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On Monday, Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, unveiled his company's newest — and possibly most important — perquisite for its employees: a free college education. He announced this program on a stage in Manhattan, alongside his partner in the new venture, Michael Crow of Arizona State University.

Starbucks has been a trailblazer in offering company benefits; part-time employees get stock options and health insurance. Schultz has also been one of the few chief executives willing to speak out — and do something — about the need to get people back to work again.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about a Starbucks program that turned donations from customers into small business loans. What I hadn't realized is the extent to which Arizona State is a trailblazer as well. Under Crow's leadership, it is attempting nothing less than the reinvention of the university. If Crow's model succeeds, it offers some real hope that higher education can become, as it once was, a place that views its mission as educating everybody, not just the world's elites.

"In the bottom quartile of family incomes, only 9 percent of kids attain a college education," Crow said about five minutes after I met him Monday afternoon. "And, in the top quartile, 80 percent get a college education, regardless of academic ability." That statistic is what he is trying to change.

Although Crow grew up in a working-class family, he spent a good chunk of his career at one of the nation's most elite schools: Columbia University. He was the executive vice provost there before becoming president of Arizona State 12 years ago.

"Traveling around the country, I could see that the U.S. was having a hard time modernizing, in a sense," he said. "There was industrial decline, and underperforming K-12. There was a need for industrial redesign." He found himself influenced by a handful of books, including "A University for the 21st Century" by James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan. Duderstadt argued that if universities were to remain relevant, they need to be reinvented.

Or, as Crow puts it, "How would you build a public university of greater public service that would be more adaptable to the rapidly changing society? Could you do it at scale? In a way that allowed everybody to have a chance?"

His first — and, in some ways, most radical — decision was that Arizona State was going to embrace what he calls "inclusion" instead of "exclusion." The elite universities, egged on by the U.S. News & World Report rankings, proudly talk about what a small percentage of students they accept. Indeed, it is how the culture has come to define quality in a university.

Crow went in the opposite direction: Anybody with a B average in the high school courses Arizona State deemed necessary to prepare for a college education could get in. He was also insistent that the school remain affordable. For in-state students pursuing an undergraduate degree, the "list price" at Arizona State is about $5,000 per semester, although once grants and financial aid is factored in, the average cost is $3,800 per student.

As the student body began to change — today, 50 percent of the school's 73,000 students are coming from the lower half of the income strata — the learning had to change as well. And so it did. Arizona State developed digital tools that aided individualized learning. Of the school's 16,000 courses, 10,000 are "tech-mediated" in some way, Crow said.

Inevitably, this led to Arizona State instituting a catalog of online courses — and online degrees — which is what Starbucks is offering its employees. The great advantage of an online course is that the student can listen to the lectures or do the work on his or her own time. It is a way of reaching students who might otherwise not be able to go to school.

Crow insists that online courses at Arizona State have the same rigor as classroom courses. "They are taught by the same faculty that teaches in our classrooms," says Christopher Callahan, dean of the university's journalism school.

Crow told me that just as Schultz had been looking for a university to partner with, he had been looking for a corporation. He thinks that Arizona State has the capability to ultimately teach 100,000 students online, and that the Starbucks partnership could add as many as 15,000 new students. When I asked him where the 100,000 number came from, he said, "That is an assessment of what share of the country's need that we can handle."

Grandiose? Perhaps. But higher education could certainly use a little more such thinking.

<I>Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times.</I>