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Starting a Dialogue

September 1, 2007
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Against the odds, a former college president takes aim at the 21 drinking age

The way former Middlebury College President John McCardell sees it, maintaining this country's legal drinking age at 21 leaves parents, and college presidents, with a similar dilemma and two unacceptable choices.

The first unacceptable choice: to acknowledge that alcohol is a reality in the lives of 18-to-20 year olds, despite what the law says, and create a safe environment for that reality. But that sends a message to a young adult that we only observe the laws we choose to observe. “That's not very responsible parenting and it's certainly not very responsible educational leadership,” says McCardell, who served as president of the Vermont liberal arts college from 1991 to 2004.

The second unacceptable choice: to decide that the law must be upheld, and prohibit underage consumption of alcohol at home and on college campuses. “That's a very noble posture to assume, but it overlooks that fact that Prohibition doesn't work, can't work, and has never worked,” says McCardell.

The effect of legally prohibiting alcohol use among 18-to-20 year olds is that while it may eliminate underage drinking from visibility, it does not eliminate its presence, says McCardell. “What it does is drive drinking underground. It drives drinking on campus into closets and dark corners, places that are the least manageable and most risky,” he says.

McCardell now wants to bring into the spotlight a controversial idea that would allow states to establish pilot education programs based on a minimum drinking age of 18. Earlier this year, he started an organization called Choose Responsibility ( in an attempt to launch such a dialogue.

McCardell says he came to the position that legal age 21 was not working “based on my own experience and my own observations and the fact that if it were working, young adults wouldn't be drinking, but they are.”

Campus statistics

John mccardell

John McCardell

Most college presidents share McCardell's overall concerns about drinking on campus. A survey of 747 college administrators published in the

Journal of American College Health in 2004 found that 81% of administrators at four-year colleges said students' alcohol use was a major problem on their campus.

1 In a similar survey published in 1999, only 68% of college presidents had expressed that level of concern.

College presidents fear for good reason. According to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study that was published in the Journal of American College Health in 2002, 44% of college students were binge drinkers in 2001.2 Binge drinking was defined for men as having five or more drinks in a row at least once in the two weeks before administration of the survey questionnaire (and for women, four or more drinks in a row in the same time period). This percentage did not change from 1993-2001, with binge drinking rates actually increasing at women's colleges.

In addition, the number of frequent binge drinkers at colleges rose from 20% in 1993 to 23% in 2001. Frequent binge drinkers were defined as people who binge drank three or more times in the two weeks before the survey.

Though McCardell's views were shaped by his observations on campus, his plans for promoting and teaching responsible alcohol consumption among 18-to-20 year olds applies across the entire young-adult population. During the 1970s and into the early 1980s, many states lowered their legal drinking age from 21 to 18 or 19. In 1984, however, Congress adopted the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, mandating a penalty of a 10% reduction in federal highway funds against any state that failed to raise its drinking age to 21. Within five years, every state had raised its drinking age to 21.

McCardell believes the states offer the best opportunity for a critical examination of legal age 21 and any innovative alternatives. Through Choose Responsibility, he is proposing a pilot alcohol education program based on a minimum drinking age of 18, with the issuance of drinking licenses to young adults between the ages of 18 and 20 who successfully complete the education program.

His organization asserts that states that present a plan for educating and licensing young adults that is designed to maintain low levels of alcohol-related fatalities should be allowed to implement such a plan, maintaining a lower drinking age through the granting of a waiver from the 10% funding reduction. States would have to collect data and monitor the effects of the change in the law, submitting the data to Congress or its designate for the pilot program. States that demonstrated the success of their efforts would be allowed to continue the programs without penalty.

State plans would have to include guidelines for eligibility and sanctions for transgressions by young adults, such as any violations of the state's alcohol laws (in addition, youths who drink before age 18 would forfeit their right to apply for an alcohol license). Choose Responsibility envisions an education program similar to that of driver's education. The alcohol education program would:

  • Be taught by a certified alcohol educator who was trained specifically to cover the legal, ethical, health, and safety issues surrounding alcohol consumption and was skilled in teaching young adults;