Would lowering the drinking age make alcohol problems more or less prevalent on campus?
In a bold challenge to the decades-old status quo, 129 college presidents have signed a statement calling on elected officials "to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."
Known as the Amethyst Initiative, it has stirred discussions on campuses and editorial pages across the United States. It's also drawn stinging criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which defends the age limit as a key factor in reducing traffic fatalities.
"We agree there are terrible problems with binge and underage drinking. We just don't agree on their proposed solution, that being lowering the drinking age," says MADD president Laura Dean-Mooney in a phone interview. In the group's press release in mid-August, she urged parents to "think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge-drinking policies."
The Amethyst signers say that's an unfair charge. They want to take more responsibility, not less, for changing the culture around drinking, they say. "We stringently enforce the law," says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. "But what I fear and so many of my colleagues also see is that these drinking behaviors then get driven off campus…. We can't create environments in which healthier drinking behaviors occur and are modeled.... We can't remove the illicit thrill."
John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, organized the initiative. Eight presidents helped draft the statement this summer, and the group then invited presidents of all four-year colleges and universities to sign on.
Mr. McCardell is also president of Choose Responsibility. The nonprofit advocates removing the 1984 law that withholds 10 percent of a state's federal highway funds if it sets a drinking age lower than 21. He says he'd like to see alternatives considered, such as a license to allow drinking by 18-year-olds who have graduated from high school and have obeyed alcohol laws.
The Amethyst Initiative website states that the signatories advocate a debate but not necessarily a change in the law. But McCardell's dual roles have led some to see little distinction between the two agendas.
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.
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."