Reconsidering the Drinking Age

In Inside Higher Ed:

[Former Middlebury College president John M.] McCardell is about to try. With backing from the Robertson Foundation, he has created a nonprofit group, Choose Responsibility, that will seek to promote a national discussion of alternatives to the 21-year-old drinking age. The group is preparing a Web site with studies that challenge conventional wisdom about the advantages of the law, while explaining its flaws. The group will also push an idea — floated without success in the 1990s by Roderic Park, then chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder — to allow 18-20-year-olds who complete an alcohol education program to obtain “drinking licenses.” And McCardell and others plan to start speaking out, writing more op-eds, and trying to redefine the issue.

The current law, McCardell said in an interview Thursday, is a failure that forces college freshmen to hide their drinking — while colleges must simultaneously pretend that they have fixed students’ drinking problems and that students aren’t drinking. McCardell also argued that the law, by making it impossible for a 19-year-old to enjoy two beers over pizza in a restaurant, leads those 19-year-olds to consume instead in closed dorm rooms and fraternity basements where 2 beers are more likely to turn into 10, and no responsible person may be around to offer help or to stop someone from drinking too much.

Any college president who thinks his or her campus has drinking under control is “delusional,” McCardell said, although he acknowledged the political pressures that prevent most sitting presidents from providing an honest assessment of what’s going on on their campuses. But he said that the dangers to students and institutions are great enough that it’s time for someone to start speaking out. While he was president at Middlebury, one of his students died, a 21-year-old who was driving after drinking way too much.