Battle of the binge

Colleges that want to lower the drinking age need to first try innovative prevention.

Do college students really like to get drunk? The question should be thrown at the nearly 100 college presidents asking government to consider lowering the legal drinking age to 18 from 21. If colleges simply assumed most young people prefer not to imbibe, they'd find ways to help them be teetotal rather than tipsy.

It's all too easy for American colleges and universities to push for a lower drinking age and avoid the hard work and innovative ways to discourage alcohol consumption, on campus or off.

Surveys reveal most incoming freshmen don't show up eager to binge or play drinking games. They don't work hard in high school to party hard at college. Their families don't pay hefty tuitions to let them get intoxicated on the weekend. Colleges must build on this early willingness to stay sober.

The arguments against lowering the drinking age remain as strong today as they were in 1984, when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (which withholds highway funds from any state that sets a drinking age lower than 21).

The law was aimed mainly at the majority of young people who don't go to college and too often drive drunk, causing tragedy on the highways. And giving 18-year-olds easy access to liquor would only make it easier for younger teens to get it. The military knows that 18-year-olds who enter the service are mature enough to fight but not ready to handle alcohol, so it takes steps to discourage drinking.

Why can't higher education?

The college presidents who signed the Amethyst Initiative challenging the current law need to first make sure they have tried all practical measures to counter alcohol use by students.

The first step is proactive prevention. That means working effectively with incoming freshmen who are away from home for the first time as well as with the majority of students who aren't problem drinkers. It pays to ask them what they would do not to drink.

Schools can use the information to create a culture against drinking. First-year students need weeks of support to learn to be abstainers, with active engagement by college staff and teachers to keep them away from informal drinking parties.

In one fraternity at Union College, for instance, students meet Friday afternoons with a different professor every week and engaging in an intellectual debate. Other schools are breaking up fraternities and sororities that encourage drinking. Many events are planned by colleges simply to encourage nondrinking socializing.

Housing plays a big role in whether a freshman starts to drink. Single rooms are better than doubles, coed dorms are better than single-sex ones, and on-campus housing is better than off-campus.

College administrators can work with local police to identify bars and restaurants that tolerate under-age drinking by students. They can enforce zero-tolerance rules against drinking – even if strict enforcement offends many parents and moneyed alumni.

Such "environmental management" of students should be premised on the idea that they naturally want the benefits of sobriety in their studies and social life. Then they will follow the law and colleges won't ask for its repeal.

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