Too Fat to Graduate

Lincoln University is refusing to give diplomas to two dozen obese students who ditched a health class. Elizabeth Gates on why the black community is ignoring a more critical issue.

11.23.09 11:18 PM ET

Lincoln University, the nation’s first historically black college in Oxford, Pennsylvania, has decided that a handful of students won’t be getting their diplomas this spring. It wasn’t because they were underachieving kids caught in a “senior slump,” had pending library charges, or even disciplinary issues. This group of over two dozen African American students will not get to walk across the stage and shake hands in front of their proud parents because they’re fat.

Organic farmers’ markets don’t often pop up on breezy Sunday mornings between project buildings clustered in American inner cities.

In 2006, the university implemented a mandatory semester-long program entitled “Fitness for Life,” which aimed to educate the portion of their student population with a body mass index of 30 or higher on physical fitness, nutrition, and the health risks associated with obesity, and how to maintain (or obtain) a healthy physique. While this sounds like a promising initiative that certainly caters to the demographic that needs it most—young black Americans—two dozen of the 92 hopeful graduates who registered as freshman with a BMI of 30 or higher (qualifying them as obese) decided not to enroll in the course. Professors and students are now divided over what role the university should play in students’ nutritional education and whether being overweight should deny anyone a diploma.

Simply put, these students should graduate. They should walk the line, toss their mortar boards, and make their mamas proud. But the greater issue that needs to be explored is why these capable students, all of whom met the multitude of other graduation requirements, would opt out of completing a short course that caters to their own health and well-being. Lincoln University is wrong to hold them back from graduating, but the students are also at fault for refusing to educate themselves, especially when faced with statistics that predict a dire future.

According to a recent study conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, 90 percent of black children will be in a household that uses food stamps at least once by the time they turn 20. That number is certainly staggering, but the reality is that beyond Whole Foods, which does accept EBT cards (the food stamp debit card), most African American families burdened by this plight simply do not know their options. In order to get more food for their dollar, they would rather stock up at Costco, the country’s “largest warehouse-club chain,” which will soon start accepting food stamps. Quantity over quality is a difficult decision for any parent, but when multiple mouths need three meals a day, paying $2.00 for an organic, locally-grown potato is never the most practical option.

The black community has a long and unbalanced history of nutrition-related illness when compared to the white community, ranging from high blood pressure (hypertension accounts for 20 percent of African American deaths, twice that of the white community) to diabetes (12.5 percent of African Americans over 18 years old will be diagnosed with diabetes, versus only 1.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Without an early foundation of nutritional education, the idea of trading in a buttermilk biscuit for an egg-white omelet is daunting, to say the least.

The world at large might be trending towards organic and locally-grown foods, but many inner-city families are still forced to maintain their households on government assistance. Organic farmers’ markets don’t often pop up on breezy Sunday mornings between project buildings clustered in American inner cities, and the food pyramid is no rival to the local bodega’s endless rack of penny juices and 25 cent bags of chips. Exposure to a healthy lifestyle at a young age is a vital part of education, and when the rest of the campus is indulging in beer bashes and midnight pizza runs, the last thing on a teenager’s mind is reevaluating long held eating habits and slimming down to a reasonable BMI.

Without implementing educational health resources in primary and secondary inner city schools, collegiate-based programs like “Fitness for Life” will always be questioned—or in the case of the two dozen students at Lincoln, downright ignored.

Lincoln University should be applauded for their efforts to educate their students on nutrition, and considering a higher institution’s responsibility to the student body makes it plausible to understand both sides of this argument. The stark reality, however, is that “Fitness for Life” should be mandatory for all students at Lincoln University, not only the ones who literally tip the scales. Lincoln University is an HBCU (historically black college) where much of the student population is uninformed about health and nutrition. To mandate the program strictly for overweight students is both short-sighted and insulting. In other words, thick-headed.

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Elizabeth Gates is a style correspondent for The Daily Beast. She is a graduate of The New School University and a former intern at Vogue magazine.