It’s More than Just Starbucks: Major Companies Are Trying to Revolutionize Higher Ed

Companies like AT&T are getting in on a new kind of advanced degree.

Starbucks employee Essia poses with a beverage in the world's first coffee house on a train on November 14, 2013, in Zurich.
National Journal
June 19, 2014, 7:02 a.m.

This week showed how busi­nesses are at­tempt­ing to re­shape high­er edu­ca­tion for a work­force that des­per­ately needs ad­vanced de­grees.

To keep up with chan­ging in­dus­tries and chan­ging tech­no­lo­gies, the Amer­ic­an work­force needs job train­ing and fur­ther edu­ca­tion in or­der to com­pete. But edu­ca­tion is ex­pens­ive, and tra­di­tion­al de­grees on a phys­ic­al cam­pus are just not real­ist­ic or prac­tic­al for many full-time work­ers.

To com­bat this prob­lem in the tech field, on­line edu­ca­tion pro­vider Uda­city partnered with AT&T to cre­ate a new kind of col­lege de­gree that takes less time and less money than a mas­ter’s de­gree. It’s called a “nan­o­de­gree.”

The nan­o­de­gree is de­signed for people who work in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. Without hav­ing to take time off, stu­dents can earn these cer­ti­fic­ates in front- and back-end Web de­vel­op­ment, iOS and An­droid mo­bile de­vel­op­ment, and data ana­lys­is. The nan­o­de­gree is de­signed to be stack­able, earn­ing you more as your ca­reer pro­gresses, com­ple­ment­ing whatever de­gree you’ve already earned. In­dus­tries, es­pe­cially di­git­al ones, change sig­ni­fic­antly year by year. A mas­ter’s de­gree earned in 2009 might be ir­rel­ev­ant by 2014.

Uda­city will start of­fer­ing the courses, which will cost around $200 per month, in the fall. The pro­grams will take between six and 12 months to com­plete.

Not only did AT&T make an ini­tial $1.5 mil­lion in­vest­ment in the pro­gram, the com­pany will also of­fer 100 in­tern­ships to nan­o­de­gree gradu­ates. Ad­di­tion­ally, AT&T is en­cour­aging its em­ploy­ees to par­ti­cip­ate in the pro­grams.

But the obstacles of job train­ing, time com­mit­ments, and costs are also rel­ev­ant for people in low-wage po­s­i­tions. Many of these work­ers do not have enough money for ad­vanced de­grees, nor do they have time to take classes, be­cause many have second jobs.

For its part, Star­bucks over the week­end an­nounced it would cov­er half the cost of a four-year on­line de­gree through Ari­zona State Uni­versity for its em­ploy­ees, us­ing fin­an­cial as­sist­ance and tu­ition re­im­burse­ments. Star­bucks em­ploy­ees must work in com­pany-owned stores and log 20 hours per week to take ad­vant­age of these be­ne­fits. The com­pany does not re­quire em­ploy­ees to stay with Star­bucks after they gradu­ate.

Of Star­bucks’ 135,000 em­ploy­ees, the uni­versity pre­dicts that between 15,000 and 20,000 will en­roll. There are some down­sides to the pro­gram, however, in­clud­ing oth­er up­front costs and the lim­ited nature of on­line edu­ca­tion.

But if the mod­el proves suc­cess­ful, oth­er low-wage em­ploy­ers could fol­low it. Right now, Wal-Mart Stores has a part­ner­ship with a for-profit uni­versity, but the res­ults have not been widely suc­cess­ful.

However, it’s not as if all com­pan­ies are sud­denly go­ing to start provid­ing edu­ca­tion be­ne­fits for their em­ploy­ees. Per The Wall Street Journ­al:

Many oth­er em­ploy­ers have cut back on edu­ca­tion as­sist­ance. A 2014 sur­vey con­duc­ted by the So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­sources Man­age­ment found that 54% of em­ploy­ers offered un­der­gradu­ate edu­ca­tion­al as­sist­ance, down from 62% in 2010.

But it is wise for busi­nesses to start look­ing to do something. These col­lab­or­a­tions between the private sec­tor and edu­ca­tion pro­viders also help em­ploy­ers. For AT&T, the com­pany gets a more edu­cated work­force. For Star­bucks, it stands to re­tain em­ploy­ees longer, sav­ing money on job train­ing that it would have spent on new em­ploy­ees.

And this is just the start. Uda­city prom­ises fur­ther pro­grams with cor­por­ate part­ners. And more com­pan­ies are likely to get in the game of chan­ging the face of high­er edu­ca­tion.

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