Previous reviews have documented an overall weak or uncertain association between obesity and school-based educational attainment in children and young people. However, up to half of young adults will go on to further college or university education by age 30. The study aim was to systematically review evidence on the association between obesity and tertiary education outcomes in young men and women. A search of multiple databases, including Embase, Global Health, ERIC, Medline, PsycInfo, and Science Citation Index was conducted in March 2018. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies were included that reported on young people aged 16+, an association between obesity and academic achievement, and a comparison to healthy weight students. Risk of bias was assessed using criteria from the STROBE checklist. From 1297 records, 16 studies met all inclusion criteria. All six cross-sectional studies and 8/10 longitudinal studies reported lower educational achievement by students with obesity. All longitudinal studies were at low risk of bias but four cross-sectional studies were at medium risk and two at high risk of bias. Three of four studies showed reduced enrolment, in 6/8 graduation was less likely, and all 6 studies reporting on performance showed this was lower in those with obesity. Five of nine studies reported that obesity had a greater impact on educational achievement for women. Overall, there is compelling evidence of weight bias in that students with obesity do less well in tertiary education than their healthy weight peers. It is likely that university/college attainment is less impacted by socio-economic factors than school-based achievement. A better understanding of the processes that underpin this weight bias is needed, including stakeholder (student, staff) experiences of weight stigma, perceived or enacted. Responsive actions could mirror those to address disability or gender bias, or in health promotion in tertiary education settings.
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Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.