Alcohol and those under 21 don't mix

Bradley University gets tough on underage drinking, and it's working

By Joanne Glasser

August 29, 2008

About this time last year a 19-year-old Bradley University soccer player died when four of his friends lit Roman candles, accidentally setting his bedroom on fire as he slept. All had been drinking, including the victim. Three of the four students—who would end up in jail—also played soccer for Bradley.

Eight days after that tragedy I arrived in Peoria to start my first year as Bradley president, knowing well what one of my priorities would be. Bradley would rewrite its book on how to deal with alcohol use and abuse. I did not believe then—nor did the committee members who drafted the new policies conclude—that lives would be saved by dumbing those policies down.

I make this point because more than 120 university presidents have signed on to a movement urging lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. The Amethyst Initiative argues that the higher age limit not only isn't working, it's developed "a culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking" among underage students.

I do not believe for a moment that Bradley's tragedy would have been avoided had alcohol been easier to get. And I vehemently disagree that lowering the drinking age would make college campuses safer.

The facts are with me.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that in 1982, two years before Congress effectively raised the minimum national drinking age, 43 percent of underage drivers involved in fatal crashes had been drinking. By 1998, just 21 percent had been. A NHTSA study found that the new law not only reduced drinking and driving but reduced "youth drinking directly."

A 2005 Harvard University study found that binge drinking on college campuses is one-third lower in states where tough laws target high-volume sales. The researchers said states concerned about underage drinking should toughen laws and their enforcement, not ease up.

Reviewing 40 years worth of literature published on the subject, two University of Minnesota researchers concluded, "The preponderance of the evidence suggests that higher legal drinking ages reduce alcohol consumption."

One of the leading experts on the misuse of alcohol by college students, Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, says reducing the drinking age would not reduce the misuse of alcohol on college campuses.

The American Medical Association seconds that conclusion: "There is no evidence that there were fewer campus alcohol problems when lower drinking ages were in effect." Conversely, universities have found that the minimum legal drinking age "provides a strong legal rationale to develop effective prevention policies that can reduce high-risk as well as underage drinking," according to the AMA.

That is exactly what we have done at Bradley University.

Some highlights:

  • Weekend, on-campus events dubbed "Late Night BU" provide our students with alcohol-free ways to have fun.
  • Our alcohol education program has been expanded and integrated into first-year classes and residence hall programs.

 

New penalties underscore just how seriously we take alcohol misuse. Students who violate our policy may be fined and may be prohibited from living in fraternity or sorority houses, or elsewhere off campus. Student leaders who are twice cited will be barred from holding leadership positions for a year. Repeat offenders may be suspended from the university.

Ask me to describe Bradley, and I'll tell you it's a superb university for serious students, located in a prototypical American city. In coping with an "alcohol culture" on campus, Bradley is the norm, not the exception. What's unusual at Bradley is our determination to change that—and our motivation. I should say that Bradley University doesn't make anyone's list of the nation's top party schools.

Not long after our committee began meeting, alcohol played a major role in the death of another student, a young man who fell into traffic while horsing around along a busy street near campus. His blood-alcohol content was more than twice Illinois' legal threshold. This student was 22, one year past the minimum drinking age. Clearly the fact that he could access alcohol legally did not protect him from misusing it.

Because of what Bradley went through this past year, I believe I may recognize more than most the serious consequences of allowing 18- and 19-year-olds to belly up to the bar, no questions asked. Our plan is intended both to make a meaningful difference at Bradley and to make the university a national leader in combating the misuse of alcohol. We will be measuring changes in students' perceptions and behavior to see how we're doing. We'll be happy to keep you posted.

Joanne K. Glasser is president of Bradley University.

The above article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Springfield Journal Register, and Peoria Journal Star.