It's Sink or Swim for College Students Who Must Pass Swim Tests to Graduate

By Catherine Groux
Posted November 30, 2012 05:00 PM

Some students still need to pass a swim test to graduate.
Some students still need to pass a swim test to graduate.
Today, students who want to earn a bachelor's degree at New York's Cornell University not only need to pass all of their courses, but pass a swim test or enroll in a beginner's swim course as well, The Wall Street Journal reports.

While there is no official count of how many U.S. colleges still make students pass a swim test in order to graduate, a 1997 survey by North Carolina State University professors shows that only about 5% of all four-year schools follow the tradition. Among these colleges are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University and the University of Notre Dame, the Journal reports.

Each school has its own variation of what exactly the swimming test entails. At Cornell, students must swim three lengths in the 25-yard pool with no time restriction. Women who attend Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College, on the other hand, must swim continuously for 10 minutes, float on their backs for one minute and tread water for one minute.

Cornell's website states that the swim test requirement was first mandated for women in 1918, when the school's director of women's physical education stated that swimming was a necessary skill for all women to possess. The need to learn how to swim only became more important to the school after World War II, as many students served overseas. Subsequently, the swim test was deemed mandatory for male students in 1937.

While the swim test requirement was enacted decades ago, faculty have since upheld the decision to include it in Cornell's graduation requirements.

"Anything that prevents people from dying needlessly is a valuable skill," Fred DeBruyn, director of aquatics and assistant physical education director at Cornell, told the Journal.

Although some schools continue to uphold the century-old tradition, other colleges across the country have dropped the unusual graduation requirement. For example, the University of Chicago recently announced that it would drop its requirement that students swim 100 yards or take a swim class before receiving their diplomas. The news came as a welcome announcement for university graduates like Hassan Ali, who does not feel he should have had to swim for his diploma.

"Entering college is intimidating enough, let alone getting half-naked in front of your peers and trying to prove your physical acumen," Ali told the Chicago Tribune.

Still, the University of Chicago is far from the only school to nix its swim requirement. In 2005, New York's Colgate University eliminated the graduation qualification, calling it "arbitrary and indefensible," the Journal states. In the past, schools like Harvard University have come to the same conclusion, opting to throw in the towel on their swim tests. 

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