I’m Suing My Gym!

The argument that colleges should share the financial risks of students who take out loans is similar to saying gyms are responsible for patrons' physical health and fitness, argues Walter Kimbrough.

June 26, 2019

In 2012, I moved to New Orleans. One of the things people talk about in New Orleans is the food -- how good it is and how much of it people eat. As the new president of Dillard University I knew I'd have to attend lots of receptions and eat lots of food, so I needed a fitness plan.

I like to occasionally run outside, but it was important to find a gym nearby. I found one five minutes from the house that had great hours. As I toured, I saw all sorts of new equipment. The staff discussed the schedule, the variety of classes offered and the personal trainers available. In essence, they had all the resources I needed not only to maintain my weight but also to get "fine" -- six-pack abs and bulging biceps!

For a few years, I visited the gym several times a week. But I only used the treadmill or the elliptical machine. I did one body-fat test, but I never did any weight training, attended any classes or worked with a personal trainer. My body never changed -- not even a bit. I was able to maintain my body weight with all the cardio, but I was actively working against any real benefits.

The main culprit? Popeye's. If you ask me my blood type I won't say "A positive." I'll say, "Four-piece spicy with Cajun fries and a large (44-ounce) sweet tea -- no ice." Heck, I'll have a sweet tea right after an hour workout. (I know: ridiculous).

I'm sure many Americans have gym memberships that they paid for and don't fully use or use at all. And many people who go to the gym aren't eating properly. In fact, an estimated 20 percent of Americans have gym memberships, yet the majority of us are overweight. Overweight and unhealthy Americans cost employers almost a half a trillion dollars a year, and the lack of health care sends many to the ER for primary care -- a cost that taxpayers bear.

So I'm suing my gym. In fact, I'm hoping you will join me in a massive class-action suit. Gyms should assume some amount of risk sharing, even though mine provided all of the materials needed for me to "get fine" -- resources I did not use. In fact, I didn't do my homework, which was to eat properly: more fruits, vegetables and grilled fish. Not fried chicken.

This is the case someone makes when they argue that colleges and universities should have some level of risk sharing for students who take out loans and don't complete college, or don't earn a salary at some arbitrary level of acceptability. The argument is that American taxpayers should not have to pay for failure when only about 60 percent of all students finish college.

But as a university president for 15 years, I can tell you there's a plethora of variables that I can't control. Students choose whether or not to take certain opportunities: to go to class, study, seek tutoring, take exams or do their assignments. Studies have indicated low use of university career centers that could otherwise lead to internships or help them get a job. I've seen families discourage students from attending a pre-professional program that not only covered all those students' expenses but also paid a stipend. Why? Once because the mom didn't want the student to drive five hours away. Another time, the family didn't want the student to take a two-hour plane ride alone.

These examples are equivalent to me not going to the fitness classes, not using the personal trainer and eating lots of Popeye's spicy legs. But no one would expect the gym where I paid several hundred dollars a month to give me a portion of my money back -- that they should share the risk because, after several years of membership, I had only maintained my weight and gained no pecks or abs.

Yes, we still need to look at ways to make college more affordable. We should continue to explore ways to control costs, as well as to lobby for greater investments such as Pell Grants. We should not be afraid to close predatory institutions. And while taxpayers are helping to subsidize higher education -- something we've always done with less concern about any return on investment -- ultimate success is heavily dependent on what the student does.

So let's think of college like a fitness club. There are lots of tools and services available, but if you don't do the work, you won't see any results. If I am wrong, and colleges should share the risk of folks who don't fully do their part, my gym owes me some money.

And I'll celebrate with a box of Popeye's.

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Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.


Walter Kimbrough

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