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One in three. That’s how many Americans suffer from obesity. And every year, we spend $117 billion (according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention) dealing with obesity’s consequences.

Recently, Lincoln University in nearby Chester County, Pa., decided to do something about this epidemic. To graduate, incoming students with a Body Mass Index above 30 — a commonly used threshold to determine obesity — had to enroll in a fitness or sports course, or lower their BMI below 30.

After an outcry from some, administrators canceled the requirement in December. Sensitivity trumped public health.

That’s a shame. More universities in this country (Penn included) should adopt similar requirements. Schools must value physical health just as much as intellectual development.

Criticism of the program erupted across the country in November after Lincoln student Tiana Lawson attacked the requirement in the student paper, The Lincolnian. “I came here to get an education which, as a three-time honor student, is something I have been doing quite well, despite the fact that I have a slightly high Body Mass Index,” she said.

I understand where Lawson’s coming from. One of the main purposes of college is to improve our intellect.

But colleges also shape who we are as members of society. As Lincoln’s Health Department Chairman James DeBoy told The Chronicle of Higher Education, schools “are responsible for students’ total well-being, not just academic and cognitive, but physical and social.”

Detractors also claimed the requirement was discriminatory because it only applied to obese students. If that’s true, maybe I should sue Penn. Here’s why: When I came here, the only Spanish I knew despite my teachers’ best efforts was “Hola” and “Yo no comprendo.” To graduate, I had to take additional foreign language courses, but my bilingual friends didn’t have to. Given all the verbs I had to conjugate, Penn owes me at least $1 million dollars in “pain and suffering” compensation.

Seriously though, it’s important to realize students come into college with different abilities. Some (like me) couldn’t communicate in another language if their lives depended on it. Others are bright in all subjects but have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Universities use requirements to ensure all students leave with a basic skill set when they graduate. That isn’t discrimination.

More recently, other professors called the fitness requirement “paternalistic.” Of course it is. So is forcing you to speak a foreign language, do basic calculus and write in English. Colleges are all about being paternalistic. It’s what they do.

Unsurprisingly, most Penn students I talked with were a little uneasy with the idea of a fitness requirement and questioned exactly how universities could implement it. As College freshman Carson Ley said, “With the stress of academics, it’s hard to force people to exercise.”

At first, I felt the same way. I’ve come to realize, though, that colleges can implement this program in a sensitive manner that doesn’t damage a student’s self-esteem and provides valuable information about personal fitness. And according to Lincoln sophomore Sharnice Smith, who had to take the fitness course, that’s exactly what Lincoln University did. “The professors did not broadcast my weight,” she told The Lincolnian. “The process was not discriminating at all.”

Thousands of other students could benefit from the same “life lessons” Smith learned if other colleges adopt similar requirements. In doing so, universities should use multiple metrics to identify obesity, because relying solely on the BMI could lead to inaccurate results. Universities should also exempt obese students with extenuating circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

But for the rest of us, it’s high time that colleges value personal health just as much as Math, English, Science and yes, Español.

Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior originally from New Market, Md. He is the outgoing Marketing Manager and former Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is

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