A Response to “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking”

In response to the one-sided article entitled “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking” in the December 2 issue of the Chronicle of Education’s online edition, John M. McCardell and Barrett Seaman, CR’s former and current presidents, have submitted a response:

We could begin this article with exactly the first three paragraphs used in
Tuesday’s edition of the daily Chronicle by Beth McMurtrie (Why Colleges Haven’t
Stopped Binge Drinking) in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s online edition, Dec. 2,
2014 and yet arrive at a starkly different conclusion.

It is indisputable that “[D]espite decades of research, hundreds of campus task
forces, and millions invested in bold experiments, college drinking remains as much of a
problem as ever…,” that “[T]he binge-drinking rate among college students has hovered
above 40 percent for two decades, and signs are that partying is getting even harder.
More students now drink to get drunk, choose hard liquor over beer, and front-load, or
drink in advance of social events. For many the goal is to black out.”

To then suggest, however, that the reason for the failure of the current approach to
binge drinking is that college administrators are wasting their time trying to educate
students about the dangers of alcohol and that they should instead simply enforce the
national minimum 21-year-old drinking age is to ignore a fundamental flaw: twenty-one
doesn’t work.

Ask Deans of Students, as one of us did in researching a book about college life
(Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess, John Wiley & Sons, 2005),
and the vast majority will say the legal drinking age is a hindrance in their efforts to curb
dangerous drinking on their campuses. More than 130 college and university presidents
signed The Amethyst Initiative in 2008, saying that 21 doesn’t work and that the country
needs to re-open the debate about how best to deal with the drinking problem.

Some institutions, including Indiana University at Bloomington and the
University of Oklahoma, have in the past tried to crack down by enforcing the age limit
only to find that their hard line simply drove the drinking further underground, into dorm
rooms and off-campus apartments—away from low-alcohol beer to shots of hard liquor,
because it’s easier to hide and produces more “bang for the buck.” The nation as a whole
tried this approach in the 1920s; Prohibition too ended up fostering a culture of defiance
and dissolute behavior (not to mention the Mafia).

Passage of Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21 (MLDA21) in 1984 was the
federal government’s sole response to a campaign against drunk driving launched by
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). It pinned the blame for a nationwide problem
affecting all age groups on one cohort, those between 18 (the legal age of majority in
virtually all other aspects of American citizenship) and 21, which just happened to cover
roughly three-quarters of the student population of colleges and universities. Alcohol-
related highway fatalities (which had started to drop two years before passage of the law)
did indeed fall…until the early nineties, when the leveled out at about 13% below what
they had been in 1984.

Interestingly, in neighboring Canada during roughly the same period, there was
also a significant decrease in alcohol-related highway fatalities; only the Canadians made
no changes in their drinking age, which has been 19 in most provinces, 18 in Quebec.
Ask American students who have studied abroad in countries where the drinking age is
18 and sometimes lower, and chances are they will tell you the drinking behaviors of
their peers in these countries were far more civilized than back home. It is noteworthy
that the U.S. is one of only five nations on the planet with a drinking age as high as 21.
So what would work? We believe that the first step is to repeal the enforcement
provision of the 1984 law that forces states that don’t maintain MLDA21 to forfeit 10%
of their federal highway funds. Let the states decide for themselves. Many, if not most,
would revert to 18, which is consistent with the majority status for voting, joining the
military, serving on juries and enjoying the protection of one’s privacy (among many
other privileges and responsibilities of citizenship).

Second, we believe that education does work; indeed, to earn the privilege of
buying and consuming alcohol, 18-year-olds should be required to take a course, not
unlike driver’s ed, that instills a respect for the limits of consumption and for the law.
Education programs would help in this respect all the way back to the eighth grade level,
when, research tells us, youths are often first introduced to alcohol.

