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Will lowering the drinking age improve student performance?

By 8.22.08

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If you were told that 115 University leaders, many of them presidents of prestigious colleges, had signed on to a petition that calls for consideration of lowering the legal drinking age in the United States to 18 you would ask the informant what he had been smoking. That is for later -- but not much later.

Yes, these higher educators are signatories to the Amethyst Initiative, which on the surface wants a "discussion" of lowering the age. The Initiative is said to be the brainchild of former Middlebury College prexy John McCardell. He has allies in the chiefs of Duke, Dickinson, Maryland, and dozens more. The presidential thinking seems to be, "If we legalize it, then those little cherubs won't be as likely to abuse it."

"It's a very serious problem on college campuses, and it just seems to get worse and worse," says William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

Safety experts are shocked. The legal drinking age of 21 saves about 900 lives a year, they claim.

As for the prexy prediliction, Laura Dean-Mooney of Mothers Against Drunk Driving says people look to college presidents for their "leadership role on their campuses. It just seems like they didn't do enough homework to look at the science on this."

Trouble is, they don't have to study science to see the problem. All they have to do is attend a fraternity party some night or walk into a dorm.

The "leadership role" has been abandoned long ago. University Presidents are there to raise money, curry favor with successful alumni, and look the other way. The fact that drinking 18-year-olds are violating the law is simply another example of university negligence in upholding a well-understood law.

If an 18-year drinking age were established, how long would it be for marijuana to make it onto the menu? Like booze, it is in widespread use on campuses. Why not make it legal and allow the Ole U of Grass prexy to sleep better at night? Habit has a way of institutionalizing itself. How many if not all of the U signatories now have coed dormitories? Doesn't booze and grass make for natural accompaniments to whatever comes natural in those environments? Then the school adult leadership could concentrate entirely on fund-raising, firing the athletic director, and cosseting the legislature.

The Amethyst advocates are not without backers. The Washington Post's columnist Marc Fisher claims that lowering the age would lead to moderation in drinking among the teenagers. His apparent theory: if it ain't illegal, it ain't fun. As for saving lives, Fisher claims: "Anti-drunken driving activists hide behind the faux-clarity of highway death statistics."

If there is a certain thrill for an 18-year-old to drink three years before the legal age, what happens if the Amethysts have their way? It doesn't take string theory to deduce that 18 minus 3 is 15.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.