Former Middlebury College president pushes to lower drinking age

Sherene Tagharobi

LOS ANGELES (U-WIRE) – A former college president’s nationwide proposal to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 has been met with both skepticism and support by students and officials.

Former Middlebury College President John McCardell has launched a movement to lower the drinking age in an attempt to curb startling trends in binge drinking and drunken driving among college students.

The plan, which McCardell is promoting to university presidents and policy experts in a cross-country tour, would require 18-year-olds to take educational courses and obtain a license to buy and drink alcohol.

Providing alcohol to minors would result in immediate revocation of the license.

“Decriminalizing drinking by kids 18 and older will bring their alcohol consumption out from hiding, where parents and adults can monitor it – and model responsibility without conflict,” McCardell said in an interview with U.S. News & World Report.

“Alcohol education is mandatory now only after you’ve been convicted of driving under the influence,” McCardell said. “That makes no sense. Why not make it available earlier as a way of preparing young people to deal with alcohol responsibly?”

Rolf Hoefer, freshman business administration major at the University of Southern California, said he is skeptical about the effectiveness of a license to drink.

“Who’s going to get a license at a university?” he asked. “It’s so easy to buy and drink alcohol (without it).”

Hoefer, an international student from Paris, said he agrees with McCardell that the drinking age should be lowered. The legal drinking age in Paris is 16 for wine and beer and 18 for spirits and liquor, but the age limitations are rarely enforced, he said.

Hoefer said making alcohol less scarce and eliminating the now-or-never ultimatum that influences some students’ decision to binge drink will lead to more responsible decision making and reduced binge drinking.

“(If alcohol is legal and more accessible) it’s not like, ‘Oh, it’s Thursday night, and I have to drink because or else I have to wait until next Thursday night.’ Then people actually start deciding if they are in the party mood, or even want to drink,” he said. “When you have the ability to choose, you’re automatically going to pay more attention to what you drink.”

Hoefer added that in his experience, students at Southern California approach drinking differently than his peers at home. He said the drinking atmosphere in France is more social and relaxed.

“People getting drunk at 16 (in France) doesn’t seem as hardcore as people getting drunk here at 18 or 19,” he said. “Everyone (here is) thinking they’re so strong and they have to drink the shit out of everyone else, drinking an entire keg. That’s not going to happen when you’re 16. When you’re 16, you go to the fridge with your daddy and drink a beer in your backyard.”

But some students disagree that a change in policy would affect the social culture of drinking in college.

Alex Chisum, freshman English major at Southern California, said lowering the drinking age might have a negative effect.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it made things worse,” Chisum said. “Because then you’d have a lot of 18-year-olds in restaurants getting drunk and driving. I think 18-year-olds would be more prone to go to a bar and drive than 21-year-olds.”

Department of Public Safety Capt. David Carlisle said he agrees that levels of responsibility increase with age.

“The older they are, the more mature their decisions,” Carlisle said. “There may be less of a tendency to abuse alcohol as they get older.”

Carlisle said he predicts lowering the drinking age would result in more work for officers.

“We would probably have to step up our awareness campaigns for the problems that can and do occur as a result of alcohol consumption,” he said. “We would anticipate more alcohol-related incidents that would require DPS’ (Department of Public Safety’s) involvement.”

DPS officers say they recognize that underage drinking is a prevalent force on campus.

“Whenever there (are) large parties, it’s almost guaranteed there’s drinking there,” said Wyman Thomas, who has been a DPS officer for 25 years. “It’s not the mere drinking DPS is concerned with, it’s over-consumption.”

In 2005, DPS reported 22 liquor-law arrests and 59 liquor-law disciplinary referrals on the University Park Campus.

Carlisle said his experience with students makes it difficult for him to accept McCardell’s argument to lower the legal drinking age.

“We see the effects in terms of students becoming intoxicated and making poor decisions, so we would be concerned about any proposal to lower the drinking age,” Carlisle said. “And while we know we can’t eliminate underage drinking, we do our best to control it and protect our students.”

Ken Taylor, assistant vice president for Student Affairs at Southern California, said the university would need to study McCardell’s proposal before developing a position on it. Regardless, the university policy says it expects everyone to comply with state law, he said.

“We know that students experience reduction in academic performances as a result of alcohol, so we might still want to do education with incoming students to make sure that they’re informed,” Taylor said.

Taylor said if any change in the university’s alcohol policy were to take effect, incoming students would probably still be required to complete AlcoholEdu, an online education course.