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Special Graduation Requirements for Overweight Students?

November 20, 2009

by Emily

Opportunities for physical fitness and athleticism abound on college campuses, as anyone who has had to sit through a sibling's harrowing tales of intramural water polo playoffs can tell you. But should students be required to engage in campus athletics to graduate? Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania, is saying yes, at least for obese students.

Starting in 2006, incoming freshmen at Lincoln University were weighed and measured and told their Body Mass Index, or BMI, score. Students with a BMI over 30, which the World Health Organization designates as obese, were told they'd need to take a one-credit physical fitness course to graduate. Those students are now entering their final year of college, and of those 92 students who were given that requirement, 80 have not yet completed it. True to its word, Lincoln University has sent these 80 students e-mail messages saying that unless they complete the class or "test out" by spring semester (either by "earning" a BMI below 30 or passing a sports course) they will not be allowed to receive degrees they have otherwise earned.

While promoting healthy lifestyles is increasingly becoming a priority for colleges, Lincoln's practice goes much further than other schools'. Recent media attention has raised legal questions, ranging from concerns about privacy (weighing all freshmen then making this potentially sensitive information public, or at least easily guessed, based on who has to take the fitness class) to concerns about discrimination (obese students may have underlying health issues), and the university's legal counsel is looking into whether the policy should be continued. Other concerns are also being voiced, namely related to the effectiveness of using BMI to determine risk for health issues, and the fairness of only making students above a certain BMI take a fitness course.

The class is meant to make students aware of the health risks that have been traditionally associated with obesity, but there's a long-standing contention that BMI is not an accurate measure of obesity or of health risk. Most people have anecdotal experience that easily attests to this—athletes pushing the obesity mark or tiny people subsisting entirely on fast food. Certainly, students of all weights engage in less healthy aspects of the college lifestyle, and could probably benefit from information on healthy eating and exercise. This leaves many people wondering, why the emphasis on BMI? Why not make the course a requirement for everyone, or not make it a requirement for anyone at all? And why make this course a graduation requirement, rather than simply a recommendation?

So what do you think? Should colleges make health education a graduation requirement for students? Is Lincoln University's practice an appropriate form of health intervention?


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