As college students gear up for annual back-to-school parties, a group of university and college presidents in California and across the country this week pushed for a national debate over whether the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18.
The current limit ignores the reality of drinking during college years and drives it underground, making binge drinking more dangerous and students less likely to seek help in an emergency, according to a petition signed by more than 100 campus presidents. Though they don't call for an outright age rollback, the campus chiefs said they support "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."
Their statement provoked some controversy, as critics contend that a lower drinking age will cause an increase in drunk driving deaths.
In California, the heads of Occidental, Pomona and Whittier colleges signed the petition, along with leaders of Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Mount Holyoke, Tufts and many small liberal arts colleges elsewhere in the country.
Pomona President David W. Oxtoby said colleges now were in the difficult position of having to enforce the underage ban but also to encourage moderation and offer advice to students who might want to help a drunken friend. Schools, he added, can't sponsor events at which students might emulate responsible and controlled drinking, such as campus faculty receptions, where wine is served.
The result, he said, is that too many students wind up drinking by themselves in their rooms, "and that is the most common place they get seriously ill."
Whittier College President Sharon Herzberger and Occidental's Robert Skotheim said they signed the petition to encourage discussion, but said they had not decided whether the drinking age should be 18.
"It's time we look at the issue afresh and see whether there are better solutions than we currently have in place because, after all, we haven't solved the problem," Herzberger said.
Many colleges, including Whittier, Occidental and USC, require all incoming students to take an online course on the dangers of drinking.
The petition is part of a Vermont-based movement called the Amethyst Initiative, named after the gemstone that ancient Greeks believed warded off drunkenness. It is sponsored by the Choose Responsibility organization founded by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College, and is funded with private donations, none of which come from the alcoholic beverage industry, its officials said.
McCardell's organization stresses the paradox that 18-year-olds can vote, serve on juries and join the military but cannot legally drink beer. It proposes a drinking license, similar to driver's licenses, for 18- to 20-year-olds who complete an alcohol education program.
The effort, however, was denounced by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is urging parents to protest to the college presidents. Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that he was "profoundly disappointed" in the initiative and contended that the signers were ignoring research showing a significant drop in drunk-driving deaths for teens since the age limit was raised to 21. McCardell said some of that reduction may be attributed to safer cars, better enforcement and wider use of "designated drivers."
Although states are free to set their own drinking ages, 21 became the national standard since a 1984 federal law reduced highway funds for states with a lower age.
UCLA and USC officials were approached to sign the petition, but they held off. A spokeswoman said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block wanted more time to confer with other university leaders and examine research about the age limit. USC President Steven B. Sample received the petition last week but hadn't yet taken action, a spokesman said.
Surveys show that almost half of first-year USC students drank before college, but by Thanksgiving, the percentage rose to 80%, Swinford said. "There are many, many first-time drinkers in the first few months of college," Swinford said. "What we have done is be very honest about this as an institution. And trained staff to deal with it." However, she said she doesn't know if a lower drinking age would reduce drinking.
Pomona College sophomore Ted Zwang, 18, said he was pleased with the petition. He said most college students, including himself, drink before 21 but rarely become seriously drunk. He said he learned to drink responsibly since his parents allowed him an occasional glass of wine at home and during travels to countries where drinking is legal.
If the age limit is lowered, more parents might show their 18-year-olds how to drink safely before they go to college, said Zwang, who is from New Jersey. "Now students start to experiment when they are no longer under their parents' supervision," he said. "And that encourages them to drink in ways that are less safe for them."
At USC, pharmacy student Estella Wu, 26, said she had seen teenage girls passed out on streets in San Diego and San Francisco, but she was not sure about the effects of a lower drinking age. "It might make the drinking more visible, but I don't know if it would make it easier to monitor and control," she said.
At Occidental, residence hall officials do not search rooms for alcohol, but students discovered drunk or hosting a drinking party are required to attend a meeting with administrators and may have a reprimand placed in their file, according to Barbara Avery, campus vice president for student affairs. Counseling may be recommended, and parents may be alerted about repeated violations, but students typically do not face suspension or expulsion unless their drinking led to physical injuries or property damage, she said.