“Let My Students Drink”

In an interview with Reason magazine, former Middlebury College president John McCardell argues in favor of lowering the drinking age from 21 back down to 18.

McCardell makes some pretty solid points, particularly when discussing the two main justifications that were used to raise the drinking age in the first place: reducing alcohol consumption among young people and reducing drunk driving fatalities in that same group.

He argues:

We’ve had a law on the books for 24 years now. You don’t need an advanced degree to see that the law has utterly failed. Seventy-five percent of high school seniors have consumed alcohol. Sixty-six percent of high school sophomores have. The law abridges the age of majority.

It hasn’t reduced consumption but has only made it riskier.


If you look at the graphs for about 30 seconds, you might draw that conclusion. There has been a decline in traffic fatalities. But it began in 1982, two years before the law changed. It has basically been flat or inching upward for the last decade.

More interestingly, the decline has come in every age group, not just people between 18 and 21. And if you look at Canada, where the minimum drinking age is 18 or 19 [depending on the province], the trend in highway fatalities has almost exactly paralleled ours. It’s far more likely that the reduction in deaths is due to seat belt use, airbags, and safer cars.

[Emphasis mine]

I graduated from college not too long ago and I can tell you that McCardell is right–despite the law, young people still drink in huge numbers.

For underage people, sources of alcohol abound–parties, older friends, older siblings, older boyfriends or girlfriends, older frat brothers or sorority sisters, restaurants and liquor stores who simply don’t card (which are not uncommon on or near college campuses), etc.

It’s common knowledge that the law doesn’t stop underage drinking, it simply turns it into  underground drinking. Instead of getting drunk at a club, for instance, students will drink in their dorms and then go to the club.  But dorm rooms don’t have bartenders who can cut someone off if they’ve had too much or call a cab to get them home safely. Instead, students drink behind closed doors with peers who know little more than they do about responsible drinking.

Some young people drink to the point of needing medical assistance, yet never call for an ambulance out of fear that they’ll wind up being prosecuted for underage drinking. Young people drink and get behind the wheel because they were too afraid of punishment to simply pick up a phone and tell their parents they were too drunk to drive home.

Along those lines, how many drunk driving deaths have occurred because of a higher drinking age? How many deaths from alcohol poisoning have occurred because someone was too afraid of getting prosecuted to call an ambulance for someone in need of medical attention? We’ll never have concrete answers to these questions, but the fact that situations like these do occur warrants some kind of action.

In America, we don’t pass laws for arbitrary reasons, nor should we keep laws for arbitrary reasons.  While the purposes of raising the drinking age were noble, that law failed to accomplish what it was designed to do and, instead, it created a whole host of additional–and sometimes deadly–problems. When you turn 18 you receive all the rights and benefits of adulthood, and now there is no solid justification as to why the right to drink isn’t part of that.  In this case, changing the law is both smart policy and smart politics, and I hope someone in Congress will read the research and come to the same conclusions both I and John McCardell have.