Keep the Drinking Age Where It Is

University presidents are facing many important issues today, such as keeping their schools accessible amidst rising costs, or increasing the amount of accountability and transparency. Some must walk a tightrope of governance between an increasingly radical faculty and alumni or media critics. Others are asked to solve their regions’ economic and social woes.

They are also dealing with a student population that has greater needs than in generations past. Increased campus safety is imperative in this post-Virginia Tech Massacre world. There is rising demand for campus mental health services, and graduation rates are dropping.

Yet one recent issue seems to have inspired college administrators into united action—the Amethyst Initiative, a petition drive calling for a debate about the legal age for drinking. (The intent is to lower the age from twenty-one to eighteen.) Earth to college presidents: making alcohol more accessible to the least mature and least stable members of campus is probably not going to improve campus safety, reduce the demand for mental health services, or improve graduation rates.

What reasoning is likely behind the Amethyst Initiative, already signed by well over a hundred college presidents?

Many of the signatories have said the age limit should be changed because the current age is just not working. The fact that something is not working is painfully obvious: binge drinking, though no longer on the rise, remains a serious problem on campus. Every year brings a few headlines about students who drink themselves to death, or about booze-fueled college-town riots. Animal House has become a permanent fixture on the American campus, only the real-life version is no laughing matter.

The proposed age change would certainly serve the self-interests of college administrators. Underage students drinking on campus can put a college administration in a difficult position. The college is responsible for enforcing drinking laws on campus: administrators can either do so vigorously, potentially alienating the student body and making the school less popular among applicants, or they can turn a blind eye to the law and put the university at risk for mischief (including lawsuits).

If the drinking age is lowered to include almost all students, this relieves much of the potential for liability by the college while permitting the party atmosphere favored by many students to continue.

But the college presidents do not cite self-interest as a reason. They instead speak of how lowering the age limit will benefit students. They say students will drink anyway, and making it illegal turns it into a clandestine activity that encourages abuse. They claim that enabling all students to drink legally will bring it out into the open where it can be controlled, and that young people are more likely to learn how to drink responsibly if legal.

There is no reason to believe that students will drink more responsibly if the drinking age is lowered. This is merely an oft-cited phrase with no evidence behind it. Some say young people will drink more responsibly in public locations, but enabling students to drink in bars will not mean they stop drinking almost everywhere else. Students who are of legal age often start drinking at their residences before they go out to bars, and continue the party at home after the bars shut down.

The plain facts are, students (and non-students of college age) will drink according to their current judgment, and far more people lack good judgment at age eighteen than they do at age twenty-one—a lot of maturing can occur in those three years, particularly among college students who have been living away from home. And lowering the age limit will push the problem down to an even younger group with even less judgment—the presence of 18- or 19-year-olds in high schools legally able to buy alcohol greatly increases the ability of younger teens to get access it.

A recent study by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis researcher Richard A. Grucza revealed that the age one begins to drink has bearing on drinking behavior in later years: “about one in three individuals who start drinking at age 17 or younger become alcohol dependent. For those who wait until age 21 or older, that number is one in 10.”

The ages 18 to 21 are among the most turbulent. These years are more violent (with the highest arrest rates), more licentious (with high rates of venereal disease), and increasingly traumatic (suicide is the third highest cause of death and rapidly escalating). Drinking is closely correlated with all of those behaviors.

By age 25, people’s behavior begins to moderate, according to statistics. This would suggest that as one approaches age 25, the more likely he or she is to think like an adult and to not let alcohol cloud his or her judgment.

The effects of lowering the drinking age are not unknown. Many states lowered their age limits in the 1970s, and discovered the obvious: the law changes increased drinking for people in the ages affected. According to a 2004 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, alcohol consumption by people under 21 peaked in the late 1970s, after a decade of states lowering the legal age. A prior NIH study found that people aged 16-21 in states that kept the drinking age at 21 in this period drank less than in other states.

Lowering the age simply means more drinking by younger people, and more of the above problems (and others, such as drunk-driving accidents, not previously mentioned).

It is also likely to have an adverse affect on the already declining graduation rates. According to Southern Illinois University’s Core Institute, which tracks alcohol and drug prevention programs, 30 percent of college students nationwide say they missed a class due to drinking in the last year.

Another argument frequently cited by proponents of a lower drinking age is the fact that serviceman can die for their country at eighteen, yet cannot legally buy a drink. Steven Chapman makes a strong practical case against this rationale–qualities like fearlessness that are common to eighteen-year-olds might make them good soldiers, but are not likely to make them more responsible drinkers. It must also be remembered that today’s servicemen are volunteers—they choose to put themselves in harm’s way to defend the country.

Furthermore, different facets of adulthood, such as driving, working outside the home, or voting, have always been conferred at different ages, according to the level of maturity required. Many states even have different ages for legal marriage for men and women, since the sexes do not mature at the same rate.

There is indeed a problem with drinking on campus today. But it is almost certainly not the result of the higher age limit, but is instead due to a lack of leadership by campus authorities. An effective long-run solution would require setting standards and sticking by them, even if that created a temporary loss of popularity for the school and the administrator. But lowering the legal age permits administrators to effectively wash their hands of the problem—at least until something bad happens as a result of student drinking getting out of hand. Unfortunately, many more college presidents are likely to sign the Amethyst Initiative instead of actually working to change the Animal House culture on campus.

To read Jenna Ashley Robinson opposing article in favor of the Amethyst Initiative: Lower the Drinking Age