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Seeking a Drinking Age Debate

Perspectives from an Amethyst Initiative signatory about moving the dialogue forward
University Business, Oct 2008

AS AN ENTHUSIASTIC signatory to the Amethyst Initiative, a joint statement issued by college and university presidents and chancellors urging public debate on the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, I am pleased to say the discussion is certainly underway.

Reaction to our call for a dispassionate exploration of the relationship between the legal drinking age and the problems associated with underage drinking has been swift, vehement, sometimes reasoned, often emotional, and occasionally misleading or false. When the Associated Press broke the story, voices pro and con erupted in news briefs and editorials, in the blogosphere, and on the airwaves. Despite the fact that our statement takes no position one way or the other on changing the current drinking age, most early reports asserted, “College presidents want to lower the drinking age to 18.” Some suggested that our motive was to get out of work: We just don’t want to go to the trouble of upholding the law; we’re trying to avoid the unpleasant task of policing frat parties.

Our teens have developed an increasingly dangerous culture of clandestine binge drinking.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving—an organization that I have always admired and that has had a powerful and positive impact on our societal understanding of the evils of drunk driving—expressed outrage, even suggesting that parents should think twice before sending a child to a college whose president had signed the statement. It was hardly a reasoned response to our call for debate.

So why did we choose this fight in the first place? College and university presidents are not given to diving into such controversial waters. We know this issue is fraught with pain and frustration. But we also know that 21 simply isn’t working. We live in a society where underage drinking is pervasive (fully 72 percent of those aged 18 to 20 report using alcohol in the last year, according U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics).

Worse, over the last three decades, our teens have developed an increasingly dangerous culture of clandestine binge drinking. Every day, we see the tragic costs of that culture. It is the lucky college president who has not had to telephone parents to report that their child has been the victim of date rape exacerbated by alcohol abuse, or killed in an automobile accident coming back from an alcohol-fueled all-night party.

Binge drinking is drinking to get drunk. Defined by statisticians as consuming five or more drinks in a row (and by students as “getting completely wasted”), binge drinking within the last month is reported by 36 percent of our young adults between 18 and 20, according to government studies. The Harvard School of Public Health puts the number at nearly 50 percent. Those who engage in binge drinking are at risk for a sad litany of problems, the least of which is poor academic performance.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, underage drinking annually contributes to some 1,700 deaths, 599,000 injuries, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault. SAMHSA, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, states that nearly one in five teenagers (16 percent) “has experienced ‘black out’ spells where they could not remember what happened the previous evening.” This is not good clean fun. It is a national shame that demands our attention.

Research tells us that binge drinking has been on the rise since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act went into effect, which was largely championed as an antidote to alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Indeed, there is abundant research indicating that the higher drinking age laws have coincided with a decrease in traffic deaths since the mid-1980s—though declines in alcohol-related deaths actually began in the 1970s, well before 21 became the norm. Some of that decrease is surely due to fewer adolescent drinkers behind the wheel, but the evidence is unclear whether our higher drinking age has, on balance, saved many lives.

The past two decades have seen other major changes, from improved highways and safer cars to mandatory seatbelt usage and, in some jurisdictions, stiffer legal penalties for driving under the influence. These factors and greater awareness of the consequences of drunk driving likely combine to account for declines in overall alcohol-related vehicular deaths across age groups. Furthermore, other industrialized nations with lower drinking ages than the United States saw even greater declines during this period.

The one positive trend I can report among underage drinkers is, I think, a result of the efforts of MADD and similar groups in the 1970s and 1980s: a wider acceptance among young people that it is no longer “cool” to drink and drive. Students often take along a friend who does not drink as a designated driver. I once overheard two college students talking about how they knew they would get drunk at an upcoming party and thus had made plans to spend the night rather than drive home. I didn’t know whether to applaud their maturity or sputter in horror that they found planning to get drunk acceptable—or for that matter, desirable.

College officials work hard to combat the culture of underage drinking, and particularly binge drinking. But we often feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. For one thing, students don’t wait until they get to college to take their first drink. Most of them have had some experience with alcohol in high school—nearly always unsupervised, with no one modeling responsible behavior or teaching moderation. A recent government study indicates that among 17-year-olds, 25 percent had binged within the last month.

Respect for the '21 law' among the young is almost nonexistent, in a nation that regards itself as law-abiding.

Students have no trouble obtaining alcohol. Many ask older friends to buy it for them, but untold numbers think nothing of using a fake ID. Students reason that if they are legally adults, old enough to serve on juries (and render judgment on the death penalty), purchase property, vote, or serve in Iraq, they ought to be able to buy a beer.

At Sweet Briar College (Va.), nearly 30 percent of students study abroad at some point during college. In many places, alcohol consumption is not policed, wine or beer is a normal accompaniment to a meal, and binging, American style, is rare. Here at home, respect for the “21 law” among the young is almost nonexistent, an unsettling fact in a nation that regards itself as law-abiding. Students simply become adept at not getting caught, which means they steer clear of authority figures while drinking.

In other words, given this law that college students ignore, we find ourselves unable to educate them effectively about drinking. At Sweet Briar, more than 70 percent of our students are underage. For those students, the college can only preach abstinence, which we know is unrealistic, or urge responsible behavior when imbibing—which acknowledges they will be breaking the law. Both postures seem hypocritical.

There must be a better way. The organization whose members developed the Amethyst Initiative, Choose Responsibility (, has a number of interesting suggestions about stepped education and licensing approaches that are worth considering. And once we turn our attention to this issue, other ideas will present themselves that might help us dissolve the culture of clandestine binge drinking. The Amethyst Initiative, named for the stone the Greeks believed prevented intoxication, seeks only to provoke a national debate about the efficacy of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act, which comes up for renewal in 2009.

If after a rigorous examination of the existing public policy lawmakers and constituents believe 21 still makes sense, so be it. But we need to put this issue under a microscope. If we discover that the 21 law is contributing to clandestine binge drinking, then we will need to weigh benefits against risks. That’s the kind of thing we do well. Small liberal arts colleges are of many stripes, but all of us take seriously our responsibility to educate the whole student—and that includes inculcating in students the ability to think deeply about ethical issues and to take personal responsibility for every aspect of their lives.

My e-mail inbox has been jammed for three weeks with more than 3,000 outraged form letters, thanks to MADD, and in truth I expected some significant pushback from my own college community. But the message that our current policy is not working has resonated with our students, staff, faculty, and alumnae. I’ve been impressed with the thoughtful support, including one letter from a 91-year-old alumna saying simply, “I am with you.”

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld has been president of Sweet Briar College (Va.) since 1996. Sweet Briar serves about 800 women and is a member of The Council of Independent Colleges.

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