College presidents must finally be getting tired of their own doublespeak. That’s probably why a group of over 100 of them have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative to “reopen public debate over the drinking age.” The college presidents claim that the legal drinking age of 21 encourages a “culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking.” Maybe, but there’s a lot more to it.
College presidents are deceiving themselves if they think the reason drinking problems exist on their campuses is because the legal age is too high. The drinking age in Britain is 18, yet Britain has a huge young-adult drinking problem. Over 75 percent of British 18-to-21-year-olds reported binge-drinking.
One British newspaper claimed that the drinking problem is due to the fact that “children are brought up to find it socially acceptable, with parents frequently drinking in the presence of children.” We hear the opposite argument in the U.S.: parents who make alcohol taboo just encourage underage drinking problems. Some people argue that if parents introduced alcohol to kids at a younger age and taught them that drinking is socially accept- No One-Shot Solution to Binge Drinking It will take more than just lowering the drinking age to stop irresponsible drinking on college campuses. able, then kids would cease to drink irresponsibly.
But although many parents teach their children not to drink and drive, we still have cases in which an inebriated kid gets behind the wheel. Even eight-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Michael Phelps was charged with drunken driving a couple years ago. Mothers Against Drunk Driving argues that young people are more prone to act irresponsibly. Maybe. Motorists age 20 and younger account for 12 percent of all fatal traffic crashes involving alcohol. Males, of all ages, account for 73 percent. Gender is a better predictor of reckless, drunken driving than age. Should we outlaw alcohol for men, too?
Likewise, some college students, regardless of their age, will binge drink. It doesn’t matter if they’re 18 or 22. Studies show that full-time students ages 18-22 are more likely to drink and binge drink than their non-college counterparts.
The drinking age isn’t the problem; it’s college. Drinking helps students unwind and cut loose, and there’s often not much else to do on campus. And since most students do not work weekends, they can stay out late, partying. They can even arrange their class schedules so they can party on weekday nights, too. For better or worse, alcohol is the hub of many students’ social lives.
As with all substances, including those not-so-forbidden, like caffeine or sleep-aids, some college students are prone to abuse. But substances that some people may abuse shouldn’t be forbidden to all. The best argument for lowering the drinking age is that it is unfair to criminalize responsible 18-year-olds who by law can marry, adopt children, purchase firearms and serve as legal guardians. If we can trust 18-year-olds with a gun or a baby, shouldn’t we also be able to trust them with a beer?
Of course, lowering the drinking age would also make it easier on college administrators since they wouldn’t have to act as our adversaries by infantilizing us. That would be a load off President Hennessy and the Office of Student Activities’ respective backs.
The best solution would be to make the legal drinking age a state issue, as it was before President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age law, which cut federal highway funds by 10 percent to states that lowered their drinking ages below 21. Giving states the power to decide makes sense since some states have bigger problems than others with underage drinking and driving.
Still, if Stanford and other colleges are really serious about the binge-drinking problem, they need to look at their own campus culture, not to Congress.