Students’ first exam: the swim test

Washington and Lee University requires every first-year student to take a swim test once they arrive on campus, but is this a fair or even necessary assessment?

Georgia Bernbaum

Each year, during Orientation Week hundreds of incoming first-years gather at the Natatorium, towels in hand, to take their first college exam: the swim test. Washington and Lee University is among nine schools in the nation that still require students to pass a swim test to graduate, which consists of swimming fifty yards and treading water for five consecutive minutes. Some of the other universities include Columbia, Cornell and Swarthmore, all of whose swim tests share similar origins to that of Washington and Lee.  

In 1914, a freshman student drowned in a pond nearby campus; the requirement then went into effect four years later after the completion of the Doremus Gymnasium. Some claim that the swim test was actually mandated by wealthy donors who threatened to withdraw their funds if no test was implemented. Others believe that the requirement was instituted by the federal government during World War II, during which many college campuses became military training grounds. A majority of colleges, such as the University of Chicago, have since eliminated the swim test requirement. Yet, Washington and Lee stays true to this decades old tradition. 

The Washington and Lee swim test has evolved throughout the university’s history. When it was an all-male school, the swim test was typically administered nude. However, now all students wear proper attire and are given the option to take the swim test in a private setting if they are more comfortable. And, although the swim test is often relaxed and unchallenging, members of the competitive swim team are still required to participate, raising questions of the test’s relevance.  

Additionally, the university has failed to consider racial, economic, and cultural barriers to swimming. 70% of African American children are unable to swim, while only 40% of white children lack the skill. This is a problem that initially arose from segregated pools which destroyed the swimming culture within the African American community. The lack of access to pools and prevalent social stereotypes generated an endless cycle in which African American students are inherently at a disadvantage. This same issue is true of low-income students who may not have had access to a community pool or couldn’t afford swim lessons.  

In conclusion, the swim test is a way to impart necessary life skills upon students beyond the walls of Tucker or Washington Hall, and since its creation has been adapted to cultivate a more comfortable experience for all. Yet, there remain some evident faults within the swim test. Even if the swim test is mandatory, it should not be a requirement for those on the swim team who have already proven their abilities. Additionally, it causes needless stress and anxiety for a lot of incoming students that can be easily avoided by the institution. Lastly, there is a strong argument for whether passing the swim test should be mandatory rather than encouraged,  especially considering the complicated history surrounding swimming in America. All things considered, it is time both students and faculty have a productive discussion about the true purpose of the swim test and whether this purpose can be achieved in other, more effective and inclusive ways.