Historical Perspective and Current Status of the Physical Education Graduation Requirement at American 4-Year Colleges and Universities

By Cardinal, Bradley J.; Sorensen, Spencer D. et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Historical Perspective and Current Status of the Physical Education Graduation Requirement at American 4-Year Colleges and Universities


Cardinal, Bradley J., Sorensen, Spencer D., Cardinal, Marita K., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


This study gives an overview of the history of required physical education in America's 4-year colleges and universities and provides an update on the requirement status. After randomly identifying 354 institutions, we searched their respective websites to determine whether physical education was a requirement to earn a baccalaureate degree. The major finding was that the physical education requirement declined from an all-time high of 97% in the 1920s and 1930s to an all-time low of 39.55% in 2010. Given society's ongoing health challenges and the important role of physical activity in maintaining health, this seems counterintuitive. It is also inconsistent with the National Physical Activity Plan (2010).

Key words, fitness, general education, liberal education, wellness

According to Welch,

Prior to 1860, there were no planned physical education programs in American colleges and universities. As a result of the outstanding work of Hitchcock at Amherst College, the way was opened for physical education to become an integral part of the college curriculum throughout the United States (Welch, 1975, pp. 124-125). (1)

Required Physical Education's Early Beginnings

The first 4-year college or university to require physical education (2) of its students was Amherst College in Massachusetts (Mlen, 1869; Johnson, 1907). The program began in earnest in 1861 under the direction of Edward Hitchcock, Jr., M.D. (Friedrich-Cofer, 1985; Leigh, 1982; Welch, 1967, 1975). (3) Its purpose was to provide activities that would help Amherst students maintain their health and relieve the strain associated with their "academic courses" (Van Dalen, Mitchell, & Bennett, 1953, p. 368). Hitchcock,Jr., affectionately known as "Doc" or "Old Doc," whose father had served as the third president of Amherst from 1845 to 1854 (Hitchcock, 1863), was an alumnus of the college (B.A. 1849 and MA. 1852), and he had gone on to earn an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1853. He served Amherst as a professor of hygiene and physical education until his death in 1911.

Although Hitchcock Jr.'s appointment corresponded with the start of the American Civil War, the Department of Physical Education and Hygiene's purpose was not military drill or the development of sportsmen. Rather, it was the beneficence of every Amherst student for whom the William Augustus Stearns, D.D., Amherst's fourth president, and Nathan Allen, M.D., a Trustee of the College from 1857 to 1889, were especially concerned f. At his presidential inauguration Stearns (1855) said, "Of one thing I am certain, the highest intellectual efficiency can never be reached, the noblest characters will never be formed, fill a greater soundness of physical constitution is attained" (p. 87). In his first report to the college trustees Steams noted, "No one thing has demanded more of my anxious attention than the health of the students" (cited in Allen, 1869, p. 3).

Stearn's conviction and vision resulted in the Amherst Plan--a required program of physical education, 4 days/ week for 30 min/day, over the course of the undergraduate degree program (i.e., freshman through senior year; Hitchcock, 1878). Classes began with uniform exercises involving light gymnastics, a hand-held apparatus, and musical accompaniment, all of which Doc Hitchcock felt would be beneficial to students and best hold their interests. This portion of class occurred during the first 15-20 min. The balance was devoted to individually selected activities, from which students might choose to use heavy apparatus and gymnastic equipment. Students heard lectures on various health topics and human anatomy and physiology, and they were systematically measured and monitored to document the program's efficacy and spawn the anthropometrics scientific movement (Hughes, 1933; Lee & Bennett, 1985; Swanson & Spears, 1995).

This was the beginning of mandatory physical education in America's colleges and universities. …

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