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College presidents reopen debate over legal drinking age

Bonne Marie Bautista

Nearly 130 presidents and chancellors from American colleges and universities have signed a statement that addresses the debate over the current drinking age.

The group believes the debate should be reopened because the 21-year-old age limit on consuming alcohol isn’t working.

Underage drinking is a problem on nearly every college campus in the United States, but the debate on the 21 law’s role in the issue is hotly contested.

The essential question is whether the current drinking age is working to curb alcohol-related deaths and accidents and should therefore stay the same, or if a lower age limit would better serve our nation’s youth, in part by helping them learn how to drink responsibly before they enter college.

Among those who have signed are the presidents of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Spelman and Sweet Briar Colleges, all of which are women’s institutions. Colleges that Mills College athletes compete with, including Dominican University of California and Lewis and Clark, have also signed.

President of Mills, Janet Holmgren, has not signed the statement. Her office could not be reached in time for the publication of this article.

John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College, is spearheading the effort, the official title of which is the Amethyst Initiative. It was launched in July 2008, according to the website, but the Associated Press reported on August 18 that the Initiative began recruiting college presidents over a year ago.

In 2007 McCardell founded Choose Responsibility, a non-profit also dedicated to the issue of underage drinking.

The Amethyst Initiative statement reads, in part, “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’-often conducted off-campus-has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

It goes on to read, “Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.” It stops short of calling for a reduction in the legal drinking age.

Christie Chung, assistant professor in the Psychology Department, said while the issue is complicated, she agrees more with those who want to lower the age limit on consuming alcohol.

Aiden Thomas, a junior and the head Resident Assistant for Ethel Moore this year, thinks the drinking age should actually be raised, for physiological reasons. “It’s unsafe to do until your brain is fully developed,” she said, which doesn’t happen until the age of 26.

While Chung said studies have shown that moderate amounts of alcohol are actually beneficial for the brain, both Thomas and Chung agree that young adults are likely to want to experiment with alcohol before they turn 21.

“The reason why they want to try out drinking is because it’s something new, it’s something different, and it’s something that’s exciting,” Chung said, citing her own experience as a college student in Canada, where the drinking age is 19. “But once they reach that age limit, it’s not so special anymore.”

Thomas said in her experience as an RA last year for the freshwomen-only dorm Warren Olney Hall, it’s the first-year, underage students just entering college that get into the most trouble, binge drinking and having parties where students consume drink beyond their limits. She echoed the sentiment that “The younger people think drinking is more exciting.”

Once students are older, drinking “isn’t this forbidden thing anymore,” she said. “[And] they know how to handle themselves.”

In a statement to The Campanil, Dean of Student Life and Vice Provost Joi Lewis said that the drinking age issue “is less of [a] high priority issue at Mills in part because we are a women’s college and in part because we have a much broader range of age in our students.”

She went on to say that “there are larger contextual issues at play that have to be considered at institutions with more historically traditional demographics.”

The College’s Alcohol Policy complies with the federal age limit for consuming alcohol. It allows on-campus drinking by students 21 and over yet requires said students to “refrain from abusive practices in consumption of [alcohol].”

Data cited by the Los Angeles Times show that alcohol-related traffic accidents have declined since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 passed Congress. Plus, later onset of drinking has shown to lead to less risk later in life of alcohol dependence, and rates of drinking among high school students have dropped.

Chung agreed that such data is valid. However, she points out that it isn’t known whether the 21 law is responsible for the decrease in alcohol-related traffic accidents, for example. “It may be the educational system that’s encouraging, and teaching students that they shouldn’t be driving and drinking. The penalty is high so maybe they’re learning from that,” she said.

“Whatever question you have or whatever debate you have you are going to get evidence on both sides,” she added. “We need to look at both sides of the coin, I think,” she said.

The 130 college administrators who joined the pledge are participating in a debate increasingly brought to the forefront by a national dialogue on the matter. That dialogue is grappling with whether changing the age limit or implementing stricter programs to maintain the 21 age law would better help alleviate the problems associated with the consumption of large amounts of alcohol on college campuses-and how any such changes might affect young people not in college.

The U.S. Department of Education updated its report Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention on College Campuses: Model Campuses in August 2008. The report said that the 2006 Monitoring the Future Survey, which was conducted at colleges and universities around the country, found that 40 percent of U.S. college students “engaged in high-risk drinking.”

The Department of Public Safety declined to speak with The Campanil for this story.