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Spring is the season when some college students are going to have to prove they can stay afloat. I'm talking here about a swimming test. It remains a graduation requirement on a handful of campuses, mostly in the Northeast. For seniors who've been putting off the swim test, now is the time to sink or swim, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's a few days before final exams at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia. But about half a dozen seniors gather nervously at the edge of the campus pool for a different kind of test. Bryn Mawr aquatics director Nikki Whitlock explains the rules.

NIKKI WHITLOCK: The key to this is going slow. It does not matter how many laps you do, OK? It only matters that you're swimming for the 10 minutes continuously. All right?

ROSE: That's 10 minutes of continuous swimming, followed by one minute each of floating and treading water. A century ago, lots of school required students to pass a swim test. Now it's just a few holdouts that cling to the tradition, including Cornell, Columbia, MIT and Swarthmore.

MAURICE ELDRIDGE: We had just been given our mandatory physicals, and were told to go jump in the pool and swim. And I jumped in the pool and sank.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Maurice Eldridge eventually passed the test at Swarthmore College. Now he's a vice president there. But even Eldridge isn't sure exactly when the school's test started or why.

ELDRIDGE: There's a story that has floated around having to do with someone drowning, and then some person of that family providing money with the stipulation that everybody have to swim, learn to swim. And I can't find any credible reason for believing that.

ROSE: There actually was a Swarthmore student who drowned in 1912 whose relatives later donated money to build the campus swimming pool. But Eldridge says there's no record of any connection between those two events. Still, the rumors persist, and not just at Swarthmore.

SAMUEL ROTH: Some people say some wealthy donor student drowned or died on the Titanic or something.

ROSE: Samuel Roth is a senior at Columbia University in Manhattan, which requires a swim test for students in certain academic programs, but not others. Roth says there are lots of theories about why.

ROTH: If the island were flooded, we'd need to know how to swim to get to New Jersey. But then, of course, the engineers don't have to do it. And they say, well, we could build a boat or a bridge to escape, which to me is totally ridiculous because you're not going to do that during flooding.

ROSE: As swim tests go, Columbia's is pretty easy. Still, Roth waited until spring of his senior year to take it. Junior Will Hughes says that is not unusual.

WILL HUGHES: It's this big thing, I feel, to take it your senior spring. And you do it with all your, like, senior friends, especially, like, in April. Like, every time you see it, there's hundreds of people that go there to do it together.

WHITLOCK: One minutes left. One minute.

ROSE: Back at Bryn Mawr, aquatics director Nikki Whitlock would like to persuade her students not to wait until the last minute. The school is following the lead of Swarthmore, which tries to get students into the pool during freshman orientation. And for students who are really scared, Bryn Mawr offers a class to help them learn basic water safety. Senior Leila Zilles took it this spring.

LEILA ZILLES: Before I took the swim class, I couldn't even float. And now that I've learned to float, I can say, well, even though, you know, I'm still scared to fall into the deep end of the pool, I would know what to do.

ROSE: Bryn Mawr coach Nikki Whitlock looks pleased with that. Whitlock says she's never had to prevent a student from graduating, and she doesn't want to start now.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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