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Swim for a degree? It used to be a college must

Fewer and fewer colleges are requiring what a half century ago was standard: a swim test in order to graduate.
Kurt Reynolds of Cleveland, Ohio, rests after passing the swim test called "Survival Gate Four" at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Jim Mcknight / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Throwing in the towel
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 theirs,” Gantert said.

Hassles were many
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.”