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By now we’ve all read the headlines: Starbucks is giving away free degrees. Except it isn’t.

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0914 OfficeSpaceBY LEE VAN DER VOO

By now we’ve all read the headlines: Starbucks is giving away free degrees. Except it isn’t. The buzz that followed Starbucks’ free-tuition announcement in June ran the course from ticker-tape parade to sour grapes in 48 hours. 

Read the fine print and it turns out Starbucks isn’t sending an army of green-aproned baristas stampeding off to college. Instead, the coffee conglomerate is offering free tuition to workers who enroll in online programs at Arizona State University as juniors and seniors. The reimbursement follows a likely five-figure investment in initial credits. 

The reality is Starbucks may spend little for employee education in scenarios where those employees first qualify for grants or other types of financial assistance, a cold hard truth that drove the Internet into angry backflips, flame tweets and outraged pseudo-investigative news reports. 

Chalk it up to a PR flub. Or to high expectations. Perhaps people just expected more from Starbucks, already lauded for subsidizing health care coverage for part-time workers. 

Setting aside the headline-grabbing rollout, there’s still good reason to cheer the not-so-free degrees. Starbucks’ move to join Costco and Burgerville in offering tuition assistance to coffee slingers pushes employee-focused professional development benefits toward workers who are typically left out in the cold: low-paid service industry staffers.

For other workers in America, professional-services employees in particular, tuition reimbursement has been around for decades. “It’s almost a must-have. It’s what’s expected for a best-in-class employer,” says Tana Thomson, vice president of human resources at Xenium, a human resources company based in Tualatin. Accounting firms, attorneys, management consultants and other professional firms are also getting  more aggressive in the “total rewards strategy,” including the arena of professional development, say Thomson and Xenium president Anne Donovan.

Companies like Kaiser Permanente, Jordan Ramis and Intel, for example, augment the standard salary and benefits package with tuition reimbursement. They also offer some of the following benefits: in-house book clubs, mentorship programs, leadership training, webinars and professional group membership. Oddly, says Donovan, it’s the  low-cost, grassroots ideas that seem to foster professional development best. Xenium itself offeres employees a version of business-focused TED Talks, dubbed XenTalks.

Bob Speltz, director of public affairs at the Standard, says employeees “are coming to expect these and other benefits from leading employers.” He says his talent-recruiting colleagues today field professional development questions that reach far beyond the salary and benefit queries they received just five years ago.

The tech industry is partly responsible for the shift in expectations. “The talent shortage has always been there,” says Donovan. Thanks to aggressive competition for workers, tech companies now offer some of the most creative personal- growth opportunities — intended to lure the best and brightest. 

ConsiderVernier Software & Technology, where employees have an array of educational and personal-growth options to choose from: on-site Spanish classes. Four hours a month paid volunteer work. Informal book groups and brown bags. An office bookshare. Mentoring for new hires and the recently promoted. And employee-driven committees focused on workplace atmosphere and growth.

Human resource manager Ami Blakkolb says employees seem to like the strategy. “They feel it’s unique.” And it appears to have retention benefits for Vernier: 41% of the workforce has been around for at least 10 years. While half of those staffers are people who already have advanced degrees, the other half work in manufacturing and packaging. Not only do they take part in professional growth activities, they are also eligible for up to $5,250 a year in college reimbursement.

Companies like Vernier continue to set the bar high for educational and professional growth. Meanwhile, Starbucks isn’t exactly offering the free degrees it trumpeted. But employment for the coffee company’s thousands of baristas just got a little bit better. At the very least, Starbucks’ tuition package sends a message to the nation that every American worker deserves more than a few bucks at the end of the shift.