Welcome to Race on Campus. At one point or another, about a quarter of American colleges required students to pass a swim test. Today, there are far fewer who do, but a few holdouts remain. One college dropped its requirement this month after examining data showing students of color were far more likely to need a remedial swim class. Our Adrienne Lu explains why.

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‘Punishing the City Kids’

Generations of Williams College students have studied in the foothills of the purple Berkshire Mountains, endured months of New England snow, and fulfilled a swim requirement in order to graduate.

Now, the last of those will no longer continue after faculty voted earlier this month to eliminate the swim requirement, citing a disparate impact on underrepresented minority students as a key concern.

Williams students had for years raised various issues with the swim requirement, which meant that students had to either pass a swim test or take a beginning swimming class.

“Students expressed feeling shamed and punished for not knowing how to swim,” wrote D. Clinton Williams in an email to The Chronicle. Williams is director of the college’s Pathways for Inclusive Excellence and chairman of the Diversity Advisory Research Team, which studied the swimming requirement. “One student told her first-year adviser, ‘It’s like they are punishing the city kids.’”

In addition, students had asked whether the college should continue to single out swimming as the only life skill required to graduate. Students also expressed concern on behalf of those who identify as gender nonbinary, who had to choose between male and female locker rooms to enter the pool within days of setting foot on campus, unless they knew to request accommodations.

Disparities With Roots in Segregation

Once common among American colleges, swimming requirements have been dwindling for decades. A 1997 survey by professors at North Carolina State University found only 5 percent of colleges had a swim-test requirement then, down from the 25 percent that once did. Holdouts today include Bryn Mawr, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Hamilton, MIT, and Swarthmore, in addition to some of the U.S. service academies. (While some colleges excused students from the pool during the Covid pandemic, MIT took its swim test virtual, as did Shanghai University, which became the target of online mockery for the move.)

Among the colleges that have dropped swim requirements in recent years are the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2006, the University of Chicago in 2012, and the University of Notre Dame in 2014.

Concerns about how swim requirements affect students differently are not new. Hobart and William Smith Colleges dropped its requirement in 1994, calling it archaic, difficult to administer, and unfair to students who had no access to pools, according to a Chronicle article at the time. An op-ed in the student newspaper of Washington and Lee University last November argued that the university had “failed to consider racial, economic, and cultural barriers to swimming.”

Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana, who has published extensively on the history of swimming pools in the U.S., said Black Americans today are about half as likely to know how to swim as white Americans. “Clear and obvious past discrimination still is a primary, if not the primary, reason why we have these disparate swimming proficiency rates today,” Wiltse said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is one of the three leading causes of unintentional-injury death among Americans under 29 years old, and from 1999-2019, American Indian or Alaskan Native people died from drowning at twice the rate of non-Hispanic white people, while non-Hispanic Black people died from drowning at 1.5 times the rate.

Wiltse said that the United States saw two significant periods of swimming-pool construction, in the 1920s and ’30s, and in the 1950s and ’60s. During both booms, more white Americans learned how to swim, while Black Americans were banned from most public pools and only allowed to swim at pools that were typically smaller, poorly maintained, and lacked many of the amenities available to white swimmers, such as lawns, sandy beaches, and sundecks.

Wiltse also noted that swimming proficiency follows class lines, with middle- and upper-class Americans enjoying much better access to swimming pools and swim teams than working-class Americans.

‘Reinforcing Systemic Oppression’

At Williams, a study by the Diversity Advisory Research Team, which uses qualitative and quantitative data to deepen the college’s understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, found that from 2013 to 2019, 81 percent of students who enrolled in the beginning swim class were American students of color. Sixteen percent were international students, and 57 percent were first-generation college students. Only 3 percent were white students.

Maximilian Peters, a rising senior and a student member of the Committee on Educational Affairs, which had talked about eliminating the swim requirement on and off for at least a year, said that some students had commented that the beginning swim classes were among the most diverse places on campus.

Peters also said he heard about several students trying to quickly learn from friends how to swim in the nearby Hoosic River to try to pass the swim test. “I’m sure the quality [of instruction] from your random friend who’s taking you out to the river … probably varies,” Peters said, drily.

Once the committee members saw the statistics from the research team, they moved quickly to recommend that the faculty end the requirement.

Among those who argued to keep the requirement was Michael J. Lewis, an art-history professor, who was forced to take remedial swimming after he failed his own swim test at Haverford College in 1975. “I am very sympathetic to those people who recall with shame and humiliation their own dunking in the pool and their flailing, thrashing attempt to make their way across it,” Lewis said in an interview.

Lewis said colleges ask students to undergo all kinds of unpleasant experiences, such as conjugating irregular verbs in foreign languages, that will benefit them in the long run. “Swimming is one of those things that’s not great to learn, but it’s great to know,” said Lewis, who now loves to swim laps for exercise. “This is the only thing you learn at college that could save your life.”

But Lewis was in the minority on the issue, and the faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating the requirement after a short discussion. Williams will continue to offer beginning swimming, which students can use to fulfill the college’s physical-education requirement.

Athletic Director Lisa Melendy said her staff took pride in “addressing some of the structural inequities that students came to campus with” by teaching beginning swimmers and that they felt gratified to receive comments from students who were thrilled to overcome a lifelong fear of water.

Still, she agrees that the swimming requirement was an anomaly and does not fit with Williams as an institution today.

“It’s done such good, and it’s really helpful in addressing systemic inequities, but at the same time, you’re reinforcing systemic oppression in some ways,” Melendy said. —Adrienne Lu

Clarification: Faculty at Washington and Lee University, which was originally listed above among the holdouts, voted in April to end the swim test as part of changes to the general-education curriculum. The change will take effect in a couple of years; in the meantime, students will be continue to be required to take the test.

Read Up

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