- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006


On a recent Friday morning, a line of students clad in bathing suits stood beside a campus swimming pool, waiting to jump in. They had come to convince the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that 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, it was 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.

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 a popular exercise option as well as a skill colleges thought men and women should master — both for their 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.

Miss Pomerantz says the UNC 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 Miss Pomerantz says it’s still worthwhile.

According to a 1977 survey, 42 percent of institutions had some sort of swimming requirement, said Larry Hensley, a University of Northern Iowa professor who has studied the history of physical education. But by 1982, the figure had plummeted to 8 percent, he said. Subsequent surveys no longer bothered to ask about swimming requirements.

In 2003, Ferrum College in Virginia dropped its swim test. Colgate University threw in the towel last year. The holdouts include the University of Notre Dame, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, Columbia University, Hamilton College, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, and Washington and Lee University, 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.

Many swimming requirements date to the early 20th century, when there was a national effort to improve water safety.

Most tests today aren’t particularly demanding — usually a couple of laps and treading water for five to 15 minutes.

Fewer and fewer schools, however, think requiring a test is worthwhile.

There are administrative hassles of 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.

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