In response to Dartmouth’s recent ban on hard liquor, we have argued colleges should afford students more independence instead of implementing ineffective restrictions. But beyond crafting better policies, for the sake of their students and their own liability, colleges should take stances on legislative policies that affect their students. One way to do so would be to take an active role in campaigning for lowering the drinking age to 18.
On college campuses, underage drinking is ubiquitous — but students may be loath to seek help in dangerous situations given possible legal consequences, affecting their safety. By keeping drinking out in the open in areas like college dorms, such activity could be better regulated by resident advisors and therefore could be much safer. If 18-year-old students can purchase their own alcohol, they will also have less reason to seek out alcohol from fellow students or strangers, and therefore will likely be less at risk of the dangers of the consumption of ambiguous amounts of alcohol — or even alcohol laced with other dangerous substances.
According to Dwight B. Heath, an anthropology professor at Brown University, the younger children are when they start drinking, the safer they go about it. This is largely because the psychological effects of prohibiting drinking makes doing so all the more enticing.
Colleges in particular have reason to get behind lowering the drinking age, since it could reduce their liability for any accidents on their campuses and make their students safer. In 2004, John M. McCardell Jr., then-president of Middlebury College, wrote in The New York Times why the 21-year-old drinking age doesn’t work — in large part due to the secretive nature of drinking on college campuses, as well as normalized binge drinking. By bringing alcohol into an open social sphere, students may be more inclined to drink limited quantities, since they won’t confine their drinking to rushed, secretive pre-games intended to keep them inebriated for an entire night, but may instead space out their drinking.
The source of the minimum drinking age comes from The National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, which coerced states into raising their legal age for purchase and possession of alcohol to 21 by refusing states federal highway funding if they did not comply. Notably, similar coercion has since been found unconstitutional in cases like the one brought regarding the Affordable Care Act in 2012. This push for raising the drinking age came from the Reagan White House in response to drunk driving accidents.
While drunk driving is a major cause for concern, and incidents of drunk driving have decreased since the Act of 1984 was passed, this decrease could also be due to increased awareness about the dangers of drunk driving. Additionally, such unlawful activity is not limited to those under 21, which means this law unfairly targets one age range. If drunk driving were the major concern, as McCardell writes, “we’d raise the driving age to 21.” To relegate the problem of drunk driving to those under 21 ignores the 112 million annual incidents of drunk driving as of 2010. Clearly, this law has not responded to this problem. Instead, zero-tolerance policies on drunk driving, among other solutions, could be more effective.
If restricting the legal drinking age to 21 doesn’t successfully address the problem of drunk driving, the value of such a law seems minimal. The law effectively punishes under-21-year-olds who don’t drive drunk or even drive at all, and there is no reason to believe those who would drive drunk at 18 wouldn’t do so at 21. Especially since 18-year-olds are given all the markers of adulthood — the right to vote and legal adulthood in court, among others — refusing them the authority to drink is at the very least inconsistent. Thus, this law is ineffective at best. But its negative consequences make it an obvious area of concern for colleges and universities, on whose campuses this issue can even be a safety and legal concern.
For colleges, where the safety and well-being of students should be the primary objective, a lowered drinking age could have significant benefits. But the likelihood of such a change occurring in the near-future seems low — which is why colleges in particular should take an active role in promoting this change, potentially the only way to make a repeal of the 1984 law politically feasible. If this change can only be prompted with institutional backing, then all logic suggests colleges and universities should lobby for it.