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Karen Stabiner

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The College Insider: Fat Chance Of Graduating College Without Losing The Freshman Fifteen

Posted: 12/02/09 01:30 PM ET

It has been a rough couple of days for ambitious African-American college students. First, historically black Lincoln University is about to graduate the first class to have to satisfy a weight requirement : A student with a body mass index (BMI) of over 30 has to successfully complete a fitness course or no diploma.

As if that weren't enough to induce stress eating, the New York Times reports that race continues to trump credentials in the job market, even in the Obama era, quoting an African-American MBA who deleted an association membership from his resume because it identified his race.

Which puts a Lincoln senior at a rather unfortunate crossroads, anxiety-wise, preoccupied with weight when he or she ought to be preoccupied with employment, which could be jeopardized by that very weight, if he doesn't complete the fitness class - unless he doesn't need to lose it at all because he's not going to get a fair shake whether he has a diploma or not.

Nice.

But for the sake of addressing the weight question, let's assume for the moment that the diploma is crucial, that without it, resumes never land on desks in the first place, whether they subsequently get rejected or not. And let's assume that someday a talented but seriously obese student matriculates at Lincoln or another school that gets on the BMI bandwagon, a student who has had eighteen years of training in Really Bad Eating Habits, the kind of habits that guarantee him a slot in the required fitness course and guarantee as well that he will not be able to complete it.

Does Lincoln really want to deny this gifted mathematician, say, the opportunity even to apply for jobs he may not get? Does Lincoln want to be the place where the future stops for a kid who, according to the Times' piece, has a narrower slice of the job pie in the first place?

Walk down the street for an hour on any given day, anyplace but the upper east side of New York or the oceanfront west side of Los Angeles (where a woman's size four is a hefty gal), and you'll see girthful evidence of this country's obesity epidemic. Look at the rising stats for diabetes if you need more proof. The numbers for African-Americans are on the bad side of the norm; 1.4 times likelier than non-Hispanic whites to be obese, according to 2007 Health and Human Services figures, with four out of five women either overweight or obese.

But fat is basically an equal opportunity condition: As a nation, we are overweight - and we are chronically bad eaters, which is where Lincoln's well-intentioned idea goes south. Short of the television program "America's Biggest Loser," whose exercise program would preclude ever having time to go to class, there is probably no way to undo eighteen years of overeating, or poor habits, with a single semester of exercise.

And remember the recent flap over what "America's Biggest Loser" contestants are supposedly prepared to do to win the weigh-in. Short-term starvation, dehydration, and excessive exercise shouldn't be on any undergraduate's weekly calendar - but if you put a potential roadblock in front of a bunch of teenagers, like as not somebody is going to do something stupid to get around it.

Want to beat obesity and have it stick? That curriculum might include not just a semester of exercise but trips to the supermarket to teach young adults how to shop healthfully, simple cooking classes to teach them that it's actually possible to create flavor without breading, deep-frying, or fat-laden sauces, and perhaps a garden project along the lines of what Chez Panisse's Alice Waters does with her Edible Schoolyard program for younger schoolchildren in Berkeley. There's something inadvertently cruel about measuring undergrads and putting them in an exercise class. It doesn't teach the kind of wholesale change people really need to get their weight down.

Besides, until some enterprising local reporter drives over to campus and confirms that Lincoln serves only healthy, low-fat meals in its dormitory cafeterias, the school seems guilty of doing not too much, but too little. A recalcitrant but cagey student can endure the exercise class, not change his eating habits one potato chip's worth, and graduate still plump, but graduate.