College physical education hits hurdles
Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 15, 2013 01:01
A study recently published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport found that less than half of four-year institutions now require students to take physical education courses in order to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Brad Cardinal, professor of exercise and sport science at Oregon State University, co-authored the study during the 2009-10 academic year. Cardinal looked at historical rates of physical education requirements for graduation from colleges over the years. According to the study, titled, “Historical Perspective and Current Status of the Physical Education Graduation Requirement at American 4-Year Colleges and Universities,” physical education requirements for graduation have dropped from 97 percent in the 1920s and 30s to 39.55 percent in the 2009-10 school year.
“It seems like the opposite of what you’d expect,” Cardinal said, whose specialty is sport and exercise psychology and the sociocultural aspects of physical activity and health. “I didn’t expect to see an upswing, but I also certainly didn’t expect this kind of a dropoff.”
The last time such a study was conducted, back in 1998, 63 percent of institutions required physical education courses in order for students to graduate.
Out of 2,200 American colleges and universities, Cardinal and his partners in the study randomly selected 354 colleges and universities. Then they went to each of the colleges’ webpages and searched for their physical education requirements.
The team observed things such as the number of physical education credit hours required to graduate as well as the nature of the requirements.
At the end, the study found only 39.55 percent of four-year colleges and institutions, a record-low number, required any physical education requirements, either physical activity or classroom, in order for students to earn a diploma.
As to why colleges are dropping their requirements, Cardinal talked about restrained budgets and an increased focus on academic education.
“I do think its fallen off of people’s radar screens,” Cardinal said. “There’s also shrinking budgets, as well as No Child Left Behind, and an increased focus on reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Cardinal applauds Oregon State for requiring students to take physical education requirements in order to graduate, lauding their long-term impact.
“It’s three credits out of 180 for a bachelor’s degree,” Cardinal said. “We know that seven to 11 years down the road, students who take that kind of requirement are actually living a healthier lifestyle than those who don’t.”
Several other universities have much more rigorous requirements for graduation. At the top of the pack was MIT, which required students to take eight credit hours of physical education. Columbia University requires students to pass a swim test in order to graduate.
While there are state-of-the-art facilities like Dixon Recreation Center on college campuses around the nation, Cardinal says they tend to be used by the healthiest students.
“The people who use Dixon Recreation Center are the healthiest students,” Cardinal said. “International students, and low-fit, low-skilled level students tend to find recreation centers intimidating.”
Students surveyed had a mixed reaction to the study.
“The university level is where students begin to specialize,” said Mark McGuire, a senior in mechanical engineering. “I think that in this case, less requirements [in physical education] are a good thing.”
McGuire, who has completed his physical education requirements for Oregon State, said that while he enjoyed the class, it didn’t improve his lifestyle.
“Most of the course material I’ve learned elsewhere,” McGuire said.
Matt Albertson, a senior in political science, had a different take on the study.
“I think that PE classes are kind of essential,” Albertson said. “Being active and well-rounded helps your overall well-being, and other parts of your academics.”
Albertson also lamented the trend shown in the study, of colleges dropping requirements.
“I would be saddened if colleges follow this trend of [lack of physical education requirements] to the extreme and stop requiring physical education courses,” Albertson said.
Jennifer King, a senior in chemistry, was quite surprised by the results of the study.
“It doesn’t make sense, considering that obesity, heart disease, and other similar things are at all-time highs,” King said. “They can be partially combatted by physical activity.”
Cardinal conducted the study with Spencer Sorenson of Portland State University and Marita Cardinal of Western Oregon University. Cardinal has been at OSU for 16 years and has conducted several studies on the impact of exercise on well-being. He is currently co-director of the sport and exercise psychology program at Oregon State.
Vinay Ramakrishnan, news reporter