college drinking - alcohol - binge drinking - MADD - drunk driving - Amethyst Initiative
College Drinking
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Geography
Revised August 25, 2008

Let us be honest: Many people -- including Yours Truly -- have their first drink as college students.

Most learn to adjust to the new-found freedom responsibly, and 19 percent of college students do not drink at all. For too many others, however, alcohol can lead to poor academic performance, injury, vulnerability to sexual assaults, and death (hundreds per year). The NIH College Drinking page provides the facts and some ideas on changing the culture of college drinking.

Part of the problem is that students between the ages of 18 and 21 get mixed messages about drinking. I went to college just as the drinking age was changing. Although the liquor age was already 21, I was in the last cohort of people who could legally drink beer and wine at age 18 in Maryland.  We fought against the changes, but not effectively. I really wish we had prevailed, because the change has created more problems than it has solved.

Lew Bryson makes this point in an article about the drinking age, in which he cites the death of my former student Jackie Nilsson at the hands of an under-aged drinker/driver as a tragic example. (Sadly, our own campus seems to have forgotten this loss, and some are ready to carry on as usual.)

It may look like I am contradicting myself here, so let me be clear. I recommend the NIH site because I believe that students should know what really happens and how bad excessive drinking can be. I do not like attending wakes for people half my age -- I really do not. At the same time, I recommend Mr. Bryson's article because the NIH, MADD, and others do not acknowledge that a change in the law is a necessary part of the solution.

college presidents are starting to agree with Mr. Bryson and myself. As of summer 2008, over 100 college presidents -- including the president of Salem State College -- have joined the Amethyst Initiative. These academic leaders are simply proposing an honest debate about a public policy that clearly is not working. Media coverage of the initiative include the NPR news item Push to Rethink Drinking and a more in-depth report from NPR's Here and Now, entitled Changing the Drinking Age. I recommend all first-year students listen to the latter, in case they think binge drinking makes them look cool to older students.

For those under 21 who still find my position ambiguous, I have this recommendation, which Mr. Bryson tells me he gives his own children: DO NOT DRINK IF YOU ARE NOT OLD ENOUGH. The jail time, loss of campus housing privileges, and other consequences are just too great. See the college's alcohol policy before making any decisions -- it is easy to get kicked out of college! Off-campus parties can get you in just as much trouble as on-campus drinking, as several students of mine learned when they were arrested in February 2008. One of them told me she was "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Of course, she chose to be there, so she was in court with everyone else.

Choose ResponsibilityKeep this in mind: The main reason young adults cannot drink legally is that they do not get involved in politics. Please do not complain about the drinking age until you have written at least two elected officials and one newspaper editor about it! You can also join [CR]

Keep its motto in mind: balance | maturity | common sense

A special note for those who might travel abroad with me.

If we are traveling to a place where you are old enough to drink, I will not try to prevent your drinking. For one thing, I want you to experience the culture fully wherever you are, and in most places that means a lower drinking age. For another thing, I do not have the desire to manage the lives of my students in such great detail. Finally, when you are studying abroad, you are never driving a car.

If you are drinking while on a study tour with me, however, I will insist that you treat local people and fellow students with utmost respect at all times, that you represent our country and our college well, and that you do not do anything stupid. Otherwise, you might get an early flight home, at your own expense.

I do not suggest testing the numbers to the right, but they make some sense. People who drink responsibly can get their work done. People who drink irresponsibly cannot.

The graphic is from the Eight Myths page posted by the Peer Health Education group at CalPoly. Read the page to read how fellow students react to these common excuses:

  1. I'm more fun when I drink.
  2. Everyone drinks heavily at parties so they can relax and hang out.
  3. It totally mellows me out to smoke a little weed after I throw back a few beers.
  4. It's no one else's business how much I drink. I can handle it.
  5. If I don't drink, there would be nothing to do at my school.
  6. I'm having as much fun as I can while I'm in college. As soon as I graduate I'll get my act together.
  7. Even though my mom or dad is an alcoholic, I know how to drink without letting it get out of hand.
  8. I just drink socially.

Drinking and Academic Performance

Ronald Reagan
Although each state sets its own drinking age, all states have set that limit at 21. This is because President Ronald Reagan signed a National Minimum Drinking Age Bill on July 17, 1984. The resulting Public Law 98363 does not actually set the drinking age; rather, it withholds highway funding from states that do not set the drinking age at 21. Ironically, Reagan was elected and then re-elected (shortly after enacting this law) on a neo-federalist platform that emphasized state's rights above federal authority.

Finally, if you feel you must drink, PLEASE: absolutely do not drive, do not annoy college neighbors (especially me), do not get yourself into potential date-rape situations (as victim or perpetrator), and take the keys a
way from any friends who are drinking! Always keep a $20 in your pocket for a taxi, or a toothbrush so you can spend the night where you are.

(See New Zealand's ALAC blog for a very important debate on drinking and date-rape, and a reminder that rape is always the rapist's fault.)

Visitors since August 25, 2008

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James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College
Department of Geography