Drinking age debate revived
A movement by college presidents to revisit the drinking age of 21 is gaining momentum nationwide and in Michigan -- and sparking controversy over what to do about binge drinking on college campuses.
Saginaw Valley State University President Eric Gilbertson is among 129 college presidents since June to sign an open letter stating that the law setting the drinking age at 21 has not worked to curb the problem, and demanding a better solution from lawmakers.
Parents and college officials are divided over whether lowering the legal age would change the culture of drinking -- or prove to be a nightmare.
"I definitely do not want it lowered," said Toni Chippi, 45, of Grand Blanc, as she dropped her daughter Elizabeth off at Michigan State University's Akers dorm Friday, where the 18-year-old is starting her freshman year.
"They drink anyway, but I don't think they need a ticket to drink any sooner. It just starts the problems sooner."
Proponents say the prohibition makes drinking more tantalizing, drives it underground and encourages kids to drink as much as they can, as fast as they can.
"For parents, you don't want to tell them to drink at 18, but they can go to war," said Reynolda Brown, 37, of Southfield, while helping his 17-year-old daughter, Shavae, move into her dorm at MSU.
"At 16, they can drive a car -- and that's a lot of responsibility. As parents, you can teach them to be responsible with whatever actions they take."
MSU President Lou Anna Simon believes the issue requires "careful consideration," and she hasn't made up her mind about it yet, university spokesman Kent Cassella said. University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman declined to sign the letter, spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said.
Dennis Martell, coordinator of health education at MSU, which has been lauded nationally for its approach to combatting alcohol abuse, strongly favors lowering the drinking age.
"We're actually encouraging high-risk behaviors by not allowing it to be in the open," Martell said. "We're the only developed country in the world that has the drinking age at 21.
"If they fear legal consequences, they're going to do everything in their power to hide it, to drink it fast, and they're not going to call for help when they get in trouble," Martell added. "If the age is 18, I can legally talk to 18-20-year-olds about the responsible way to drink."
Most states lowered the drinking age after the 1971 passage of the 26th amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. States adopted varying legal drinking ages -- and permutations like 3.2 beer, a kind of training beer available to 18-year-olds in Ohio.
The patchwork of standards caused headaches for law enforcement as teens crossed state borders in search of more lax laws. That all ended in 1984 when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which docks 10 percent of highway transportation funding from states that allow drinking before age 21.
The call for debate has been spearheaded by a group called the Amethyst Initiative, which was organized in June by John McCardell, president emeritus of Vermont's Middlebury College. The list of signatories includes the presidents of Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State University.
The effort is an offshoot of Choose Responsibly, another group founded by McCardell, which advocates educating 18-year-olds on how to drink responsibly, and providing them with drinking licenses if they meet requirements.
The letter signed by the university presidents does not specifically call for a return to the 18-year-old drinking age, but rather for a new approach -- whatever that may be, noted Gilbertson, of Saginaw Valley, who signed the statement.
"I've been around awhile, and was around in the early '80s when Congress signed that highway funding waiver, and it was done with a lot of passion and good intentions, but without a lot of serious debate," Gilbertson said. "It is in some ways like a prohibition that just hasn't worked.
"We end up turning university staff members into Keystone Kops, chasing around seeing whether 20-year-olds have an empty beer can somewhere in their car," Gilbertson said. "It's terribly hard to police, and the fact is that underage students are drinking.
"We talk to our students about this, we have programs. We're not ducking the problem. But it's not working."
Western Michigan University President John Dunn and Central Michigan University President Michael Rao oppose any change in the 21-year-old drinking age.
"If anything, (Rao) would probably favor seeing the drinking age increased, not that he's advocating that," CMU spokesman Steve Smith. "You put alcohol in the hands of people who are still youngsters, and you only increase the kind of trouble they might get into."
"I have mixed emotions about it, because I'm a high school teacher and a coach," Stolz said. "With education, I think the culture (of binge drinking) could be changed. But I'd rather see it go to 19 first."
Casey Kelley, 18, of Clinton said it's likely she will consume alcohol at some point during her freshman year at MSU.
"It'll happen," Kelley said. "I think it's already happened with most freshmen."