New York Times Editorial: Colleges and Binge Drinking

Published: September 16, 2008

It’s part of an educator’s job to spark debate, but a group of about 130 college presidents is on the wrong track with its suggestion that the nation reconsider the legal drinking age of 21.

The college executives are right to be alarmed about the binge drinking that besieges their campuses. But there is no proof that easier access to alcohol would solve that problem, and there is strong evidence that college administrations could do a lot more than they are doing to combat the alcohol epidemic.

Lowering the legal drinking age would put more young drunken drivers on the roads and could exacerbate drinking in high schools. There is also evidence that brains still develop up to age 30, particularly in men.

The educators say they are not advocating a change per se, only a “dispassionate debate,” but the intent seems clear. And while they represent just a relative handful of the 3,500 or so college chief executives across the country, they include well-known institutions, like Duke, Dartmouth, Middlebury and Ohio State.

It is not difficult to understand their sense of crisis over binge drinking, in which males consume at least five drinks in a row and females, at least four. Two in five students at four-year colleges binge drink, according to the 14-year College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

The Harvard researchers indicate, however, that age may not be the chief factor. Their study found a strong link between heavy alcohol use and drinking cultures at many colleges, where there are heavily marketed cheap alcohol, high-volume sellers and weak enforcement of the law by the schools, states or both.

A few schools, including the University of Nebraska and the University of Rhode Island, have taken sensible steps like banning beer kegs, offering housing where alcohol and tobacco are banned and requiring students to take courses on responsible drinking.

Since the drinking age was set at 21 in 1984, research shows alcohol-related traffic deaths among those 18 to 20 years old have declined by 11 percent, even after accounting for safer vehicles.

Certainly, surreptitious drinking can lead to excessive drinking, but that does not justify the college executives’ conclusion that “21 is not working” where binge drinking is concerned. Europe, often cited as an example of controlled use of alcohol by younger people, has binge drinking problems. France, which has long allowed drinking for 16-year-olds, is debating raising the age.

The 21-year-old floor is not the problem. It is the culture of drinking at school.

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