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Wells Fargo touches nerve with ad campaign pitting science against the arts
But ad touched an awkward nerve of the "pursue your passion" post-secondary education paradigm. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Wells Fargo has apologized after taking flak for an advertisement that suggested students would be more "ready for tomorrow" if they pursued botany or engineering rather than ballet or acting, the Daily Mail reports.

The pushback, fast and impassioned, included a flurry of tweets from successful actors. These included Tony award-winning Cynthia Erivo, who tweeted: "Wells Fargo doesn't think that an actor or a ballerina require any work at all! Shame.'"

"Do they have any idea how much botanists earn?" asked Emily Willingham at Forbes. "Depending on which sites you consult, the median hovers around the $50K range and gives the average as $46K. Not exactly breaking the Wells Fargo bank with those salaries. Honestly, botany is kind of the ballet of biology, reserved for committed, hardworking idealists only."

Yet for all the outrage directed at the Wells Fargo ad, the underlying issue remains a stubborn elephant in the room. Should colleges encourage students to take on debt to study fields that produce weak employment prospects? And should colleges be required to release the employment results of their graduates, field by field, not just in aggregate?

Earlier this summer, Deseret News covered a report by the New America Foundation, which argued that many "lower-tier colleges that induce students to take on debt while giving degrees that have little value. Lane College in Tennessee, for example, has 2,200 students, and 92 percent qualify for Pell Grants. But only 30 percent of their graduates make more than high school graduates after six years, and just 17 percent are able to keep current on their loans."

The story noted that it's schools like that the report's lead author, Tamara Hiler, had in mind when she said, "Some of these students would have been better off never attending college at all."

It's one thing when an entire college fails its students. It's another when backwaters within an otherwise successful campus do so. For years, college reform advocates pushed to collect and present "student unit level data" that, without identifying individuals, would give parents and students a clear picture of what outcomes they could expect with a given program at a given school.

But as Inside Higher Ed noted in 2013, "privacy advocates, private colleges and congressional Republicans, all of whom oppose the creation of such a database, teamed up in opposition the last time the idea was proposed, by the Bush administration in 2005. Then, the opponents succeeded; the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act included a provision specifically forbidding the creation of a federal unit record data system."

In 2012, U.S. News and World Report included drama and theater in a list of "five college majors that aren't worth the cost." Others on the blacklist included anthropology and archeology, social work, elementary education and family and consumer studies.

The average drama and theater major, US News said, will earn a starting salary of $26,000, compared to the national average of $43,000 that year, according to Forbes.

And the Associated Press reported that year that 53 percent of college graduates were not employed full-time. "I don't even know what I'm looking for," Michael Bledsoe, who graduated in 2010 with a creative writing degree, told the AP. Bledsoe at the time was working as a barista in a Seattle coffee shop.
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