My college bar had only three rules: no drugs, no fighting,
and no sleeping. As a student manager there, I found enforcing
the first one easy - I had earned a reputation as a royal bitch
for scooping up neat lines of white powder right out from under
eager noses. And since there were few fights, I can't recall
ever having to enforce the second. The third rule, no sleeping,
seemed pointless until I found Tom, passed out and shoeless,
in a dark corner of the bar. I had seen him earlier with his
hard-drinking friends, but now he was alone.
Piece of cake, I thought, calling Tom's name loudly over the
Europop mixtape. He didn't move. I shook him. Nothing. Then I
felt his wrist. No pulse. I killed the music, brought up the
house lights, and cleared the bar. This was just over two decades
ago, right before the national drinking age was set at 21. It
seems counterintuitive, but it may have been the lower drinking
age - 18 in New York where we went to college - and the no-sleeping
rule that saved Tom's life.
Students today, a growing number of college
administrators say, are engaged in dangerous binge drinking off-campus
or in dorm rooms, away from responsible peers and other adults.
Witness the six underaged RIT students who were rushed to Strong
Memorial Hospital last weekend for excessive alcohol consumption.
Some say this kind of behavior results from the higher drinking
age, but there will always be a few people like Tom. He was lucky;
because he had passed out in public, in the campus bar (though
I thought he was dead at the time), I was able to find him and
In April, Alcohol Awareness month, the former president of Middlebury
College kicked off a new kind of awareness campaign. John McCardell
and his organization, Choose
Responsibility, want to lower the drinking age to 18. People
ages 18 to 20 who want to drink would have to earn an alcohol
license by attending alcohol education classes.While at Middlebury,
McCardell witnessed a stark difference between college drinking
habits before and after the federal drinking age was imposed.
When drinking went underground 20 years ago, he says, it became
a lot more intense. Because we've removed drinking from colleges,
McCardell states in interviews and
on the Choose Responsibility website,
students don't have opportunity to learn to drink. Yet, he says,
colleges are asked to help them become adults. It's absurd, he
points out, to expect all kinds of responsibility from 18-year-olds
who can legally marry, vote, drive, and fight and kill for the
country, but not let them decide whether or not to have a beer. Statistics
- as well as other college administrators' experience - overwhelmingly
support McCardell's observations about campus drinking, though
not everyone agrees with his exact solution. Nazareth College
President Daan Braveman, for example, agrees that the country
should consider lowering the drinking age, but perhaps to 19
instead of 18.
"We need to be concerned about drinking and driving, of course,
but that is a problem now because of the extent of underage drinking," Braveman
says in an email.
Campus binge drinking (five drinks for males in two hours, four
for females) is now at 44 percent, according a multi-year Harvard
School of Public Health study. The
Surgeon General says it is "the most serious public health problem
on American college campuses today."
Where beer and wine once dominated, hard liquor now rules. Where
students once drank at parties, or nervously sipped wine with
their professors at college functions, "preloading" or "pregaming" now
defines the college scene. This involves furtively gulping down
multiple shots of booze before heading out to the parties.
Since he was in college in the 1980's, "the way people talk
about drinking has changed," says Matt Burns, associate dean
of students at the University of Rochester. "They talk about
Ironically, the higher drinking age has had no effect on the
amount of alcohol consumed at colleges, according to Wesley Perkins,
professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
The only difference is that it's being consumed clandestinely
now. Enforcing the law, he says, has become "a shell game."
Perkins does not support lowering the drinking age, citing,
among other factors, the ease with which high schoolers were
able to obtain alcohol when the drinking age was 18. High school
alcohol consumption has gone down since the drinking age was
raised, he says.
Instead, he says, some colleges have had success lowering underage
alcohol consumption with a pioneering "social norms" approach
he developed. People are influenced by their sometimes mistaken
impression of their peers' habits, he says: that is, the social
norms. For example, studies show that 71 percent of students
overestimate how much their peers drink. Giving students facts
about their classmates' actual alcohol consumption reduces their
own alcohol consumption, Perkins says. Could this have helped
Tom? Could anything?
I hovered over Tom nervously until the EMTs
arrived and pounced on him. When he didn't respond to the shouting
and the slapping, they snapped smelling salts under his nose.
His pulse hadn't stopped, an EMT told me; it had been going too
fastto detect on his wrist. The next day, Tom explained.
"You can drink more," he said with the air of someone giving
a good restaurant tip, "if you do cocaine in between shots. Excellent!" I
followed him around for weeks, pecking at him like a mother hen:
Get counseling; get help. He said he would but I didn't buy it.