How to Graduate from Starbucks


Mary Hamm was in pain, though it was hard to tell. She bustled around the Starbucks, pouring drinks, restocking pastries, and greeting customers with an unshakable gaze perfected during 25 years of working in hospitality. Her smile said, How can I help you? Her eyes said, I know you’re going to order a caramel Frappuccino, so let’s do this.

Occupying prime space in a Fredericksburg, Virginia, strip mall, beside a Dixie Bones BBQ Post, this Starbucks pulls in about $40,000 a week. Hamm, 49, had been managing Starbucks stores for 12 years. The problem was her feet. After two decades in the food-service business, they had started to wear out. She had two metal plates in the right one, installed over the course of five surgeries. Now her left foot needed surgery too. She doesn’t like to complain, but when I asked her how often she was in pain, she smiled and said quietly, “All the time.”

According to the Fitbit on her wrist, Hamm had walked six miles back and forth behind the espresso bar during the 13 hours she had been at work that day. For years, doctors had told her she needed to get off her feet, so she had applied for more than 15 corporate jobs, within and outside of Starbucks. Again and again, though, she had been passed over in favor of other candidates with more formal education. This was a woman who had raised three children largely on her own and had started a nonprofit to help homeless people in her area. She had experience, competence, and drive. What she didn’t have—like three-quarters of Starbucks employees, and an equal share of American adults—was a bachelor’s degree.

Thirty-one years ago, Hamm told her parents she wanted to be a nurse. They told her to get married—they had no money for college. By age 19, she was a wife and a mother. Then came more children, a divorce, and medical bills. In 2007, she took out a loan to attend the University of Phoenix, an online, for-profit school. But when the tuition went up, she quit. She is still paying off the loan.

When it comes to college, the central challenge for most Americans in the 21st century is not going; it’s finishing. Thirty-five million Americans now have some college experience but no degree. More Americans than live in Texas, in other words, have spent enough time at college to glimpse the promised land—but not enough to reap the financial bounty. Some are worse off than if they’d never enrolled at all, carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt, not to mention the scar tissue of regret and self-doubt. [To continue reading my Atlantic story, please click here.]

EducationAmanda Ripley