Promoting Swimming as a Physical Activity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The ability to swim has several benefits which include, but are not limited to, providing a healthy form of exercise, decreasing the chance of disease, and lowering risk of drowning. Swimming is an attractive form of exercise because it does not involve the bearing of body weight due to the buoyancy of the water (Tanaka, 2009). However, participation in swimming activities requires water competency skills to minimize the risk of drowning. Unfortunately, African Americans have been traditionally underrepresented in areas of aquatics such as competitive swimming, yet they have been overrepresented in the drowning statistics.  

A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 37% of American adults are unable to swim, and within that measure, 62% of African Americans reported a lack of swimming ability (Gilchrist, Sacks, and Branche, 2000). According to a recent study by the CDC, the drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher for all ages. More specifically, African Americans ages 5-19 drown in swimming pools at a 5.5 times higher rate than whites. The factors associated with the higher drowning rates stem from African Americans’ lack of access to swimming pools and a lack of desire to learn how to swim (CDC Water Fact Sheet, 2014). The contributing factors related to African Americans’ lack of participation in swimming coupled with the significantly higher drowning rate has been under-researched.  

An effort to contribute to the body of research regarding African Americans and the disparities that exist, a research study was commissioned at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) using the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) as the theoretical framework. The study measured the intentions of African American college students to participate in swimming as a physical activity one day a week. The Theory of Planned Behavior uses three constructs which are, attitudes, subjective norms and perceived behavioral control to measure intention to engage in a behavior (Ajzen, 1991). Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior (1991) suggests that an individual’s intention to engage in physical activity is an immediate predictor of whether the activity will be carried out. A modified survey instrument was distributed to college students in a general education personal health and wellness course.  Six research questions were used to measure differences between gender, ethnicity, parent’s social economic status, geographical location, marital status, and age.  AA Swimming

Over three-fourths of the sample population reported doing 30 minutes of swimming one day a week would be either very beneficial or beneficial. Furthermore, a majority of the sample population also responded favorably to the research question measuring affective attitude, that doing 30 minutes of swimming at least one day a week would be enjoyable. In contrast, over half of the sample size did not see themselves as comfortable in the water. Results of the study, indicate swimming is a desirable activity, but to perform the activity safely, swimming skills are needed.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have a rich history of providing access to underserved populations. HBCUs were founded post-civil war as a place for newly freed slaves to have access to formalized education. The three primary goals of HBCUs upon their origin were the education of Black youth, train teachers and continue the “missionary tradition” by educating African Americans (Allen and Jewell, 2002).  

HBCUs have continued to thrive in higher education by an ongoing commitment of providing open access to education. Historically, HBCUs provided not only educational opportunities but also are a social institution for all students to explore self-actualization and opportunities both in and outside of the classroom. HBCU’s continue to be the great social equalizer for the quest of a truly inclusive society (Allen and Jewell, 2002).   

HBCU’s make up approximately 2% of colleges and universities in the United States and they enroll 25% of African Americans seeking an undergraduate degree (Allen and Jewell, 2002). Based on the documented disparities that exist for African Americans and aquatics, it is fitting that HBCUs can play an important role in addressing the lack of participation of African Americans in swimming as a physical activity by promoting the importance of learning how to swim as well as encouraging students to participate in swimming as a physical activity for colleges and universities with swimming pools as a physical resource.  

A white paper produced by National Swimming Pool Foundation, written by Dr. Thomas  Lachocki (2012), addressed the problem of physical inactivity, obesity, and an aging society contribute to rising healthcare costs. The solution to addressing promoting a healthier society and lowering the drowning rate is the promotion of learning to swim. As quoted by Dr. Lachocki, “it is tragic that so many people who aspire to be swimmers – are not swimmers – yet” (Lachocki, 2012).  All colleges and universities have a golden opportunity to promote the benefits of learning how to swim as well as participating in swimming as a physical activity.  


Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Allen, W. R., & Jewell, J. O. (2002). A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically Black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher 
Education, 25(3), 241-261.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Water-related injuries: Fact sheet. Retrieved September 13, 2014, from factsheet.html

Gilchrist, J., Sacks, J. J., & Branche, C. M. (2000). Self-reported swimming ability in US  adults, 1994. Public health reports, 115(2-3), 110.

Lachocki, T. (2012).  Creating swimmers improves people’s health, reduces drowning and builds demand for pools, spas & aquatic facilities.  [White paper]. Retrieved August 15, 2015, from National Swimming Pool Foundation:

Tanaka, H. (2009). Swimming exercise. Sports Medicine, 39(5), 377-387.

About the Author

Jodi Jensen is a professor and Director of Aquatics at Hampton University located in Virginia. She has over 30 years of experience in the aquatic industry as a lifeguard, swim instructor and pool operator instructor. She is currently a doctoral student. Her research interests are college students and promoting swimming as a physical activity. During her time at Hampton University, she created an Aquatic Management concentration which she hopes to grow into an undergraduate degree and hopefully one day a master’s degree in aquatic management to promote a new generation of researchers in Aquatics.  One of the most fulfilling aspects of her position at Hampton University is teaching beginning swimmers to be safe in, on and around the water. Each semester she teaches numerous college students to swim.  

Jodi is a lifelong resident of the Hampton Roads area and spends her free time riding her motorcycle, kayaking, visiting a microbrewery or long walks in the park with her dog.

Contact information for Jodi Jensen:

Learn To Swim
Learn to Swim
African American Swimming
Theory of Planned Behavior
Swimming and Drowning
Swimming Ability in Blacks