Most universities require their students to pass (complete successfully) certain courses (classes) in order to graduate. Usually, these are what we call general education classes, classes on topics that the university thinks everyone should know about to be considered an educated college graduate, such as literature, history, math, foreign language, and science. During the early part of the 20th century (remember the 20th century?), Cornell University (in Ithica, New York) began requiring student to pass a swim test, thinking that knowing how to swim was part of a “complete education.” Other universities followed suit (did the same thing), and by the 1940s, tests and classes related to one’s physical abilities (such as swimming) became more common at American universities.
By the mid-1990s, however, only five percent of U.S. colleges required students to take a swim test, and the vast (large) majority required no physical education (sports, exercise) courses at all. My alma mater (university from which I graduated, literally from the Latin meaning “nourishing (one who feeds) mother,” because universities “feed” you knowledge), the University of Minnesota, did not require any physical education classes, for example, which is a good thing for me, since I have zero talent for sports. The few universities that still require a swim test today include some quite famous ones, including Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), and Notre Dame.
The tests vary (are different) from university to university. At Columbia, you must swim 75 yards (that’s 68.58 meters for the rest of the world), using any style or method (except with a surfboard, I guess). For Dartmouth, it’s 50 yards (45.72 meters), and for Notre Dame, 100 yards (91.44 meters). Most students pass the test, but those who don’t have to take a swimming class in order to (to be able to) graduate.
Is it fair to ask college students to know how to swim in order to get their degree? I’m not sure, although growing up in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (Minnesota), I can see how it would be a useful skill to have. Could I have passed such a test had it existed when I was in college? Well, let’s just say I have never been, and never will be, confused with Michael Phelps (the swimmer who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics).