Zombies in College -- Is That Really What You Paid For?

05/05/2015 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Now that May 1, a.k.a. College Decision Day, has passed, most parents can stop stressing about their child getting into school. Unfortunately, they might have a new worry to keep them up at night. Will their son or daughter spend their college years learning essential workplace and career skills, or will their chosen school offer them courses like "Zombies and Gender in Pop Culture?"

That's the latest, and one of the most popular courses currently offered at Wright State University in Fairborn, OH. According to the professor, who holds dual appointments in both the English and Women's Studies departments, the course demands "serious academic work" from its students. "We are particularly concerned that when the zombie apocalypse happens and there is no social order, what happens after that?" she says.

Similar college-level courses on pop culture can be found all over the country, at many well-known and respected institutions of higher learning. Some current and recent past examples:

- Zombies (George Mason University). "Fulfills the college requirement in non-Western culture."
- What If Harry Potter Is Real? (Appalachian State University). "Students will examine issues of race, class, gender... as well as how to read a novel and how to read scholarly essays." Let's keep in mind, Harry Potter is a young adult series.
- Learning from You Tube (Pitzer College). Even the professor calls it "a really weird class."
- Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame (University of South Carolina). "This is not a course in music or cultural studies."
- Philosophy and Star Trek (Georgetown University). "In conjunction with watching Star Trek, we will read excerpts from the writings of great philosophers."

Currently, the average cost for a single college credit hour ranges from about $200 (in-state) to over $1,100 at a private university. Most college courses are about 3 credits, which means one zombie course can cost over $3,300. Naturally, this begs the question: Would you spend thousands of dollars for your 18-year-old to study zombies and Harry Potter?

To be fair, in some of these classes, the students are not just sitting around eating popcorn and watching movies. Many of the professors demand a fair amount of written work -- essays, papers, theses, etc. -- and testing, in return for their students' understanding of literary, social or psychological dynamics via pop culture. In my own 1980s college days, I happily fulfilled a general curriculum requirement with an Intro to Film course, where I got to sit back for two hours watching Citizen Kane and the film noir classic The Third Man, both of which probably helped shape my views of both newspaper publishing and Allied-Soviet relations in post-war Europe better than any textbook could.

But...and there are a few notable "buts":

1. I entered a job market where I and my peers expected, received and were content with entry-level jobs at entry-level wages. Even with unemployment at a fairly high seven percent, I honestly didn't know of a single grad who didn't have some kind of job within 6 months of graduating. Why? Because you took whatever you could to get started and get out of your childhood bedroom, and you could afford to take something low-paying because you weren't saddled with student loan debt.

2. I didn't have to know Word or Excel or Powerpoint or the myriad of other software programs that grads now need to be familiar with -- they didn't exist. The only computer course I ever took involved basic language and punch cards, while today's job-seekers practically need to know coding just to get their feet in the door.

3. An entire year's tuition at my in-state university cost me $2,500. Today's average in-state tuition is about $9,000 and growing rapidly. One Intro to Film course wasn't going to break the bank, nor were there that many "fluff" courses offered to begin with.

Flash forward to today's job market. College students simply don't have the luxury of taking too many "easy A" classes, because potential employers demand so much more of them. Many recent grads won't even consider taking an entry-level job, which in some cases might just be a glorified gopher, because they can't afford to without defaulting on their student loan payments or going into significant credit card debt just to meet basic living expenses. And even if they will take it, they'll still need basic skills like the ones mentioned above, which are deemed by employers as far more necessary than an understanding of the socio-economic impact of zombies after the apocalypse.

Of course, a college education isn't supposed to be just about learning workplace-specific skills or technology. It has been and is supposed to be about developing higher thinking skills, as well. As a former liberal arts major, I can certainly attest to the need, if not the requirement, for colleges to teach advanced critical thinking and analysis, which does indeed become applicable in the "real" world.

But colleges that offer these courses just in the hopes of attracting students to more advanced academic ideas and principles are doing their students, not to mention the parents who might be footing the bill, a huge disservice. Contrary to popular belief, American students today are not lazier thinkers than students in previous decades, nor are they any more shallow or superficial than any past 18 or 19 year olds. But colleges seem to think they are, and insult their intelligence by assuming that they need to be led like little children to higher learning with shiny trinkets and sparkly baubles.

Students want to learn; they don't have to be tricked into it. And when professors feel that they have to dangle pop culture in front of their students just to engage them in the very topics they're paying a high price to study, something has truly gone askew in our education system. Perhaps the zombie apocalypse isn't so far off, after all...