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Saturday, August 23, 2008

College Presidents Seek Drinking Age Change Dialogue

A national stir was created recently when a proposal by college presidents to discuss a possible drinking age shift from 21 to 18 was announced. The project was not a secret, but many media outlets jumped on the story, often seeking local angles. The presidents were somewhat misrepresented, because they merely are seeking a discussion, though their goal to move the drinking age back is clearly part of their agenda. (Note that college presidents have taken more stands lately on social issues.) Conversely, Dr. Gary Neal in Counseling and Health Services has passed on an interesting research study that may indicate that the higher age requirement has some strong science behind it.

Some suspicious sorts think this initiative is in place so universities can duck liability for drinking-related incidents. I suspect that is not a consideration. With 1,700 drinking-related college deaths annually, administrators would shudder at the notion of pushing that number higher to merely avoid liability. Indeed, one issue colleges face is that students often drink off campus to avoid university policy enforcement. Students perceive that administrators force them to drive-drink-and-drive. No one wants students to drink and drive. In fact many schools have taxi ride programs and assigning designated drivers is a simple, free, and expedient solution.

It would be nice to shift discussions on campus from enforcement to education and responsible drinking. Students can't be sheltered from alcohol, they need to learn how to drink like adults. It would be nice to teach students that college does not equal binge drinking and movies like the Animal House update, College, are promoting false perceptions of successful college life. (Disclosure: I haven't seen the movie.) It would be nice for students to feel comfortable having a drink in their room so they can stay on campus. It would also be nice for students to not have fake IDs, worry about MIP tickets, and not have to turn to older students to provide their booze.
Trinity is not anti-alcohol. What is concern is the behavior that often comes with heavy drinking: assault, sexual assault, injuries, vandalism, noise, trash, and poor academic performance. De-mystifying alcohol would be a plus, to diminish these adverse effects, but can it happen? Maybe over time. I would hate to see a return to the crazy days of the 18-year-old drinking age. Are we any better prepared now than we were 20 years ago to be able to manage that?

Students who can vote and fight in wars should be afforded other rights of adulthood. Nevertheless, one of the reasons for the change of the drinking age in the first place was high school drinking problems. Mothers Against Drunk Driving makes a strong case that lives have been saved since the drinking age went up.

Trinity University has not formally discussed this issue. I must admit, I am intrigued by the idea of a lower drinking age. I could like the idea of a 19-year age limit or bestowing drinking rights three months following high school graduation or at 19 for non-graduates. It protects the high school students (and those who share the road with them) and gives most college students a chance to exercise their adult rights. At Trinity, the approach is to educate students about alcohol to try to keep students safe.

The research makes me nervous though. So do the negative outcomes of drinking. It will be interesting to see how this discussion unfolds. It is an important topic.

2 comments:

Anil said...

Dear Dean Tuttle,

I really enjoy reading your posts. There is always some topic of great import and interest.

I have been following the College Presidents Recommendations Story with great interest.Left to myself, I would support the 18 year limit for allowing students to drink Alcohol, if they can marry, Go to war,and, vote as adults, they can, arguably, be treated as adults.I would also go along with your suggestion of 19 years as Kids really mature fast at that age and it is a good starting point. I confess that I feel strongly and also agree about your point of Students being safer while drinking in their rooms, and that then they wouldn't be breaking the law.

It may be of interest, that in European countries like France and Germany, which allow wine and beer to children at an early age, the problem of binge drinking and driving among university students is much less.

Maybe you could take a lead and initiate discussions at Trinity U. I understand that there are never going to be easy solutions, but, this illogical age limit is observed more in the breach rather than observance.

With Regards and BestWishes
Anil Bakshi
New Delhi, India.
24th August

Lisa Genecov said...

Dean Tuttle,

I appreciate your comments on the drinking issue. I read the article from 2004 on your college experience, and respect your honesty. I think if parents were willing to be honest with themselves and their children, our stories would be much the same. Unfortunately, the idea of do as I didn't, is tough to pull off, especially to young adults who feel they are invincible and want/need to make their own mistakes. My husband and I have tried to set an example for responsible drinking in our home, and have discouraged other adults from drinking at children's events (even Little League games!)

I could drink legally at 18, and must admit I drank before I became of age. It is no different now-kids start drinking, probably around the same age, no matter what the legal age is. I cannot accept the argument that kids are going to do it anyway, so we should lower the age -especially in light of scientific evidence about brain maturity, which continues into the twenties. Kids mature at different times and learn to drink responsibly at different ages. Some never do. Add ADHD, social and emotional issues, and the issue becomes really complicated. I don't know what the drinking age should be, but I think it's important to be having the discussion. Thanks for your courage in sharing with us and helping guide our kids.

Lisa Genecov, Dallas