My college bar had only three rules: no drugs, no fighting, and no sleeping. As a student manager there, I found enforcing the first one easy -- I had earned a reputation as a royal bitch for scooping up neat lines of white powder right out from under eager noses. And since there were few fights, I can't recall ever having to enforce the second. The third rule, no sleeping, seemed pointless until I found Tom, passed out and shoeless, in a dark corner of the bar. I had seen him earlier with his hard-drinking friends, but now he was alone.
Piece of cake, I thought, calling Tom's name loudly over the Europop mixtape. He didn't move. I shook him. Nothing. Then I felt his wrist. No pulse. I killed the music, brought up the house lights, and cleared the bar. This was just over two decades ago, right before the national drinking age was set at 21. It seems counterintuitive, but it may have been the lower drinking age -- 18 in New York where we went to college -- and the no-sleeping rule that saved Tom's life.
Students today, a growing number of college administrators say, are engaged in dangerous binge drinking off-campus or in dorm rooms, away from responsible peers and other adults. Some say this kind of behavior results from the higher drinking age, but there will always be a few people like Tom. He was lucky; because he had passed out in public, in the campus bar (though I thought he was dead at the time), I was able to find him and get help.
In April, Alcohol Awareness month, the former president of Middlebury College kicked off a new kind of awareness campaign. John McCardell and his organization, Choose Responsibility, want to lower the drinking age to 18. People ages 18 to 20 who want to drink would have to earn an alcohol license by attending alcohol education classes. While at Middlebury, McCardell witnessed a stark difference between college drinking habits before and after the federal drinking age was imposed.
When drinking went underground 20 years ago, he says, it became a lot more intense. Because we've removed drinking from colleges, McCardell states in interviews and on the Choose Responsibility website, students don't have the opportunity to learn to drink. Yet, he says, colleges are asked to help them become adults. It's absurd, he points out, to expect all kinds of responsibility from 18-year-olds who can legally marry, vote, drive, and fight and kill for the country, but not let them decide whether or not to have a beer. Statistics -- as well as other college administrators' experience -- overwhelmingly support McCardell's observations about campus drinking, though not everyone agrees with his exact solution. Daan Braveman, president of Nazareth College in Rochester, NY, for example, agrees that the country should consider lowering the drinking age, but perhaps to 19 instead of 18.
"We need to be concerned about drinking and driving, of course, but that is a problem now because of the extent of underage drinking," Braveman says in an email.
Campus binge drinking (five drinks for males in two hours, four for females) is now at 44 percent, according a multi-year Harvard School of Public Health study. The Surgeon General says it is "the most serious public health problem on American college campuses today."
Where beer and wine once dominated, hard liquor now rules. Where students once drank at parties, or nervously sipped wine with their professors at college functions, "preloading" or "pregaming" now defines the college scene. This involves furtively gulping down multiple shots of booze before heading out to the parties.
Since he was in college in the 1980's, "the way people talk about drinking has changed," says Matt Burns, associate dean of students at the University of Rochester. "They talk about getting trashed."
Ironically, the higher drinking age has had no effect on the amount of alcohol consumed at colleges, according to Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. The only difference is that it's being consumed clandestinely now. Enforcing the law, he says, has become "a shell game."
Perkins does not support lowering the drinking age, citing, among other factors, the ease with which high schoolers were able to obtain alcohol when the drinking age was 18. High school alcohol consumption has gone down since the drinking age was raised, he says.
Instead, he says, some colleges have had success lowering underage alcohol consumption with a pioneering "social norms" approach he developed. People are influenced by their sometimes mistaken impression of their peers' habits, he says: that is, the social norms. For example, studies show that 71 percent of students overestimate how much their peers drink. Giving students facts about their classmates' actual alcohol consumption reduces their own alcohol consumption, Perkins says. Could this have helped Tom? Could anything?
I hovered over Tom nervously until the EMTs arrived and pounced on him. When he didn't respond to the shouting and the slapping, they snapped smelling salts under his nose. His pulse hadn't stopped, an EMT told me; it had been going too fast to detect on his wrist. The next day, Tom explained.
"You can drink more," he said with the air of someone giving a good restaurant tip, "if you do cocaine in between shots. Excellent!" I followed him around for weeks, pecking at him like a mother hen: Get counseling; get help. He said he would but I didn't buy it.
Reprinted with permission from City Newspaper, Rochester NY.