Current law assumes, nobly yet naively, that a young person will abstain from
alcohol until the 21st birthday, and on that day rise prepared to make responsible decisions
about alcohol. Perhaps we ought to take the same approach when it comes to operating an
automobile: simply hand over the keys when a young person reaches legal driving age,
relying on law enforcement to arrest inexperienced, errant drivers.
State licensing would have an ancillary benefit: it would provide a means for
bartenders and liquor store proprietors to prevent out-of-state 18-21-year-olds from
crossing over the border to buy alcohol. These so-called “blood borders” between states
with different age limits were a big reason why young people were dying on the roads
prior to 1984.

Thirdly, we believe that enforcement does have a place: Drivers should be held
accountable to blood alcohol content (BAC) limits; indeed a limit of 0.06% BAC is an
appropriate standard. Moreover, conviction for DUI should be meaningful—requiring
license suspension or revocation, even jail time for egregious offenses. Studies suggest
that these policies are far more likely to reduce drunk driving than MLDA21.
Finally, no one favors drunken driving. The surest way to take drunks off the road
is to mandate ignition interlocks, certainly for first-time offenders of any age, possibly for
all drivers under the age of 21.

As for the argument that reducing the drinking age to 18 would only invite
younger teenagers to drink, consider the incentive a permit would create: if you observe
the alcohol laws of the issuing state until age 18, you earn the privilege; if you don’t, you
wait until 21. here again, enforcement has a role: with a clear, bright line separating those
who are of majority age, with all its responsibilities and privileges, from those who are by
every measure still children. Enforcement at these younger ages falls to school officials
and, most importantly, parents.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities would be able to deal openly with alcohol.
Student parties with alcohol could become public again; the need to “pre-game” with
shots before social events would disappear. Professors could legally have a beer with
students after class and, hopefully, demonstrate that responsible adults don’t drink to get
drunk. Those who abuse alcohol, and there always will be some, will be more readily
identifiable and guided to treatment.

All this won’t happen overnight. We have allowed several generations of young
people to learn bad habits that have become ingrained in campus life. But until we
recognize that MLDA is part of the problem—and not the solution—we will continue to
read about the “college binge drinking crisis” and its apparent intractability.
–by Dr. John M. McCardell and Barrett Seaman

John M. McCardell is vice chancellor of Sewanee, the University of the South, former
president of Middlebury College and the founding president of Choose Responsibility, a
non-profit devoted to re-opening the national debate about drinking age laws. Barrett
Seaman is a former TIME Magazine journalist, author of Binge: Campus Life in an
Age of Disconnection and Excess, and current president of Choose Responsibility

3 Responses to “A Response to “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking””

  1. Edwin Bonilla Says:

    Brilliant article. Those are exactly the reasons why our movement is correct. A drinking age should never be 21, for any reason. I have also believed for years that education when it comes to drinking will work. People who don’t believe that alcohol education and a drinking age of 18 doesn’t work are age discriminatory. There’s a tremendous amount of age discrimination against young people in this country. This popular form of discrimination is holding many people back from realizing that a drinking age of 18 and alcohol education will work.

  2. James Mischler Says:

    Some interesting ideas, but you can argue that 18 is too high, too. Why not 16 or 14? We all know that any age limit is essentially arbitrary. If so, then 21 isn’t incorrect, it’s simply different from 18 (or 16). I don’t find your argument on this point compelling because your assumption is that the law itself is the problem, when the Chronicle article states that enforcement of current law does lead to lower binge drinking rates. How do you respond to that? Taking a course to earn a license to drink is a very interesting proposal, but as the Chronicle article points out, how much good will that do in a culture where even a kid’s parents will encourage drinking? How do you propose to get parents involved in helping their kids to drink responsibly? Overall, I’m all for opening up the conversation nationally about what to do about the alcohol epidemic in college, and your approach is interesting, but I don’t see any data that support your ideas. Also, any solution has both strengths and weaknesses, but the Response does not discuss this aspect of your approach. When you provide some tangible support for the feasibility of your ideas and also discuss frankly their weaknesses (and what to do about them), that will help your argument.

  3. Edwin Bonilla Says:

    There has never been a drinking age of 18 which requires alcohol education in the United States so there are no statistics for that. A drinking age of 18 and alcohol education would lower binge drinking by university students because binge drinking would more avoided.