Skip to comments.Fewer and fewer colleges requiring swimming test to graduate
Posted on 05/07/2006 11:30:26 AM PDT by Dog Gone
On a recent Friday morning, a line of bathing-suit clad students stood beside a campus swimming pool, waiting to jump in. They had come to persuade the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill they were worthy of a college degree which they were not, in UNC's eyes, until they could swim 50 yards and tread water for five minutes.
For many, it was an annoying inconvenience, for others a moment of pride in conquering their fear of water. But the scene also was a small slice of collegiate history. This was the last swim test day at one of the last remaining colleges to require it. Following a wide-ranging curriculum review, this year's seniors are the last at UNC who must pass the test to graduate.
The change is a sad one for Meg Pomerantz, who lobbied unsuccessfully to keep the requirement and who teaches swim classes for students who need them to pass the test. "In my 16 years here, I've never had a student take the course and say anything other than, 'I'm really glad I learned how to do this,'" she said.
A half-century ago, passing a swim test was a common requirement on college campuses. In an era before health clubs, yoga and aerobics, swimming was both a popular exercise option and a skill colleges believed men and women should master both for their own safety and for social reasons.
But swimming has lost its prominent place in campus physical education as the finishing school element has faded and other fitness options have multiplied.
At UNC, Pomerantz says the faculty "looked at all the different things they wanted students to achieve diversity, experiential education, being able to apply what you learn." Focusing on the single skill of swimming just didn't fit, though Pomerantz contends it's still worthwhile.
As recently as a 1977 survey, 42 percent of institutions had some sort of swimming requirement, according to Larry Hensley, a University of Northern Iowa professor who has studied the history of physical education. But by 1982 that figure had plummeted to 8 percent. Subsequent surveys no longer bothered to ask about swimming requirements.
In 2003, Ferrum College in Virginia dropped its swim test. Colgate threw in the towel last year. The holdouts now include Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Washington & Lee, plus the service academies.
The requirement is fertile ground for campus legends, some true, most not. Before Notre Dame began admitting women in the early 1970s, students did indeed take the test in the buff. But there's apparently no solid evidence behind any of the oddly similar stories that circulate on many campuses about how the test started: A wealthy donor whose son drowns gives money for the pool on the condition that the college require a swim test.
In fact, many swimming requirements date to the early 20th century, when there was a national effort to improve water safety, or more specifically to World War I and World War II, when college campuses became military training grounds and the country underwent bouts of anxiety over its physical fitness.
Most tests today aren't particularly demanding usually a couple of laps and treading water for five to 15 minutes.
But at the Naval Academy, the standard is 1,000 meters in 40 minutes, among other tasks. And perhaps the mother of all swim tests "Survival Gate Four" can be found at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Weighed down by heavy equipment, cadets must perform several tasks in a pool amid simulated battlefield chaos. Artificial fog, rain and deafening noise are pumped in, the darkness is punctuated only by strobed lightning, and the water is churned by artificial wave-makers.
"Falling into 84-degree water Club Med we call it is a lot different than falling into the Hudson River on a winter day," says John McVan, who oversees West Point's aquatics program. "We're not only teaching people how to swim, we're teaching them how to swim in conditions that might not be nice."
But McVan takes great pride that, even though 5 percent of cadets arrive unable to swim, virtually all pass Survival Gate Four within a year.
Other schools also say students have every opportunity to learn. Cornell's director of physical education, Al Gantert, says it's virtually impossible to fail to graduate because of the swim test. Up to 450 students each year take beginning swimming. Technically, if they attend and make an effort for two semesters, that's good enough.
"If we cannot teach a student to swim in two semesters, that's our fault, not their's," Gantert said.
Fewer and fewer schools, however, think requiring a test is worthwhile.
There are administrative hassles finding instructors and accommodating students with chlorine allergies or religious objections to being seen in bathing suits. But mostly, it's just a headache getting hundreds of college students to show up for any one event at an appointed time and place.
At Colgate, biology professor Ken Belanger, who was chair of the committee on athletics, said students were called back from senior week travels to take the test; others took it so late senior year they didn't make it into the graduation program. Occasionally, they didn't graduate at all.
"I think the fact that there were students who were not graduating because of this requirement led people to question its validity," he said.
Still, traditionalists at Colgate and elsewhere have opposed the changes.
Pomerantz notes that North Carolina has a lot of water, and a student at another college there drowned recently. Students should have choices, but "you don't really have a choice if you fall into a lake." Furthermore, students who learn to swim will likely teach their children, making them safer, too.
