebastian Thrun, to offer "NanoDegrees" centering on technical or job skills the telecommunications giant wants that students can complete in less than 12 months. Thrun ultimately sees the idea as a way for people to get complete college education in chunks. AT&T officials also are pitching it as a way to "widen the pipeline" to higher education for those who view college as a "distant, unaffordable dream."

Even though the two initiatives seem to go in divergent directions, they both rest on the notion that bringing education to students, instead of students to educational institutions, is key. 

Studying online so far hasn't worked out all that well for unmotivated students, experts agree. However, AT&T's model with Udacity offers something very tangible to students. "This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business," said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman.

Thrun calls NanoDegrees the product of a university "built by business." Schultz said his venture with ASU could lead to more businesses investing in student higher education, even if it leads somewhere else beside a coffee-making machine.

Both efforts come as students and parents fret over the rising cost of college tuition and the staggering amount of accumulating debt. Congress is considering legislation to cap how much students can be forced to repay on their student loans based on what they actually earn after graduation. 

The Starbucks and AT&T initiatives strike deeper than just cost. They disrupt the college path that hasn't radically changed for a long time. Welcome or not, this disruption occurs at a time when university education in other parts of the world is viewed as overtaking U.S. colleges and universities in terms of educational attainment. 

Evidence remains strong that college graduates earn substantially more than people with only a high school diploma. But the cost of college is causing some students to pause and look at other options. Starbucks and AT&T have joined at least two educational partners in offering new options.