Colleges consider swim tests: sink or swim?

by Nick Gansner | 11/9/94 6:00am

Despite a recent trend among national colleges and universities to eliminate mandatory swim tests, Dartmouth's requirement remains afloat.

According to an Oct. 12 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State and Princeton universities, along with Allegheny, Colby and Hobart and William Smith colleges have recently dropped their swim requirements.

Columbia and Cornell universities and Berea, Bryn Mawr, Carleton and Hamilton colleges -- along with Dartmouth -- are among the few schools that still require students to pass a swim test before graduating.

The 50-yard untimed swim test is the second component of the College's physical education requirement, which mandates that students complete three terms of physical education before the end of their sophomore summer.

Most students take the test when they first arrive on campus for a Dartmouth Outing Club Trip.

Roughly 75-year requirement

Many high-ranking College administrators were unable to identify the justification for Dartmouth's policy and could not conclusively state when or why the test came into existence.

Associate Director of Physical Education and Intramurals Ken Jones said he does not know the history, but he believes Roland Spaulding donated Spaulding Pool in 1919 with the stipulation that a swim test be a degree requirement.

Jones also said students were originally asked to swim 50 yards in less than a minute. About 20 years ago, the swim test was consolidated with physical education into one requirement, he added.

Registrar Thomas Bickel, a member of the Committee on Instruction, said the swim test came under scrutiny in 1989 and 1990 along with the entire physical education requirement.

According to Bickel, the COI approved a motion supported by then Dean of the College Edward Shanahan to end the requirement. But the faculty defeated the motion and the swim test remained.

Although the original motion was based on financial considerations, Bickel said some faculty felt it was time to eliminate the swim test for other non-economic reasons.

Athletic Director Dick Jaeger said his office determined that cutting the physical education requirement would not save much money.

Test as a safety measure

Several College administrators emphasized the importance of a swim test to ensure student safety.

"It makes sense to have the student body safe around water," Jones said.

Earth Sciences Professor Gary Johnson, who chairs the COI, said, "[T]he whole issue of the swim test focuses on the personal safety issue; we have, after all, lost a number of students in the Connecticut [River], at Post Pond and elsewhere due to drowning. This is an important life skill issue."

Bickel said, "I think it's something everyone should know. If it were done today, maybe [the requirement] would be cardiopulmonary resuscitation."

The swim test ensures "reasonable safety in the water in case a student capsizes," Jaeger said. He added that the "human safety and survival aspect is a good part of physical education."

About 50 to 60 freshmen each year say they cannot swim, Jones said. Students who do not pass the test must take a beginning swimming course, taught by the men's and women's varsity swim coaches. Those who fail the swimming course are asked to repeat it.

Women's swimming Coach Betsy Mitchell Wilson, who teaches the course with Jim Wilson, said some people "have failed [beginning swimming] because they have failed to do the one thing I told them they must do to pass the course, and that is attend."

Wilson said she only asks that students make an effort to learn to swim. "If you get in the water, if you decide you want to overcome your fear of the water or your inability, you will," she said.

Last moment plungers

According to Jones, there are ways for students to avoid the swim test.

"Some students have a deep seated, very real, almost incapacitating fear of water," he said.

Jones said this fear is usually related to a childhood trauma associated with water, and that for these students the swim test would do more damage than help. He sends those students to Dick's House, where doctors determine if the fear is legitimate and if so, the requirement is waived.

Some students wait until their last few days at the College to take the swim test. "Every year there have been two or three seniors with names and fates in hand at the pool a couple of days before graduation," Bickel said.

Colleges debate importance

Administrators and faculty members at other schools have varying opinions on mandatory swim tests. Carl Samuelson, coordinator of aquatics at Williams College, said he feels "a sense of responsibility towards giving formal instruction to non-swimmers for survival situations."

Students at Williams who do not pass the test must pass a beginning swimming course. Samuelson said he has had nearly a 100 percent success rate in his swimming classes. "I've had students take swimming courses and afterwards it has created a whole new experience for them," he said.

Hobart and William Smith College dropped its swim requirement in February for several reasons, College spokeswoman Laurie Fenlason said.

"First, it is difficult to administer," she said. "Second, it is hard to justify given the other tests given to students at this time. Finally, many students don't have the opportunity to grow up swimming and with pools. [The swim test] seemed slightly discriminatory for those students."

At Williams, Samuelson has faced a similar situation. In years past, 40 to 50 students out of approximately 500 failed the test, he said. Yet students failing the swim test are "not as prevalent today because more pools are opening, opportunities to learn to swim increasing and people take advantage of that," he added.

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