"As we teach them, we break a multigenerational cycle," Gantert said.
The requirement also boosts confidence. When a Cornell faculty committee evaluated the test in 1998, Gantert recounted seeing students in one class following a struggling classmate along the pool, urging him on until he finished. He told the faculty: "Where else at Cornell University when somebody passes a test is the whole class cheering?" The faculty kept the test.
One of the seniors in line at UNC for the last test was Peter Clayton, who can do the laps but failed repeated attempts to tread water for five minutes ("I sink like a rock," he said). He came up just short again, leaving him scrambling for yet another crack at passing the requirement.
Officials granted him one and Clayton finally passed. He floated on his back and distracted himself by thinking of all the work he needed to finish. Before he knew it, the five minutes were up.
"I was overjoyed," he said.
Still, Clayton maintains the test shouldn't be a graduation requirement. A CPR or first aid requirement would be more likely to save a life, he said. In the middle of the ocean, how much good would a back float do?
"I highly doubt 'Jaws' would wait five minutes before gobbling me up."
Wow - I've never heard of requiring someone to learn to swim as a prequisite for a college degree.
And I graduated from a state university.
If Teddy had been born a few decades later............
When I went to Cornell it was mandatory.
From the AP I note (Ya kaint spiel krAP widoubt teh AP). But I'm sure that it's for the chilldruun since swimming and guns and bicycles are all so very dangerous. Heck, I just noticed a caution on a paint bucket that chilldruun may fallin and drown. Darwin is a harsh master...tagline.
>>Wow - I've never heard of requiring someone to learn to swim as a prequisite for a college degree.
And I graduated from a state university. <<
We had a requirement like that at Georgia Tech but it was always explained as a legacy left over from the days when ROTC was mandatory and NAv ROTC was particularly strong.
My graduating class in 1987 was the last to have to do this
We even have a Wikipedia entry :)
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Drownproofing is a method for surviving in water disaster scenarios without sinking or drowning. It is also infamous as a class once offered at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Drownproofing was developed by swimming coach Fred Lanoue, known to students as Crankshaft because of his limping gait. His method was so successful that it gained national recognition, and Georgia Tech soon made it a requirement for graduation. The US Navy also took interest, and adopted it as part of their standard training. It is claimed that during Lanoue's time teaching at Tech from 1936 to 1964, he taught drownproofing to some 20,000 students.
Once they had mastered the Drownproofing technique, students learned how to stay afloat with their wrists and ankles bound, swim 50 yards (46 m) underwater, and retrieve diving rings from the bottom of the pool using their teeth.
Lanoue published a book called Drownproofing, a New Technique for Water Safety in 1963.
Georgia Tech dropped the course from its curriculum in 1987, as part of a downsizing of its physical education and athletics department.<<
i took swimming in college as my p.e. credit.
it wasn't required but i loved the class.
I/m glad to see Swarthmore still requires swimming. The way things are going, I'm sure they'll drop this test soon, though. I knew students who were still worrying about this test during the last semester of senior year, but never heard of anyone being denied a diploma. Absent some physical disability, anyone can learn.
4/5s of the world is covered by water. This should be one of the first things a parent teaches a child.
It was a requirement in the California state Universities and colleges, at least through the 1960s.
I don't go swimming very often. When I stepped into the pool at the aviation survival school in June 2005, it was my first time in a pool since July 1984. Everyone had to do the 5 minutes of treading water (or drown proofing float) and swim the width of the pool under water before being permitted to continue the class. Swimming 15 yards under water in a flight suit, helmet and steel toe boots was a requirement to complete.
I wonder how many people drown because they never took the time to learn how to swim. It's a shame to see the swimming test dropped in favor of "diversity" and other crapola mentioned in the article. Being able to swim is a critical life skill that may become a life or death issue.
The holdouts now include Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Washington & Lee, plus the service academies.Man alive, does this ever bring back memories.
The earth is 7/8 air, so we should learn to fly?
>>4/5s of the world is covered by water. This should be one of the first things a parent teaches a child.<<
My Grand daddy used say 3/4 of the world was water and that meant the Lord meant for us to spend three times as much time fishing as farming.
This guy is a dunce. Clayton, after you're found floating face down for five minutes, I'll administer CPR. (rolling eyes)
Not in the 90s...
For years they have at the university for which I worked so many years. Now they've also cut the phys ed requirements from four to two classes. Too bad in a way.
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