The Wrong Idea on the Drinking Problem

Colleges need to do much more than talk about the drinking age -- especially given evidence that the law may be reducing fatalities -- writes Jonathan Gibralter.

September 11, 2008

The late Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who famously gave “The Last Lecture” on September 7, 2007, describes in that talk a sports metaphor called “The Head Fake.” Athletes use the head fake to mislead their opponents into heading one direction, while they run the other way. In life, a head fake is when we lead people to one conclusion about our goals while trying to head in another direction.

This July, the same month in which Pausch died, a group of college and university presidents began to collect signatures on a document called “The Amethyst Initiative” -- a move that appears to be a “head fake” of its own. There are two seemingly related parts to this document. The first states that “the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses.” The second calls for an informed and unimpeded debate by elected officials to weigh the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas. As of August 25, 2008, there were 128 presidents and chancellors who had signed the agreement.

The head fake seems to have worked; the Amethyst Initiative has created a flurry of media interest -- suddenly and dramatically increasing the visibility of this issue. Many of the college and university presidents and chancellors who initially signed have since had to defend their actions. Many said they signed the Amethyst Initiative not to change the drinking age (after all, it isn’t theirs to change), but to spark a national debate. I do believe that those who have signed are deeply concerned about the extent of binge drinking nationally and the number of deaths of college students every year. Close to 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol related injuries, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. And that is in addition to the thousands of injuries, assaults, rapes and wrecks that happen to young people who binge-drink and to those around them.

However, the legal drinking age won’t be changed by college presidents; lawmakers must take that step. I declined to sign the Amethyst Initiative. And I wouldn’t advise lawmakers to change the drinking age.

I do not believe that lowering the drinking age will do much to decrease drinking-related deaths, and there are dozens of studies supporting the 21 drinking age and suggesting that reversing this law will lead to more drinking-related deaths and injuries. I do, however, agree that there should be a national debate, and it should be about binge drinking.

This is where the presidents of colleges and universities must act; the college culture of drinking truly is an issue for leaders in higher education. Full-time college students on average drink more heavily than their non-college peers, according to a study cited by, and around our community, the beer-brand signs in bars and liquor stores shouting “Welcome Students” are clear evidence of the attention paid to this population by alcohol advertising. Traditions among fraternities and sororities, athletes and the “Animal House” mystique further add to the pressure to drink to excess.

The argument has been made that if one can join the military and vote, why can’t one buy a beer, but binge drinking is a very different issue. The college students who die every year do not die from buying a beer. They die from drinking so much that they pass out, choke on their own vomit or lapse into a coma. Or they get into a car and kill themselves or someone else by driving while intoxicated. This issue isn’t about buying a beer. This is about high risk behaviors like funneling, beer pong, keg stands, body shots and the myriad other drinking games whose sole purpose is to get the participants as drunk as they can as fast as they can. And contrary to conventional wisdom, according to a study of binge drinking among the U.S. and 34 European countries, where the drinking age is generally lower, 33 European countries have higher binge-drinking rates among youth than does the U.S.

Frostburg State University is like most other residential institutions of higher education: Some students drink, sometimes to excess and sometimes with tragic consequences. But we refuse to throw our hands up in exasperation. Instead, we are attacking the problem from many angles. We have an alcohol education program that we require of freshmen and offer to their parents, as well. We have enlisted our local community in the fight, asking liquor stores to check IDs more carefully, bars to end the deep discounts on drinks, and local police to break up large parties. When students are issued alcohol citations, we tell their parents. And student groups who themselves are trying to fight the problem of binge drinking apply social-norming principles and good old fashioned peer pressure in the process. I told students not long after I came to Frostburg two years ago that I never, ever wanted anyone to have to place a call a students’ parents and say, "I'm sorry, but your child has died as a result of drinking too much alcohol." But even though we have made progress, I know there is no guarantee that we will be spared that agonizing duty.

If the intent of the Amethyst Initiative was to “head fake” the nation into a serious debate on the issue of binge drinking, then I say congratulations. This has been necessary for a very long time. College and university presidents like me have to deal with the issue of their students’ binge drinking and its risks every year, even every day. I only wish it didn’t take some 1,700 deaths a year to get us talking. Let’s review the evidence carefully before making a decision, then move this dialogue beyond this specific notion toward a truly comprehensive, sustained set of initiatives, policies and strategies to address this issue.


Jonathan Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University.


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