3 Takeaways from the Starbucks-Arizona State Partnership

3 Takeaways from the Starbucks-Arizona State Partnership

As the Assistant Dean of Partnerships and Alliances at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies, I spend my days speaking with leaders in the workforce and finding ways to create partnerships between businesses and higher education institutions. I’ve found the most successful businesses know the value of developing a better-trained workforce, and the benefit of allowing their employees to learn and grow with them.

Most partnerships offer some type of tuition benefit, reimbursement or scholarship, and offer a range of programs, including certificates or graduate degrees. With these, universities are able to educate or develop employees either for a specific purpose or an open one.

The most recent high-profile partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University (ASU) is unique in some ways, but isn’t the first of its kind. Let’s take a look at what sets this partnership apart.


1.  It Started at the Top

What is most notable about this partnership is that it originated at the top of the food chain, with ASU President Michael Crow and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz driving the deal. To have the leadership of each organization out in front speaks volumes about how each feels the partnership will support the larger strategy of their organizations.


2. It’s Their One and Only

Another key element of this partnership is the implied exclusivity of the offering. While Starbucks employees will receive a substantial benefit in education funding, they are limited to one institution. As a powerful, global brand, Starbucks could easily have acquired a similar benefit from several institutions. Doing so would expand the educational offerings to their employees and create even more value through a wider array of programs.

Here at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies, we are careful not to define our relationships as “exclusive” so that we can continue to be a true supporter of continuing education for working professionals. We encourage our peer institutions to adopt a similar partnership model so that a greater number of professionals can have access to a wide variety of high quality programs tailored to their interests.


3. It Shows Full Commitment

The partnership between Starbucks and ASU places an important emphasis on completion, with a 21-credit threshold that Starbucks employees must cross in order to experience the full financial benefit of the partnership. This speaks more about Starbucks’ commitment to developing their people, since ASU would have several academia-related reasons for wanting students to complete their degrees. Clearly, Starbucks is looking for more than a run-of-the-mill training or certification program.

Important questions that the ASU/Starbucks partnership raises for colleges and universities:
  • Who are the right partners for us?
    Colleges and universities typically have a finite number of programs, well-defined track records and deeply rooted missions and strategies. All these components must be evaluated thoroughly against the corporate sector so that partnerships of good fit can be formed and so that institutions do not try to be “all things to all people”.
  • Should institutions seek large-scale, deep partnerships with a small number of major corporations or should they seek to reach more students through many companies in a high volume approach?
  • Is the online learning technology possessed by ASU necessary for establishing effective corporate partnerships or can this be done multiple ways?
  • How will progress be tracked to inform new university strategy and policy? Consider how this might work in a centralized program vs. a decentralized benefits structure.
Important questions that this partnership raises for companies:
  • Why do this?
    Companies should be clear about whether this is a more discreet recruitment or retention strategy or is a mission level commitment to professional development; such that the company becomes a known and sought after employer. Companies like SAS in Durham, NC and Zappos are well-known for their corporate culture that is based on the development of the whole employee. This resonates with professionals and leads to greater commitment, quality of service, and loyalty to the companies.
  • What should companies  expect from universities with regard to the education and development of their employees?
  • Can a company benefit more from an exclusive academic partnership vs. a non-exclusive one?

About Dave Czesniuk

Dave Czesniuk is Assistant Dean of Partnerships and Alliances at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies. He works to design new, innovative frameworks for educational partnerships and establishing new relationships and programming on behalf of the university. He is an expert in leadership, change management, and business development.

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