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Colleges take on drinking age

A call to examine the age-21 threshold has sparked heated debate on campuses.

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Science is on the side of the age-21 law, Ms. Dean-Mooney says. More than 50 studies show it has helped save lives, according to the MADD website. One new study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation accounted for a variety of car- and roadway-safety improvements and still attributed to the 21 drinking age an 11 percent drop in alcohol-related traffic deaths among youths. Dean-Mooney also raises the concern that making alcohol more accessible to 18-year-olds would push problems onto the shoulders of high school principals.

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In the wake of the public controversy, several college presidents have removed their names from the list. Kendall Blanchard of Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus "has wanted to be part of the national discussion," spokesman Stephen Snyder says, "but has decided this was not the time, place, or venue for that discussion."

"On both sides, it's running on very strong emotions," says Susan Bruce, director of the Center for Alcohol and Substance Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It's important that we can really look at the data and not go on gut feelings."

Most people e-mailing on her professional electronic mailing list agree that the 21 drinking age has helped reduce deaths on the highways, she says. But others question the gray areas in the statistics. Further research may be needed on issues such as whether students are drinking more hard liquor because they can conceal small amounts of it and still get drunk, Ms. Bruce says.

John Casteen, president of the University of Virginia, has not signed the statement, but he told parents of new students recently that he'd be interested to see if research supported changing the law.

McCardell acknowledges he can't point to as many studies as MADD does. But the role of a debate is to scrutinize information, he says: "Anytime somebody tells you that science is entirely on one side of a question, that ought to send up a red flag."

While 15- and 16-year-olds in many European countries with a drinking age of 18 or younger drink more often than their US peers, they have fewer dangerous occasions of intoxication, according to a study he cites that was sponsored in part by the World Health Organization.

At Southern New Hampshire University, Meg Dower, a junior and a resident assistant, says she understands the concern about the temptations of forbidden fruit: "A lot of people [in their] first year of college are really interested in testing boundaries." But she and three other RAs trained to prevent underage drinking say they need more information before deciding if they'd support repealing the law. "If they're going to fight in a war, I can see that they should be able to drink," says Mike Gallant, a graduate student. "But there are some people that just aren't grown up yet."