Colleges can fight obesity, lessen divides
I live a few blocks away from the University of Pennsylvania in West Philadelphia, and because I live with a Penn student, I'm able to access all of the school's recreational facilities for a reasonable annual fee. Penn has several indoor basketball courts, multiple swimming pools, a rock-climbing wall, weights, treadmills, and various other amenities available to students and their guests. My college and grad school had similar amenities.
Since I moved to Philadelphia, I've been participating in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. My little brother lives no more than a few miles west of Penn. He loves to play basketball and swim, but has no gyms or swimming pools in his neighborhood that he can access. Unfortunately, the doors of Penn's extensive recreational facilities also are closed to my little brother. This "members only" policy is the norm - my college and grad school were no different than Penn in this respect.
I would suggest, however, that such policies miss a huge opportunity for our colleges and universities. By opening their doors to youths in their surrounding communities, schools could help address the growing opportunity divide in our country as well as help fight our nation's obesity epidemic.
Let's start with the health issue. "Obesity has become a norm and a public health crisis," a city report in 2010 said. "In 2008, 64 percent of adults and 57 percent of children 6-11 years of age were overweight or obese." A much-discussed driver of this epidemic is "food deserts," communities and neighborhoods where residents have few grocery options other than convenience stores and fast food. In Philadelphia, this is a major problem.
But there is a related issue: recreational deserts, like the one my little brother lives in. There's a park near his house, but there are a variety of factors that prevent him from being able to access what the park has to offer (i.e. snowy days, safety issues, lack of equipment, etc.). Other than the park, there are no facilities nearby that he can use for recreational purposes. As a result, he spends much of his time at home or at friends' houses playing video games.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of access to recreational opportunities is correlated with high rates of obesity. While correlation is not causation, it is undeniable that increasing access to recreational opportunities can help fight our obesity epidemic. This is a strategy we should pursue, not only because it makes sense, but also because there is plenty of "low-hanging fruit" to grab. That low-hanging fruit is the recreational facilities at colleges and universities.
The term "social capital" is used to describe the relationships that an individual has that allow her or him to access opportunities and resources. Research has found that social capital plays an important role in economic and social mobility. A large, diverse network provides individuals with access to job opportunities, financial resources in times of need, and valuable information, such as tips on the college admissions process.
Growing up, playing basketball vastly expanded my social capital. While playing at the local YMCA, I met a doctor who would become my mentor and eventually change my life by helping me access a college education. Unfortunately, many kids living in low-income communities don't have the same social capital opportunities that I did. Concentrated poverty prevents kids from developing relationships with individuals in different socioeconomic groups, which limits the expansiveness of their social networks.
In a gym at a university, there are people from all walks of life. It is an environment full of opportunities for kids like my little brother. While playing basketball at Penn, he would meet people hailing from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Hence, he would have the chance to be connected to information and resources that he might not otherwise have access to in West Philadelphia.
Of course, while local youths would greatly benefit if colleges and universities opened the doors of their recreational facilities to the community, there are clear, practical barriers to such a policy. In particular, colleges and universities must consider liability issues and their facilities becoming overcrowded. Schools don't want to face liability for nonstudents being hurt on their premises, and they don't want to adopt a policy that makes working out less convenient for their students.
Fortunately, neither of these issues is insurmountable.
First, universities regularly allow guests of members to enter their facilities after signing a waiver of liability. The same could also be done with kids from the local community in conjunction with orientation and safety training.
Second, in order to have an impact, the doors don't need to be completely opened. For example, schools could designate one day a week to open their doors to students from the community. Alternatively, they could open their doors only during "down times," such as spring break, summer sessions, winter vacation, and Friday nights, when all teenagers generally need a healthy activity in which to engage.
It's true that even with such strategies, colleges and universities would face inconveniences if they opened the doors of their recreational facilities to the community. However, it is incumbent on these institutions to use their resources to strengthen their surrounding communities - as many already do in other ways. And they do these things because they understand that while colleges and universities have millions of dollars of annual revenue and substantial endowments, they are classified as "charitable institutions" and therefore do not pay taxes. That exemption includes property taxes, which are relied upon by cities to support schools and social services. This status obliges colleges and universities to use their resources to benefit the community - even when doing so would pose an inconvenience.
My little brother would be grateful for the chance to use the amazing recreational facilities that his city's institutions of higher learning have to offer. I hope that one day he receives this chance.
Kevin Golembiewski is a West Philadelphia resident who works in Center City as a civil rights attorney. firstname.lastname@example.org