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Lower the Drinking Age Back to 18: We Don't Have Students Teach Each Other to Drive, Why Is Alcohol Different?

02/17/2015 02:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

The decision of Dartmouth College to ban hard liquor on campus has rekindled a debate about the 21-year-old drinking age. Dartmouth is heading in the wrong direction. Instead, policymakers should be following the advice of about 150 university and college presidents who signed the Amethyst Initiative and advocate for the Choose Responsibility proposal and reduce the drinking age back to 18.

Let me explain.

As both a professor of public health and the parent of a 25-year-old, 23-year-old and 16-year-old, I have very strong feelings on the matter -- both professional and personal.

When I was coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the drinking age was 18. During our crucial senior year in high school, most students were lawfully able to drink beer, wine and hard alcohol. Kegs of beer were commonly served at dances, proms and graduation events where parents and proctors were present.

When I entered Cornell University, the president of the university, Frank Rhodes, invited freshmen to a reception that served champagne and strawberries on the terrace of his spectacular home overlooking the campus and Cayuga lake. I felt very grown up and elegant, sipping champagne while discussing the nuances of the book freshmen were required to read for orientation.

After declaring my major, I was regularly invited to department events that included a lecture from a visiting scholar followed by a wine and cheese reception. The debates begun at the reception not infrequently spilled over to the campus pub. Like many campuses, our pub served as an inexpensive, convenient and supervised gathering place for students to go after studying at the library and before heading back to the dorm.

In my day, learning how to drink socially and responsible was not just part of the college experience, it was an at least partially supervised college experience. Students would drink with faculty and staff, who could model appropriate alcohol-related behavior.

On campus drinking was out in the open. The bartender at our on-campus pub was paid by the university and was charged with watching the crowd and cutting off students who had overdone it.

Of course, these civilized, faculty-infused events were not my only exposure to on-campus drinking. There were also a lot of drunken frat bashes.

When I worked as a resident advisor, I learned that many alcohol-related dangers occurred in large, drunken, unsupervised events. Many were frat parties. Although we did not yet have a term to define the phenomena, I met girls (especially freshman) who fell victim to date rape. Often the rape followed a visit to a party where the beer was dispensed from a truck. There were students who suffered alcohol poisoning during rush and nightlong "rooms parties" (where a different drink was served from a punch bowl in each frat room). There were frat brothers that began their life-long struggle with alcohol addiction while indulging in a never-ending house keg.

So lowering the drinking age clearly will not bring all on-campus drinking in the open. Or eliminate all irresponsible on-campus drinking.

Lowering the drinking age will mean that half the campus (the youngest, least adapted, first-time-away-from-home half) is not required to hide their activity because it is illegal. And college campuses could then sponsor events that encourage appropriate use of alcohol, rather than just lecture about poor, illegal use.

Allowing open use and modeling the appropriate use is a core message from the college and university presidents adhering to the Choose Responsibility pledge.

My biggest frustration with the 21-year-old age limit is that it makes it illegal for parents to lawfully teach their own kids how to drink responsibility while still in the home. Kids should go to college understanding exactly how his or her body tolerates alcohol. Podium lectures cannot explain whether it takes one or five beers to produce bed-spins; or cause a hangover the next morning.

Jewish teenagers often learn at Passover that drinking the ceremonial four cups of wine during the Seder celebration can lead to an unplanned, early bedtime -- and perhaps a headache the next day. As a group, perhaps Jews have a statistically lower incidence of alcoholism.

Nobody would suggest that I send my kids to college and have a group of non-driving youngsters teach each other how to drive. Yet that is exactly what we as parents are lawfully required to do with alcohol.

The 21-year-old age limit forces law-abiding young citizens to begin their encounter with alcohol usually two years after they graduated from high school when off living on their own. We don't do that with driving. Why does it make sense for alcohol?