The Debate Over the Drinking Age Continues On and Off College Campuses

By Alice Dubenetsky and Caitie Banfield

NORTHFIELD – The recent and tragic DUI accident in Northfield in which Norwich University freshman Renee Robbins was killed and seven others were injured, three critically, highlights once again the problem of binge drinking on – and off – college campuses. The accident occurred when the students, seven of whom were freshmen from the same dormitory, were returning to campus after a drinking party at a private home. Both the driver and the host of the party face criminal charges.

The Centers for Disease Control’s website defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks, and when women consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.” It has been long been a problem on college campuses, where a portion of the student population is of legal drinking age (21) and the rest of the students are below the legal age limit.

The legal U.S. drinking age has changed several times. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, states set their own legal age, which in most cases was 21 because that was the age of majority at the time. Over the years many states lowered their purchase ages, and with the passing of the 26th Amendment that reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, nearly all states lowered their drinking age to 18 in response. In 1984, under pressure from from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and others, the law was raised to a uniform age of 21, and under the Federal Highway Act, states were penalized with a 10% reduction in highway funds for non-compliance.

The Debate: 18 or 21?

Still, the question of whether 21 is an appropriate drinking age re-emerges from time to time: Does the higher legal drinking age really curb under-age and binge drinking? Has it really lowered alcohol related traffic fatalities? The answer from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) is a resounding “yes!” MADD cites surveys from the Centers for Disease Control concluding that raising the drinking age has reduced drunk-driving deaths. They also cite research that shows that young people react differently than adults to alcohol, get drunk faster and have more trouble knowing when to stop.

John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College, sees the issue of college drinking from a different perspective. McCardell was one of 100 college presidents who signed onto the Amethyst Initiative in 2008, calling on politicians to revisit the debate about the legal drinking age in order to deal with the issues of binge/underage drinking on college campuses. They assert that the “problems of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses.” The Initiative seeks to have an informed debate and to seek new ideas regarding how to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

In a recent interview, McCardell talked about why he and other college presidents take issue with the current drinking age. “Many of us believe the age should be lowered and believe that 21 as an absolute law is not effective,” said McCardell. “It requires college presidents to either enforce (the law) or not apply the law. That’s not a good message.” McCardell said that the law puts college administrators in an impossible position. “We either take preventative measures and uproot and transplant proscribed behavior, or acknowledge the behavior.”

McCardell is realistic about adolescent behavior, and believes that banishing drinking from the public view can have negative consequences, posing the question ‘if students are in a public place where their behavior was observed by others, would this effect the outcomes?’

In 2009, when the Federal Highway Bill was due to come before Congress, the Vermont legislature passed a resolution to urge the state’s Congressional delegation to take a state’s rights position and try to un-peg the drinking age from highway funding. Senators Sanders and Leahy and Congressman Welch supported the resolution, said McCardell and he gave Senator Peter Shumlin credit for “getting the bill through”. He added wryly that today, in 2011, that same bill has yet to come before Congress because the government has been funded by continuing resolution ever since. But, he said, if it ever finally comes up, he believes some people will still be ready to revisit the effort by challenging the constitutionality of a federally mandated drinking age.

In the event the drinking age debate is ever brought to the national stage, McCardell can also count on strong and determined opposition from MADD, as well as a number of other civic and professional groups who would oppose any such measure.

Norwich University Attempts to Educate and Assist Students Gail Mears, Director of Norwich University’s Office of Substance Abuse Education and Prevention office says that the people who are most likely to binge drink are college students in the first six weeks away from home – as was the case with the students involved in the October 2nd accident.

Norwich University has a program called “Safe Rides” that provides students who have been drinking with a safe ride back to campus or their home. Mears noted that students don’t have to be intoxicated to take advantage of the ride program. She said people have called asking for a ride from local bars and restaurants because they didn’t want to get in a car with someone who had been drinking. Mears hopes that students will help each other to control binge drinking and prevent further tragedies. “A concerned group of students needs to stand up and change this ‘social norm'” she said.

Norwich University is also a co-sponsor of a website entitled Live More Drink Less. The site encourages students to be aware of their drinking habits, to know the signs of abuse and misuse and includes links to Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon/Alateen.  Mears wasn’t sure that lowering the drinking age to 18 would have a positive effect, but would be interested to know if there were studies that concluded that it would help with binge drinking and the underage drinking problem. “I don’t know if it would affect the drinking culture”, she said, adding that students have access to a lot more technology, access and information today in comparison to when she was young and the legal age was 18.

Mears conceded that she understands the frustration 18-20 year olds have about not being able to drink legally, because they can vote for president, join the military and be held responsible for loans.

Mears also expressed frustration that certain aspects of the Northfield community and Vermont as a whole don’t help the problem of underage/binge drinking. By turning a blind eye on fake id’s, or by not asking obviously intoxicated students to leave their establishments they abet the behaviors.

What Do The Students Think?

Norwich University Student and TNR reporter Caitie Banfield surveyed some of her fellow students, who had mixed opinions about a change in the drinking age.

Sophomore Mike Estiverne believes that if the age were lowered to 18 “a lot of kids would take it for granted, and there would be more DUI’s”.

Senior Mollie Fitzpatrick agreed, saying “I don’t think it would get people “used” to drinking, or to be more responsible. They’d just have more time to get acquainted with alcohol.”

However, Junior Stephanie Invernizzi took a different approach, opining that if the drinking age were lowered to 18 “it would decrease the amount of binge drinkers because it is a lower age limit, and they would be able to become more mature about drinking at a younger age.

For now, the debate will simmer on, certainly until the next highway bill is finally brought up for a vote in Congress, when it will possibly be re-visited by the Amethyst Initiative, MADD, politicians and concerned citizens, in what would most likely be a robust debate.