Heads above water: university swim tests in the pandemic

If the ability to swim is a graduation requirement, Paul Greatrix asks what you do when Covid-19 closes the pool?

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

It still seems bizarre to me that some universities in the US continue to require students to undertake a swimming test in order to graduate.

It used to be much more common than it is now but nevertheless there are still a number of universities including MIT, Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth which insist that students demonstrate that they can swim a few lengths (might be 50, 75 or 100 metres or is it yards?). And I noted here a while back that at least one Chinese university was following suit.

Harvard used to have such a requirement too but ended the practice some years ago. The origins of the concept in some universities is said to have been the second world war and at MIT for example the swimming test has been a graduation requirement since the 1940’s after a large number of drowning-related casualties occurred.

The legend at Harvard was that the swimming test there was introduced at the behest of the family of major donors, one of whom, Harry Elkins Widener, died on the Titanic. It is a good story but only a myth it seems and indeed the Harvard swim test predates the Titanic by many years.

The Columbia approach is normally this:

All Columbia College students are required to pass a swimming test or submit a waiver from University Health Services. Swimming tests are administered in the Uris Pool, located on the first floor of the Dodge Fitness Center. The test consists of swimming three continuous unassisted laps of the pool (75 yards total) using any stroke or a combination of strokes. Those who do not pass are encouraged to take a Beginner Swim course at the first opportunity. Passing the Beginner Swim course will fulfill your swim test requirement and one Physical Education credit. Students must complete the test in order to receive a diploma, therefore it is highly encouraged that the test is taken prior to the last academic semester.

But the university has temporarily suspended these requirements during the pandemic.

Whilst Columbia and others, including Cornell and Dartmouth, have paused the swimming requirement, MIT has adopted a different approach in the age of Covid.  Previously, the swimming requirement was set out as follows:

Normally, the in-person test would occur during fall orientation and it was common for many freshmen to pass the requirement then. The test consists of jumping into the Beavers’ 8 lane, 50 meter pool feet first to simulate a more realistic situation than if they dove.

The pool is set up in short course yards for the test and students must swim 4 lengths nonstop of either front or sidestroke. They are allowed to swim backstroke as well, but only on the final length. If a student is unable to do that then they must take a 6-week-long swimming course in its place.

As this story also notes, the swimming test followed other courses in going online:

Alongside other academic courses, the test moved online and was restructured to be a “conceptual class” including four hours of American Red Cross learning, a quiz, and four essay questions based on different water safety scenarios. This online course was restricted to seniors who had yet to take the test.

MIT Director of Physical Education and Wellness Carrie Sampson Moore explained to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ)  that the class was not intended to teach students how to swim, more so to “keep students safe and inspire them to learn how to swim.”

Some students found the online replacement course frustrating. Sarah Dohadwala, a biological engineering major who had attempted the test before but opted for the online course this year, told WSJ, “It was such a pain in the butt. It takes like four hours. Why? Just cancel the requirement!”

A pain in the butt perhaps but it does sustain the spirit of the swimming test, however unusual it may seem these days. Whether or not the online class will inspire this generation of students to learn to swim post-pandemic remains to be seen. Will these universities reinstate the long-standing swimming test in future? Who knows but I rather hope they do retain them as they represent a distinctive higher education tradition.

One response to “Heads above water: university swim tests in the pandemic

  1. Many US universities also have PE requirements that sit alongside these swim tests. I was required to do two PE modules before graduating, so the idea was that you should use one of them to learn how to swim. It’s a good public health idea when schools don’t teach swimming as they do here. Oops, scratch that, as it has mostly faded away with budget cuts even before the pandemic. Similarly in the US, my university axed the requirement because many people failed it (some happy alumni, there, when they aren’t able to graduate on time) and it was a hassle to administer. I would argue that is all the more reason to keep it.

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