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Students have voiced concerns surrounding the applicability and equity of Cornell's swim test graduation requirement following updates to the test.

November 16, 2023

Cornell Unveils New Swim Test Requirements

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On Friday, Nov. 10, the Cornell Water Competency Graduation Requirement was updated according to “more modern water safety competency based on industry standards.” The new test requires students to step or jump into the water over their head, return to the surface and tread water for one minute before turning around in a full circle and finding an exit. Lastly, students must also swim 25 yards — one full length of the pool — without stopping. 

Cornell has had a swimming competency test as a graduation requirement since 1906, the most recent version of which assessed a student’s ability to jump into the deep end of the water feet-first and swim three lengths of the pool in any style of stroke, totaling 75 yards. While the new swim requirement is effective immediately, for now, students retain the option of completing the test according to the previous guidelines. 

On campus, students have responded to the updated swim requirement with mixed sentiments. 

“The current under the gorges can be pretty powerful, and in most cases, it is not possible to swim back to shore when being sucked into a current, so treading water might be a more realistic replica of what would happen in a dangerous situation,” said Andrew Kim ’27.

However, other students are skeptical of the realistic nature of the new swim test, which was modernized in an effort to prevent accidental drowning in accordance with water competency skills identified by the American Red Cross.

“If the test was designed to improve the swimming capabilities of students and to mimic real-life emergencies, I feel like it doesn’t make sense to shorten the 75 yards of continuous swimming to 25 yards, because if this was real life, you’d probably have to swim more than 25 yards to get back to safety,” said Katherine Huang ’27.

In the summer of 2022, Miriam Lynch, executive director of Diversity in Aquatics and swim coach at Howard University — a Historically Black University — met with Frank Rossi, chair of Cornell Faculty Advisory Committee on Athletics and Physical Education to discuss if the University should eliminate the swim requirement, as other predominately white institutions have done. To this question, Lynch responded in favor of keeping the swim test, calling the swim requirement “part of the solution” to combat the disproportionate amount of minority drownings and aquatic discrimination in the U.S. 

Controversy has nevertheless arisen regarding the negative impact a swimming test may have on students from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds. A proposed resolution from FACAPE in the Faculty Senate from Nov. 8 sought to address this disparity while reaffirming the validity of the updated swim test.

In the resolution, FACAPE acknowledged that recent data from the course enrollment for Physical Education 1100: Beginning Swimming revealed “gender and racial disparities,” as 65 percent of students enrolled in the course identify as female, 37 percent self-identified as Black, 35 percent as Asian, 12 percent as multi-ethnic and 10 percent as Hispanic. The resolution also highlighted that students who have completed the Beginning Swimming course reported feelings of accomplishment after learning how to swim. 

The resolution acknowledged the disproportionate drowning rates among Black people in the U.S. when compared to white people, as well as the historical roots of this statistic embedded in policies enacted during the Jim Crow Era. 

Jeremy Henderson ’27 voiced concerns that the swim test has become an outdated, elitist symbol that continues to hearken back to a more discriminatory chapter of Cornell’s history.

“The swim test is an outdated test, it has no place here. I don’t think the motive of the test is harmful, [but that] the amount of time it’s lasted here has become harmful,” said Henderson, who is Black. “Making the test harder seems like taking a step backward in a university that supposedly prides itself in welcoming ‘… any person … any study.’” 

Henderson also stated that requiring students who do not pass the swim test to take the Beginning Swimming class is problematic, as it limits the choice in PE class for many students, a disproportionate number of whom identify as people of color. 

Basil Bob ’27, who is Black, concurred with Henderson and added that the swim test has little justification for existing in a contemporary university setting beyond a historical tradition, as only eight percent of universities continue to require a swim test today. 

“Swim tests are very much an elite tradition that only a few schools still do, so [keeping the swim test] feels like holding on to an outdated tradition,” Bob said. 

Hasham Khan ’26, on the other hand, finds the swim test to be a reasonable requirement due to the University’s geographic location. 

“I think while the swim test can be a hindrance to those who already know how to swim, it is overall beneficial just because we do live near a large body of water, and knowing how to swim can be life-saving,” Khan said.  

Florence Cheung ’27 and Eric Lechpammer ’27 are Sun contributors and can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].