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Underage Drinking Laws on Campus

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It is no secret that alcohol use is prevalent on college campuses. According to the National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 80 percent of college kids drink alcohol, and over 50 percent of them have partaken in binge drinking in the last two weeks alone. Because less than half of  the collegiate student body is over 21 (the legal drinking age in the United States), most schools are left with a choice; they can either enforce underage drinking laws on and around their campuses, or they can ignore the underage drinking that takes place in their vicinity.

For the time being, these are the only two options universities have, although many (including the organization Choose Responsibility) advocate for lowering the drinking age to 18, thereby circumventing the issue altogether. Choose Responsibility claims that keeeping the "legal age 21 is not working--not in urban America, not in rural America, not on college campuses."

Many college students see a lowering of the drinking age as their legal right, including Wisconsin University student Ryan Perlic, who says that "I can die for my country and vote for my country, yet my country does not consider me responsible enough to drink."

Case Western Reserve University student Evan Lanese argues that "if [students] are exposed to alcohol at a younger age, they can learn about its hazards and learn how to consume it responsibly."

While these opinions are perhaps accurate, many critics argue that lowering the drinking age would likely introduce a new set of issues, including a shift in underage use of alcohol to an even younger age group. Ultimately, the argument for a lower drinking age and the argument for minimal enforcement of underage drinking laws on and around college campuses are two entirely different debates. Thus, universities must decide how strict they want to be regarding the use of alcohol by their underage students, at least for the time being.

While universities have made efforts to limit students' alcohol consumption, most colleges acknowledge that it does happen, and many turn a blind eye to underage drinking. This may seem irresponsible, but limiting the involvement of police can, in some cases, be in the best interests of the university and often the student as well. For instance, Ohio State University junior Elana Berusch claims that on her campus, "police have decided to prioritize valuing student safety over strict alcohol enforcement."

Punishing students for underage drinking causes them to hide their participation rather than limit it, thus minimizing the ability of universities to monitor their safety. In this regard, it would seem that the potential for legal retribution serves as a negative externality of underage drinking, rather than as a deterrent.

Conversely, there are organizations such as Nationwide Insurance that support the strict enforcement of underage drinking laws, arguing that "adults don't want to send their children to colleges or universities with 'party school' reputations."

Associate Vice President of Safety for Nationwide Bill Windsor claims that "Our survey [referring to a Nationwide Insurance Survey] clearly shows 75 percent of people support greater enforcement of existing underage drinking laws and increased penalties for adults who give alcohol to those under age."

Many universities adopt an underage drinking policy aside from that of the law. One example is Ohio State University's policy, which can impose disciplinary sanctions including written warnings, loss of privileges, and probation, on those who fail to comply with underage drinking rules. Ohio State University President Gordon Gee is an outspoken supporter of a lower drinking age, but nonetheless, he acknowledges that "there is a very serious problem of alcohol abuse on university campuses," and that the university policy is his way of finding a middle ground.

With the drinking age set firmly at 21, colleges must ultimately find a way to deal with underage consumption and possession of alcohol. Universities currently employ one of two policies (strict or lenient), and many have devised ways to mediate the two extremes. Nevertheless, as long as drinking is against the law for certain college students, university administrations will disagree as to the extent to which underage drinking laws should be enforced.

By Wil Sharon, The Ohio State University