What if more Americans who dream of getting a college degree, and who hold a full- or part-time job could count on substantial – or even full – tuition assistance from their employer? What would that do to improve the prospects of individuals, families, and communities in this country? What would it do to increase the prosperity of our nation as a whole? How much closer would it put us to reaching the goal President Obama announced when he took office – that the U.S. will again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates?
Last August, the President called for innovative approaches to enable more students to access, afford, and complete college. Today, in New York City, I stood with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Arizona State University President Michael Crow as they announced a bold new partnership they've named the Starbucks Onward College Achievement Plan.
Under the plan, many U.S.-based Starbucks employees (known within the company as "partners") who work 20 hours a week or more will have help starting – or completing – their degree in over 40 online undergraduate degree programs offered by Arizona State. The plan is especially aimed at encouraging partners who started college, but because of costs or other commitments had to put their dreams on hold, to transfer their existing credits and get their degree. It offers the targeted services that first-in-family, minority, and other underserved learners may need to be successful in navigating the college experience, with built-in supports like enrollment coaches, financial aid counselors, and faculty advisors, to ensure that students make it across the finish line.
This model is innovative, in both its delivery – with online, adaptive, and personalized learning – and its focus on tuition reimbursement that rewards progress and degree completion. Efforts like this one also advance the fundamental American value of equity: that we all – regardless of income, background or any other factor – deserve the same chance to build a better life and realize our full potential.
A college education is the single best investment Americans can make in their future. But, the amount of debt that many students must take on to pursue the dream of going to college is simply unacceptable. Today, two like-minded leaders and their organizations are taking an important stand to combat these rising costs.
Since President Obama took office, this Administration has focused intently on doing all we can to keep college within reach of every American. We've made key investments in federal student aid, and made it simpler to apply. We've created new tools and resources that help students select a college and make informed college financing decisions before they decide to enroll. And, last week, the President announced new executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers, especially those at risk of defaulting on loans.
But, regaining America's place as the world's best-educated, most competitive workforce will take all of us working together. I can't think of a worthier goal to pursue: everyone benefits from a better-educated workforce and society. It's our shared responsibility as a nation to ensure opportunity for all. We need big thinking and bold action.
The Starbucks Onward Achievement Plan is an example of the type of innovation we need to see more of in the workforce and education sectors. It shows that together, we can achieve so much more than we ever could separately. I hope this example will encourage other business and education leaders to rise to the challenge, and develop their own creative solutions.
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.