How much are you paying for fluff in college?

College kids on campusElectives. We've all padded our college schedules with them from time to time. Somehow, an unusual blow-off class makes a tough one like organic chemistry just a little easier to tolerate. But it's not all fun and games. Are your electives going to help you at all in real life, and how much are you actually paying for fluff?

The good, the bad, and the pointless
When students start to drown in formulas and complex reading assignments, it's easy to understand the draw of crazy classes. Take Zombies in Popular Culture at Columbia College in Chicago, for instance. For a whole semester, students can watch and read about these creatures and earn credit for it. In the event of a zombie invasion, these students may be able to provide essential survival tips.

If zombies aren't your style, maybe Harry Potter is. Professor George Plitnik taught a course titled The Science of Harry Potter at Frostburg State University (Mich.) back in 2003. Plitnik shared with students possible scientific explanations to the magical happenings in the popular children's series. Maybe Harry's broom wasn't flying thanks to magic after all.

Animal lovers unite in Bowdoin College (Maine) for The Souls of Animals, a class that investigates whether or not animals have souls and the capacity for moral behavior. With the exception of those who are planning a career in animal rights, the benefit of this course may be limited to simply finding closure when Fido passes away.

For those interested in more earthly pursuits with their elective choices, many schools, including SUNY Buffalo, UC Berkeley, University of Iowa, and Northwestern University, offer classes investigating pornography and its relationship to society. Students discuss gender roles, sexuality, and societal norms while fighting through stereotypes and moral questions. Parents may object, though, to the thought of spending tuition money for a class about porn.

Finances of fluff
With the exception of a technical or trade school, most universities will require coursework outside of a student's chosen major. The standard is 128 credits to graduate, with just a little variation between schools and programs. General education requirements in the humanities, math, writing and foreign language help produce what the university determines to be a well-rounded person instead of just a skilled one. Beyond those core classes, there is still space for electives, which are, ironically, requirements.

Consider a biology major. They spend a good amount of time with their noses in the textbooks. The University of Southern California requires 72 credit hours of biological science and math classes. The University of Florida requires 86 science and math credit hours for a biology major. Throw in the required general education classes, and these students are left with 14 or fewer credits to take electives. That's only about 11% of a student's entire undergraduate education.

Start thinking about it in terms of tuition dollars, and it's a lot more. At USC, 11% of one year's tuition is around $3,600, based on 2010-11 rates. Taking a class on zombies for $3,600 suddenly doesn't seem like such a wise investment.

Accounting programs vary a little more in intensity. At Boston University, earning a BSBA with a concentration in accounting leaves a student with 12 credits for electives, which is similar to the rigorous biology majors. Go to USC for an accounting degree and you could take up to 28 credit hours of electives. At 22% of the whole education, those 28 elective credits carry some serious weight.

Journalism majors won't find more than 45 credits in their department at Florida, USC, or BU, leaving plenty of time for a double major or at least a minor, of which many universities require. Even after adding the general education requirements and a minor, journalism students often find themselves with 20 credit hours for electives. Those 20 hours are 16% of all the credits required for graduation. Putting that percent in tuition dollars means about $6,500 at USC, $6,300 at BU, and $800 in-state and $4,000 out-of-state at Florida. Multiply those numbers by four and add tuition increases each year, and it's easy to spend well more than $20,000 on electives during a four-year college education.

With that kind of price tag, blow-off classes seem like a bit of a waste of money. Courses that teach students to think critically about their world or appreciate and respect the differences across cultures will end up being classes that are still useful a decade down the road. Pick elective classes that are related to your future career. Try one that broadens your perspective or one that challenges you. Taking a class outside of your major with a professor you've heard great things about can be very rewarding, too.

No matter what you decide to take, you're still paying for it. Get the most out of your tuition money and choose your electives wisely.
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