October 10, 2009

College visits: Very educational

Dana's well into her college selection process, and in the past six months we've visited over a dozen schools. We learned early not to schedule more than one per day. If you try to tackle two (and trust me, more is physically and mentally impossible), around 2 PM the campus and commentary of the second start to get squishy and indistinguishable from the place you visited in the morning and you end up shortchanging yourselves and both institutions. Better to start fresh each day with a single target you can really focus on. With private higher ed ringing in at about 50 grand per annum, it's nice to be as certain as possible that you're sending both your kid and your money to the right place.

You learn interesting things on college visits. That Columbia has a swimming requirement, for example.

This news caused me and Dana, well-rounded athletes but not keen waterbugs, to exchange raised eyebrows. Maybe she was thinking, Whoa. This is Columbia. This is New York. I could be doing so many things with my time here besides doing laps. I was thinking, Whoa. This is Columbia. This is New York. My money could be doing so many things here besides paying for Dana to do laps.

Were there a great reason for withholding a student's nearly quarter-million-dollar degree until she or he demonstrates prowess in the pool I'd think, OK, Columbia's smarter than other colleges. But the closest attempt I could find at offering a good reason to mandate student-body-wide swimming skills (after confirming with snopes.com that no, it's not because the child of a wealthy Gilded Age benefactor drowned at college, and rejecting as probable cause our Columbia tour guide's quip that "Manhattan is an island") is the description on Columbia's website of its core curriculum, which includes passing the swimming test: "These requirements describe an education of exceptional depth and rigor. They constitute the essence of the liberal arts tradition as well as the intellectual signature of a Columbia education." If I were a Columbian, unless the deans let me use my Aqua Jogger, the depth of the pool and the rigor of a semester-long attempt to navigate 75 yards of it "without resting" would indeed be an exceptional education -- in terror.

But, lest this weird, wet anachronism scare anybody off from applying to Columbia, diving a little deeper into the school's website reveals that you don't really have to know how to swim to get your sheepskin: you just have to show up at the pool. The requirement's evidently been watered down to accommodate those who've never been and never will be marine mammals -- and, I suspect, their bill-paying parents, who expected their college kids to have intermittent struggles keeping heads above water, just not literally.

So, unlike the watertight requirement in effect in, say, 1913, when the New York Times ran a lengthy piece about a student who spent four years trying and failing to pass the swim test and was therefor denied his degree, the current requirement offers trickle-down options that allow, in the end, just getting your name ticked off on the swim class attendance sheet.

When you arrive at Columbia, you can take a swim test. If you pass, you're good to go, perhaps with a little fish-shaped lapel pin to wear around campus. If you fail, you must take a beginner swimming course. If, after taking the course, you still can't pass the test, "the requirement is waived." Nor will your failed, flailing, semester-long aquatic efforts damage your GPA: "Students who fulfill the attendance participation requirements for the course will pass the course." Other obligations satisfied, you will get your degree, presumably alongside your natatorially superior classmates and not at a separate graduation ceremony for non-swimmers.

A few weeks after we visited Columbia, while on a tour of another college, a prospective applicant asked the student guide, "Does this school have a swimming requirement?" When the guide announced loudly to the group, "No! You do not have to take a swimming test to graduate," I saw a half-dozen teenagers and their parents raise their eyebrows at each other in relief. The school moved up on Dana's list.