Into the Deep End: Dartmouth’s Swim Test

A closer look at Dartmouth’s swim test and what faculty and students on campus think of the issue

by Caitlyn McGovern , Baily Deeter and Jennifer Lee | 10/1/18 2:25am

Decades ago, many colleges required students to pass a swim test in order to graduate. Today, only a few cling to this tradition, Dartmouth being one of them. Dartmouth’s swim requirement is an untimed 50-yard test that students can complete at the beginning of their First-Year Trip or during any of their terms at the College using any stroke they like.  

A few months ago, the issue of the swim test as a graduation requirement was introduced as a topic of debate. The athletics department formed a committee to determine whether the swim test should remain a graduation requirement. Ultimately, the committee decided to uphold the swim test’s status as a graduation requirement, and it was subsequently approved by faculty. 

Joann Brislin, senior associate athletic director for physical education and recreation, is in charge of administering the swim test. 

“There was discussion [to abolish the swim test as a graduation requirement], and the faculty voted that it’s an important life skill and they wanted it to stay a graduation requirement,” Brislin said. She noted that the faculty probably felt that completing the swim test was necessary for basic safety reasons. 

Director of fitness Hugh Mellert, who was not a part of the committee, believes that the swim test is an important requirement. 

“Knowing how to swim is an important thing,” Mellert said. “If you even just look around our community, there have been a number of instances where students have had issues or have actually died in the river.” He believes that the requirement is especially important being at Dartmouth given the rich outdoor history of the college. “There are plenty of opportunities to be in a water-related situation,” Mellert said. 

While the safety aspect is certainly important, there are arguments against the swim test. One such argument is that it disadvantages minority or international students who might have never learned how to swim. It could be argued that requiring these students to learn how to swim is an unfair burden for these students who already have to make a huge transition to college.  

Most students take the swim test the day before they leave for their first-year trip, but some choose to take it at a different time during their four years at Dartmouth. Joselyn Lopez Bonilla ’22, a first-generation college student, is one of those first-year students who has yet to take the test. 

“I technically know how to swim, but I never had the chance to swim in the deep side of the pool,” Lopez Bonilla said. “It just gives me anxiety not being able to touch the floor.” 

Lopez Bonilla mentioned how she found it strange that the College still required its students to pass a swim test. “When I first heard about it, I thought it was weird,” she said. “In high school you just needed to pass your classes and exams. [The swim test] doesn’t really relate to academics.” 

However, Lopez Bonilla understands the rationale behind including it as a graduation requirement. “I think that there is some fairness to it since you’re able to learn, and in these four years I’m going to have to overcome that fear,” she said. “I would say [it’s fair], but it’s still weird.” 

Dartmouth offers a swimming class for students to aid them in passing the test and to teach them how to swim in general, which Lopez Bonilla plans to take. “I hope [the swim class] will push me to swim on the deep side, and I’ll take the test after that,” she said. 

Within the Ivy League, Columbia University and Cornell University are the only other institutions that have a swim test as a graduation requirement. Additionally, Bryn Mawr College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swarthmore College and the University of Notre Dame are among the universities that still require passage of a swim test for graduation.  

While these other colleges administer swim tests just like Dartmouth does, each school runs its test differently. For instance, Dartmouth’s swim test requires students to swim only one lap of the pool, whereas Cornell and Columbia’s tests require students to swim three laps. Similarly, while Dartmouth’s swim test is untimed, Bryn Mawr’s test consists of 10 minutes of continuous swimming, followed by one minute of treading water. By these standards, it is fair to say that Dartmouth’s swim test is not as difficult as those of some other schools; however, the issue of the graduation requirement appears to remain contentious among students and faculty. While it remains intact now, the future of the swim test seems questionable with colleges across the country nixing the requirement citing reasons of inclusivity and importance. 


Student Survey: 

Do you think the swim test should be a graduation requirement? Why or why not?


Yes:

“Yes. It can be potentially life saving, [and it] makes people more comfortable around water, which is a place a lot of people like to hang out and relax.”

-Luke Amen ’21

“Yes, because I think it gives people who don’t know how to swim the opportunity to learn. It’s almost forcing people though, so it’s a hard decision.”

-Alice Little ’22

“I think yes, because people with such a high academic standard shouldn’t let something like not being able to swim get in their way of doing anything in life.”

-Holland Edmonds ’21

“Yes, considering where we are located.”

-Chris Cardillo ’22


In Between: 

“I don’t know if it’s the College’s job whether or not you should swim, but because it’s not an inconvenience to me, I’m fine with that being a graduation requirement.”

-Ben Brody ’22

“My gut reaction is to say yes, but I realize that comes from a place of relative privilege from being able to swim from a young age. Until I came here, I didn’t realize that people didn’t know how to swim simply because they didn’t have access to it. I’d say yes, but only if there are accessible free lessons for those who need them. I do think that knowing to swim is an important life-saving skill that might come up. Plus, having led a water-based [Dartmouth Outing Club] First-Year Trip it was really useful to be assured that they all could save themselves.”

-Summer Jing ’20


No:

“No, I think there’s a lot of socioeconomic factors that go into learning how to swim when you are younger, and I think that it singles out some people.”

-Mary Joy ’21

“I love swimming, but I don’t think the swim test should be a requirement to graduate; I simply don’t see the utility. If the idea is to give students some basic swimming skills, then I honestly don’t think a 50-yard swim is going to really do that. It’s also just so random — some people really hate getting into water and avoid it all costs, and a swim test probably won’t change that. Either they should tell us why exactly we need to take this test or get rid of it.”

-Arunav Jain ’20

“The swim test shouldn’t be a requirement because it’s too hard.”

-Grace Alston ’22

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